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Roman

holiday
To the Romans it was a fabled land
of plenty - head to the crumbling
ruins and shady olive groves of
Tunisia, and imagine life in ancient
times under the African sun The Unesco World
Heritage Site of
Dougga, the remains
Words Oliver Smith | Photographs Philip Lee Harvey of an entire Roman
town, offer a glimpse
of a remarkable era
in Tunisia’s history

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CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT TUNISIA
The Bay of Tunis near La
Marsa, a suburb of Tunis;
the Antonine Baths, Roman
ruins at Carthage; at the
El-Kachachine Hammam
in the medina in Tunis;
a shattered fragment of
stonework in Carthage

L
ONG ago, a mighty city stood scampering among the rubble in the fine wine and good hunting. For the
on the southern shores of the midday sun. Carthage turned out to be the Romans, it became the Côte d’Azur of the
Mediterranean. Carthage was James Dean of the ancient world, living Empire, where wealthy citizens and
known throughout the world fast and dying young. It picked a fight with retired legionnaires could escape the
as ‘the shining city’ – a near- a new, emerging power – the Roman backstabbing emperors of the motherland
mythical metropolis where Republic – and nearly clinched a victory and live it up under the African sun.
magnificent temples perched on the that would have changed the course of Reminders of the ancient world still
clifftops and soaring towers pierced the history. Led by fearless general Hannibal, form the backdrop to daily life here.
sky. Legend says the town was beloved of Carthage’s army of war elephants famously Shepherds drive their flocks past ruined
the pagan goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter, charged over the Alps and down towards temples, fishing boats still set sail from
who planned for Carthage to become the Rome, only for the Romans to retaliate, ancient harbours and traffic rumbles
capital of all the world. burning Carthage to the ground in 146 BC. indifferently over Roman bridges.
map illustration: GRAHAM WHITE

Fast forward 2,000 years, and Juno and The warring powers of Rome and Even Carthage appears to look just as the
her chariot are nowhere in sight. Instead, Carthage may be long gone, but the prize Romans left it after its destruction over
a rotund security guard idles in the shade they fought over is as lustrous as ever: 2,000 years ago. Where temples and

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of a eucalyptus tree, looking out to the a hinterland of shady olive groves, fertile palaces once stood, shattered marble
azure waters of the Mediterranean in the highlands and a coast of palm-fringed columns now line the shore and where
distance. Around him lie what remains coves. This was the province known to the noblemen once looked out proudly over
of ancient Carthage, vines creeping over victorious Romans as ‘Africa’ (and to us as their city, the dismembered heads of
crumbling stonework and small lizards Tunisia), a fabled land of plentiful food, statues now look glumly at the sky. The

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TUNISIA

A mosaic of
Ulysses (left),
displayed in
the spectacular
Bardo Museum
in Tunis

F
Romans meant to all but obliterate Carthage ROM its hilltop setting, ceilings, stopping only to be pummelled
from memory, enslaving her citizens and Carthage looks down by a grimacing masseur. Entering the
building their own town on top of the disapprovingly at its noisy scorching hot steam room, visibility is
wreckage. With barely any records left of neighbour over the water, the close to zero. Stray bellies and limbs loom
the original city, it takes some imagination capital, Tunis. A youngster by in the steam, while their anonymous
to picture Carthage in its heyday in the 4th comparison, the medina at its owners discuss football scores across the
century BC – with sailors and merchants centre dates back a mere 1,300 years, and mists. As inhibitions disappear and
walking the narrow streets, and a cacophony is a maze of noisy markets, whitewashed conversations start up, it’s clear the
of blacksmiths and stonemasons echoing houses and cobbled narrow streets that hammam combines the atmosphere of
out from the citadel. seem to ramble into infinity. a health spa and a local pub.
A solitary fisherman sits by the dockyards Amid the commotion of the market, For the Romans too, the bathhouse was
where warships once laid anchor; a fleet smaller details can go unnoticed: a glimpse as much about socialising as it was about
that ruled the western Mediterranean. The of a palace courtyard behind a door, or bathing. Jugglers, musicians, wrestlers
rich scent of pine fills the air and the a wandering mint-tea seller plucking and actors would entertain the crowds,
distant hum of motorboats is just audible discarded cups from the shadows before while senators would often drop by
above the crashing waves. returning to a kettle bubbling somewhere unannounced to canvass support. But by
‘We’ve never forgiven the Romans for deep inside the medina. Old men gossip in the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th
what they did here,’ says local resident side street cafés between puffs on sheesha century AD, bathhouses had become
Mehdi Ghodbane, sat on the stump of a pipes, while hanging lanterns sway and notorious as a breeding ground for political
column and swinging his legs nonchalantly. chime in the sea breeze. corruption, teeming with prostitutes,
‘The tragedy hasn’t been forgotten.’ Concealed behind a barber’s shop is the pickpockets and thieves. They were
Perhaps as a belated two-finger gesture El-Kachachine Hammam, one of the oldest later abandoned in the Western world,
to the Roman Empire, a Tunisian suburb bathhouses in the medina. An ancestor denounced as ungodly dens of vice and
has sprung up in the empty expanses of the Roman thermae, the hammam is the scene of drug-fuelled mayhem and
between the ruins. Modern villas sit a hand-me-down of history, a Roman drunken orgies.
alongside their ancient counterparts, tradition kept alive by Byzantines and The bathkeeper stands by the doorway,
where residents are used to finding relics Ottomans, now a part of Tunisian culture. looking authoritatively over the bathers.

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left by the previous owners. Lawnmowers
inadvertently crash into age-old stones,
Stepping inside a hammam for the first
time can almost feel like you’re intruding.
From his expression, it’s clear no such
nonsense will be tolerated on his watch.
‘The whitewashed medina in Tunis dates back
while digging up the back garden risks
disturbing a pagan idol from its 2,000-year-
Regulars peer over their newspapers, while
other men clad in white towels and wooden
A 13th-century palace on the outskirts
of Tunis houses the Bardo Museum and 1,300 years - a maze of noisy markets’
old slumber beneath the earth. sandals shuffle about under vaulted arguably the world’s best collection of Cups of mint tea offered among myriad lanterns, dishes, carpets and spices in the medina of Tunis

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TUNISIA

‘Life here has changed Roman mosaics. It offers a gruesome
insight into Roman tastes for interior
his nets along Bizerte harbour in the early
morning darkness. With a leathery
– with its battlements concealed in the
gloom above the streetlamps.
swell. It’s a fitting setting for the ancient
myths believed to have played out on the

little for fishermen design, with scenes of warriors being
decapitated, gladiators wrestling wild
complexion and grey beard, he looks more
like Ernest Hemingway than Julius Caesar.
Mohammed squints into the hull of his
wooden fishing boat where, curled up on
Tunisian coastline: Neptune, the sea god,
battling Aeolus, keeper of the winds, and

over the centuries. animals and gods swaggering across the
heavens decorating the walls.
Life here has changed little for fishermen
over the centuries. A fleet of blue fishing
a Persian rug, a tabby cat lies fast asleep.
The boat’s engine splutters to life below,
Ulysses sailing home to his family in Ithaca.
The thin sound of the morning call to
One mosaic depicts giant fish leaping boats bob gently in the old harbour, later to and the cat leaps off the boat and onto the prayer drifts across the water from the
A fleet of blue fishing out of the sea, with sailors from the port return with fresh tuna, mackerel, squid quay. Mohammed tells me other feline kasbah and Mohammed checks his fishing
of Hippo Diarrhytus struggling to haul in and sole for the grills of quayside cafés. stowaways haven’t been so lucky and have nets for holes gnashed by hungry dolphins.
boats bobs gently in weighty nets. Today the town is known as
Bizerte, but the surrounding seas are still
Served with a little parsley and lemon,
their catch will be devoured by locals.
woken with a yelp to find themselves
bound for the high seas. A faint lilac glow
A letter from the 1st century AD by Roman
writer Pliny the Younger recounts how
the old harbour’ famed for their bounty. There are even
whispers that some inhabitants here
But for now at least, everything is still.
The boats creak by their moorings as I
lights the eastern sky and the boat steers
onto the cobalt sea beyond the harbour.
a young boy from Hippo Diarrhytus once
struck up a friendship with a dolphin. The
Local fisherman descend from Romans: pale-skinned follow Mohammed through the half-light, On the open water, the Mediterranean dolphin met the boy at the beach and
Mohammed Sana’a
checks his nets
families with strange surnames. passing townhouses lining the waterfront. almost seems to have its own topography, would take him on long rides across the
in the waters off ‘I don’t think I’m a Roman,’ laughs Guarding the harbour entrance stands the a mini-mountain range of surf-crested sea. People came from far and wide to
Bizerte harbour fisherman Mohammed Sana’a, carrying kasbah – the old fortified quarter of Bizerte peaks with valleys opening up between the witness this, until the town’s citizens,

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TUNISIA

A
having grown sick of the crowds, chose T a glance, El-Jem seems fighting to the death and chariots racing.
to discreetly murder the dolphin. like any other market Dozing where all this carnage once took
Mohammed, on the other hand, is town in rural Tunisia. place sits Hedi, the caretaker, slouched on
content without companionship on the Donkeys plod along the a metal chair. ‘No games today,’ he jokes
high seas. ‘My boat is my family,’ he says, streets and the smell of before resuming his afternoon nap. He’s
the saltwater sparkling in his beard. ‘But freshly baked bread wafts soon woken by two boys scrapping in the
we’re getting older. I’m 50, even my boat is through the air. Only up close might you arena – jabbing each other with imaginary
40!’ He cackles manically, before throttling spot an impostor lurking beyond the swords – until one surrenders and runs to
the engine and launching the vessel over laundry lines: a vast Roman amphitheatre, his parents. The victor stands alone, bowing
the crest of an approaching wave. edging above the rooftops. Although it triumphantly before the absent crowds.
Heading inland from Bizerte, the roads might look like a giant piece of Roman The last of the day’s visitors leave the
run past coastal lagoons and into the heart lost property dropped in the middle of amphitheatre and the residents of El-Jem
of Roman Africa. They pass Dougga, a this sleepy town, the location of the come out for an evening stroll. Wisps of
ruined Roman settlement perched high in amphitheatre was no accident. Standing sheesha smoke drift in the shadows, and
the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The on a major trade route at the far frontiers the aroma of skewered lamb kebabs fills the
town looks out over the Tunisian interior of the Roman Empire, it was built to impress air. The amphitheatre glows a rich amber in
– with its ramshackle farmhouses where travellers, rivalling the scale of the the twilight and it seems as if the Roman
rusting tractors sink into the long grass, Colosseum itself. The citizens of the town, crowds have left only moments ago.
and olive groves stretching as far as the eye however, let it go to their heads. In 238 AD, Watching old men play cards in the cafés,
can see. Groups of farm workers shake the they dared to proclaim their governor, I’m reminded of ancient graffiti at the
branches of these squat, scraggly trees Gordian, to be Emperor of Rome and were Roman town of Timgad in neighbouring
before gathering fallen olives from the sea duly punished. Legend says the town was Algeria: ‘To hunt, to bathe, to play games,
of wildflowers below. Hunters and their nearly razed to the ground, and Gordian to laugh – that is to live!’ Two thousand
dogs also pick their way across the fell on his sword from shame within the years on, it’s still easy to sympathise with
landscape, thwarted by the rabbits who walls of his great amphitheatre. the Romans who came, saw and conquered
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT take refuge among dense rows of cactuses. Perhaps Gordian would have died happy – and who never wanted to go home. LP
Strolling the shores of Further south, olive groves give way to if he’d known much of the amphitheatre
the Mediterranean; the
market town of El-Jem
scrubland, and the greenery turns to red would survive today. Birds swoop down
has a fine Roman clay. Somewhere ahead in the hazy heat from nests in the colonnades and dust Oliver Smith is a journalist who has worked in
amphitheatre; hunters stood the southern frontier of the Empire clouds hang over the arena floor. Spectators the Middle East and Africa. He was recently made
in an olive grove near and the outposts that, to the Romans, came here from far and wide to witness Young Travel Writer of the Year for a feature set in
Dougga; a typical blood, guts and glory with gladiators
marked the edge of civilisation. Jordan and Syria, run in Lonely Planet Magazine.
doorway in El-Jem

‘Standing on a major trade route, it was built to
impress travellers, rivalling the Colosseum ’
The 3rd-century amphitheatre at El-Jem is a striking survivor from
the town’s Roman past, and the largest in North Africa

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