Historical Sights: the Silver Lining

Today is my last day in Tunisia. I am honestly relieved about that, although guilty about not managing to stay and “tough it out”. After my time on the city metro today, though, my decision seemed pretty good. I walked down to the Place Barcelona and out of the three ticket buildings, managed to find out my train tickets were only sold at the furthest one. It was near the train’s actual embarkation point, which I suppose makes sense.

“Metro” seems an advanced term for this conveyance. It’s not underground, and it is not a classic subway or anything sleek as in Sweden. This was an old, extremely crowded, multi-car street rail tram, rather like the bahn in Amsterdam, but grittier. If you get on just a little too late, the step automatically sweeps itself back under the car when the doors close and then you fall, hopefully not under the train. I saw that happen to someone today, but fortunately another man saw and yanked him immediately clear. Need to cross the tracks? No problem, just dodge the train. I’d have photographed it for you, but I was too busy trying to avoid getting knocked in the head, robbed, shoved, etc. When my tram finally arrived, there was a mass of pushing to get in, and I shoved just as hard as everyone else (I’ve been on the road for a while now), but not quite hard enough to get a seat. Before three stops had gone past, I was up against everyone else on all sides, shoulder to shoulder, four of us to one handhold. Fortunately, the women tend to stand together for obvious reasons, and I will say people are good about it when you are trying to work your way back out toward a door. It was hot, 34 degrees, but there was a breeze sometimes through the open window. It took about 25 minutes like that to get to the Bardo museum stop. There was a time a couple of months ago where I would have rather died than put up with that, but I have since developed more patience, or fortitude. Or maybe I am just worn down.

Today I tried out my Islamic camouflage: a dark, full-length skirt, leather shoes, a t-shirt under a long sleeved buttoned blouse and a headscarf covering all my hair. It was unfashionable, sweltering, made me unattractive and didn’t match, but I had a lot fewer problems today and I think that had something to do with it. There were still issues, but nothing terrible. It’s lucky I was counting the metro stops because there was no sign. I got off at the right place, confirmed that before the train left with a man waiting at the station, and asked the ticket salesman for walking directions. Remember when you were a little kid and your parents would tell you who was safe to ask for directions or help? Those lessons come in handy later, too! A quarter mile up the road was the Bardo, the world’s finest collection of Roman mosaics. The walk was fine, even in the heat, but crossing the streets in Tunis can be an adventure. There are no crosswalks except downtown at major intersections so you just have to jaywalk, possibly dodge the tram, and hope for the best. Drivers are reasonable: if they see you they slow down.

They are renovating the Bardo, so I walked past a lot of heavy machinery and dust before I got there, but after I bought a ticket it was cool and comfortable inside. This museum is in the old Bey’s palace (I believe that was the Turkish ruler of Tunisia about 100 years ago). Every empire nearby has ruled Tunis at some point; it’s a strategic harbor. The Ottomans, the Romans, several Muslim dynasties, the Phoenicians, the Byzantines, the Vandals, the French; they’ve all wanted this place. I saw the harbor today and I can see why, but more on that later.

At the Bardo, there are so many Roman mosaics it’s hard to keep track. There are beautiful doors reminiscent of Zanzibar, and cool archways and high ceilings from the Arab influence, plus beautiful ceiling carvings and tile work in the closed sections. Half the museum is closed for renovation right now, so you cannot go in there. Unless you happen to be traveling alone, look like you won’t tell anyone and have some coins for the security agent. Turns out that corruption isn’t all bad! Who knew? Check out the gorgeous traditional Magrebhi ceilings and lanterns in the photos below. They are just as beautiful as the Roman works.

After the Bardo, I was deciding whether to try to get to Carthage. It was 4:00 PM and I knew it would take a while if I took public transit. I didn’t know if it was possible, I was thirsty and hot, and I was ready to give up. But then I spotted a taxi letting out a passenger. The passenger was an older Tunisian man walking toward an office in the civil service area near the museum. That meant, to me, that this was a reputable cab! A hard thing to find around here, I assure you. I decided to get that bottle of water later and hurried over to the taxi before he turned around to leave. Then I met Brahim: who turned out to be the nicest guy in Tunis thus far. I asked him how much it would cost to get to Carthage and he told me he didn’t know – it would be whatever the meter said (oh, this is good – he’s using the meter!), but no more than 15 dinar ($10). All righty! I nodded and got in, we stopped for a bottle of water that he insisted on purchasing so I would not have to – also a good sign in an Arab country. We got to the southern ruin, Carthage Salammbo, by 5:00 and the fare was only 10.5 dinar! I asked Brahim if he would be willing to stay and ferry me around until 7:00 when the museums closed and then back to Tunis, which would be a good fare for him. He readily agreed and went off to get a sandwich while I looked at the Tophet. Turned out, the sandwich was actually for me (my French is rusty and I miss nuances) and it was delicious. What a sweetheart. The sandwich was hot and had chicken, French fries, red cabbage, and harissa (a paprika chili paste) inside a rather flat French roll. That may sound weird, but I assure you that it was good.

But back to the sights of ancient Carthage and the Phoenicians. The Tophet, my first stop, was an important religious site in ancient times, from the 8th to the 2nd century B.C., with temples to the goddess Hanit and the god Baal Hammon. Both children and animals were sacrificed here; remains have been found. There are many stele here, marking funerary remains. That’s grim, but it’s an important site. This site is nestled in the heart of a very wealthy suburb, so at least it’s pretty. Nearby are the remains of the great port of Carthage, which in its time was considered a marvel of engineering.
Quoting Appian, the Roman Historian: “The ports of Carthage were laid out in such a way that the ships passed from one to the other; they were entered from the sea through an opening 70 feet wide which was closed with iron chains. The first port, for traders, had many different moorings. In the middle of the inner port, there was an island”. He further reports that there was a raised structure where the admiral could control all the traffic, and compartments opened up in the military port to house 220 Punic war triremes, while above them were warehouses for equipment. The navy of Carthage was legendary. Check out the photo of the scale model to see what archeologists think it looked like. After the Romans besieged them for three years, Carthage finally fell and was razed to the ground. There are rumors that the Romans salted the earth, but I think since they wanted the port so badly, they would not have kept themselves from eating later.

Carthage became a valuable city to the Romans, who had to rebuild it after they destroyed it so utterly. It had its own forum, amphitheater, basilica, piazzas and many villas. As the primary supplier of Africa’s bounty of grain and olive oil, it was rich. Gorgeous mosaics were in all wealthy and upper middle class homes, and still exist in the ruins here. The best of these are at the Bardo. Most of the artifacts from the tombs and few remaining Punic (Phoenician) ruins are at the Museum of Carthage, a UNESCO world heritage site. We arrived there at 6:00, with one hour to see it, which was just perfect. On the ground floor, there were Arabic, French and English explanations but it reverted to only Arabic and French upstairs. Some guessing was involved on my part. Still, the museum was wonderful. I saw beautiful glass that was 2000 years old, and Phoenician, Roman and Etruscan pottery and bronze centuries older than that. I learned how the Phoenicians made their shaft tombs, though I wonder how they got the very heavy stone sarcophagi down there. All in all, a great visit. I was so happy to see Carthage, at last.

I met Brahim again outside the museum and we headed for home, with just a little approved detour through the beautiful and wealthy suburb of Sidi Bousaid, and its marina. It was lovely. The whole trip cost 33 dinars, by the meter, all together about $22. I gave him a 20 dinar tip. Pretty generous, but I was happy to work with a decent person, and I thought that should be rewarded. If you speak French and you need an honest cab driver in Tunis, call Brahim at: +216 9798 1357. He made my day.

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3 Responses to Historical Sights: the Silver Lining

  1. Meggi Raeder says:

    I am so glad your last day in Tunis was a bit better and you had some decent guy to show you around. Your clothing description is probably a very important experience as it is always good not to ‘look’ like a tourist. I really love reading about your adventures!! Thank you so much for sharing them.
    Be well, and travel safe,

  2. Thanks so much Meggi – you are getting the loyal fan award when I get home. Once I figure out what the prize is 🙂 I would be very lonely without this connection to home, really, and without any comments. To whom would I tell my stories? I’d probably burst from holding it in.

    Brahim didn’t know the sights well (yet), because he’s only been in the cab business for two months. He usually stays around Tunis and not out the 20 minutes or so to Carthage. I used my guide book with its maps to show us both around, which worked out just fine, and I could see him mentally taking notes for the next time. He joked that we should open a tour agency. He could drive and I could direct the American and English tourists.

    I think the clohing definitely changed my experience. Not enough of a change to make me rethink Florence, but it was better. When people don’t see my light brown hair, but they do see my brown eyes and my suntan, they assume I live in Tunis. I was addressed in Arabic most of the time today and not French or English.

    On to the land of gelato and fine accessories!

  3. d says:

    I am learning so much from your descriptions about different parts of the country. I am glad you made it to Carthage. Meeting Brahim was good karma and smart of you to find a trustworthy person there.

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