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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Richard Collett

Swap beaches for ancient history in Tunisia, the North African destination with more ruins than Rome

Richard Collett

Marble columns and granite pillars are silhouetted against the Mediterranean Sea. The Latin inscriptions have faded with time, but the grandeur of a city that once housed hundreds of thousands is unmistakable amidst the 2,000-year-old stone archways rising above an arid coastline. But this isn’t Italy, nor anywhere else in Europe; located on Tunisia’s northeastern shores, these are the remains of Rome’s great rival, Carthage.

The Romans burned Carthage to the ground in 146BC, before rebuilding the city in an even grander fashion from the rubble. Like Hannibal himself, though, Carthage was seemingly destined to sit forever in the shadow of its conquerors, and even today, few tourists visit in comparison to better-known ancient sites in Europe.

Carthage National Museum is being redeveloped into a state-of-the-art visitor attraction
— (Richard Collett)

Now Carthage is rising again, as the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, with EU funding, is redeveloping Carthage National Museum into a state-of-the-art visitor attraction. Other Unesco World Heritage Sites, such as the Roman amphitheatre of El Jem, are in the midst of vital restoration projects, too. So as Tunisia attempts to lure tourists away from its beaches and into its storied past, I set off to explore the North African country’s ancient and Islamic history.

Read more on Tunisia travel:

Visiting the ruins of Carthage

“There are ancient ruins everywhere in Carthage,” said Moncef Battikh, who works for the Tunisian national tourist office. “Look to your right! There are Roman ruins there by the roundabout.”

I’d walked through immigration at Tunis-Carthage international airport just half an hour earlier, but a short drive later (it’s also a half-hour train ride from Tunis, the capital), and I was quickly discovering there’s much more to Tunisia than beaches and all-inclusive hotels.

Supposedly founded by Dido, the legendary Phoenician queen, from 650BC onwards Carthage became the centre of a Carthaginian empire that would, for centuries, battle Rome for control of the Mediterranean. Carthaginian general Hannibal famously marched his elephants over the Alps to invade Italy, but the Romans prevailed, and they were merciless in their utter destruction of Carthage in 146BC.

The Romans burned Carthage to the ground in 146BC
— (Richard Collett)

Carthage has had an unfortunate history, and despite rising from the ashes to become the largest city in the Roman province of Africa, it was destroyed again by the Vandals in the fifth century AD, rebuilt by the Byzantines, and wiped from the map by the Umayyads during the Arab invasions in 698AD.

Although they’re now surrounded by the modern minarets and apartment blocks of Tunis’s ever-expanding suburbs, the sheer scale of a civilisation that once stretched across much of the North African coast is still apparent in the ruins. Crumbling villas line the hillsides, an ancient theatre still hosts concerts, and an aqueduct sweeps down from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries revealed the Baths of Antoninus, early Christian basilicas and countless residential homes and workshops. Thanks to financial grants from the European Union, the Carthage National Museum, which is located on Byrsa Hill in what was once the centre of the ancient city, is undergoing a huge upgrade that will restore the surrounding ruins and improve access to the archaeological site.

Lose your way in the Tunis medina

A labyrinth of ancient alleyways is primed for hagglers in the Tunis medina
— (Richard Collett)

“Let me tell you the story of the arch,” said Battikh, as we stood beneath a stone archway in the centre of Tunis. “This is the entrance to the medina, the old city built by the Arabs, and in medieval times, this was the edge of Tunis. The other side is the European side, which the French built during the colonial era.”

The foundations for what is now Tunis were laid by the invading Umayyads, who had destroyed Carthage, and no trip to Tunisia is complete without losing yourself in the medina, a walled city set around the Zitouna Mosque, which dates back to the late seventh century AD.

A Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979, the medina’s covered alleyways were begging to be dived into. And so we did, jostling for space among shoppers haggling for fake football shirts or colourful dresses while I tried not to trip on uneven cobblestones underfoot. We emerged by the mosque, its distinctive rectangular minaret poking high above the domed roofs of the medina, as the call to prayer cut above the din of craftspeople working in the souks.

The Islamic history of Sousse and Kairouan

Kairouan’s seventh-century mosque was built using Phoenician columns and Roman marble pillaged from Carthage
— (Richard Collett)

Jump on a train from Tunis, or hop on a louage (a small minibus that leaves when full), and in two hours you can be in Sousse. Home to golden beaches lined with resorts, Sousse is where package tours to Tunisia first kicked off in the 1950s, but this ancient city also has a history stretching back to its Phoenician founding in antiquity.

Taoufik Gaied, the regional director of tourism for Sousse, explained how he wants to showcase more of his city’s heritage to the beachgoing tourists who flock to the coastal resorts.

“The museum of Sousse, in the medina, is the second most important museum in Tunisia after the Bardo museum in Tunis,” Gaied claimed. “The medina itself is over a thousand years old, with a rich intangible cultural heritage that you see in the typical Arabic architecture.”

Like the medina of Tunis, Sousse’s medina is Unesco World Heritage listed, but it’s not nearly as frantic as the narrow shopping streets in the capital. Gaied also explained how Sousse medina’s cultural heritage is in danger of being lost, largely because historic houses are left to decay when owners move to more spacious, modern lodgings outside the old town. He hopes that tourism can help preserve Sousse medina’s traditional character.

“We are encouraging guesthouses to develop in the medina itself, in the old houses that have been abandoned,” he said. “We need to save the houses to save our Unesco listing, and guests love these hotels because they’re smaller than the resorts, and based on the cultural heritage of Tunisia.”

The Sousse medina has managed to maintain its traditional character
— (Richard Collett)

Stay in Sousse and you can take another louage to Kairouan, where tall sandstone walls surround another medina. Kairouan is home to a seventh-century mosque, the first to be built in Tunisia by the conquering Arabs, who used Phoenician columns and Roman marble pillaged from Carthage in its construction.

Kairouan has since developed into one of the holiest sites in the Islamic world, and during my visit the city was preparing to welcome hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for the Prophet’s birthday. “People in Kairouan will open their houses for guests, for strangers,” said Omar Guebli, a local guide. “Even the carpet shop owner opens up his shop for strangers!”

El Jem: A ruin to rival Rome

Tunisia blends both ancient and Islamic history, and one more short train ride took me to El Jem, where I found the remnants of an amphitheatre to rival the Colosseum in Rome.

El Jem has survived countless earthquakes and conflicts over the centuries
— (Richard Collett)

After Rome and Capua, El Jem (with a capacity of 30,000 spectators) is the third-largest Roman amphitheatre in the world, but there are no queues here. For 40 dinar (around £10), Salem Antar gave me a full guided tour, explaining how construction began in 230AD under the rule of the local proconsul, Gordian, who would later rise to become the Roman emperor. At the time, El Jem was located in one of the wealthiest provinces of the Roman empire, and its citizens wanted the best entertainment money could buy.

The stone arena has survived countless earthquakes and conflicts over the centuries (including bombardment by the Ottomans) and since 2019, El Jem has been undergoing a concerted preservation project, which is nearing completion.

“Unesco is currently restoring the arena, including the seating areas,” Antar explained as we looked out over El Jem from the dignitaries’ box high above. “The work is focused on authenticity, not simply rebuilding. If something falls down, it’s fixed in as authentic a fashion as possible.”

Tunisia’s historic sites are being preserved in the way they deserve and in Tunis the Bardo Museum, home to countless archaeological relics found across North Africa, reopened in September 2023 after a two-year revamp. Given that Djerba – the largest island in North Africa, and home to more Carthaginian and Roman ruins, as well as Christian churches, Islamic mosques and a 2,400-year-old Jewish synagogue – has also just been recognised as the country’s ninth Unesco World Heritage Site, there’s never been a better time for history buffs to leave the beaches behind and delve into Tunisia’s history.

El Jem is the third-largest Roman amphitheatre in the world
— (Richard Collett)

Travel essentials

Getting there and around

Tunisair and Nouvelair operate direct flights from London to Tunis-Carthage airport, while easyJet and Tui operate seasonal flights to Enfidha-Hammamet airport. If you don’t want to fly, it’s also possible to travel overland to Tunisia, with regular ferries connecting Tunis to France and Italy.

Trains are cheap and easy to use in Tunisia, and you can check timetables on the SNCFT website. Louages can take you where the trains can’t (including Kairouan).

Where to stay

Tunisia has countless resorts and all-inclusive hotels lining the beaches of Hammamet, Sousse and Djerba. For something a little different in Tunis, surround yourself with heritage with a stay at the excellent Dar Ben Gacem (B&B from £98), which is situated in a 16th-century courtyard home in the heart of the medina of Tunis.

Read more of our best winter sun hotel reviews

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