Carthago delenda est!” Carthage must be destroyed, Cato the Elder concluded each time he spoke in the Roman senate. And so it was. At the conclusion of the Third Punic War, in 146 B.C., the Romans destroyed Carthage so thoroughly that archaeologists can find few traces of the huge Punic city today. (A few meager remnants of Punic Carthage have been recovered, but most of the city—once the second largest in Africa, after Alexandria—was lost to history forever when Julius Caesar erected a new Roman-African capitol on its site in 46 B.C.).
If you want to walk through the streets of a Punic city, you must go to Kerkouane instead. A sleepy little coastal city about 75 miles from Carthage, on Tunisia’s Cape Bon Peninsula, Kerkouane was founded around 550 B.C. and managed to survive as a Punic city for 300 years. The city was eventually sacked and partially destroyed by the Romans during the First Punic War (264–241 B.C.), but for some unknown reason the Romans never rebuilt or reoccupied Kerkouane. Its remains lay undisturbed, just below the surface of the earth, until they were accidentally discovered by vacationing archaeologists in 1952.
The Punicians—if we call the people from Phoenicia Phoenicians, why can’t we call the Punic people Punicians?a It never seems to be done, but perhaps we can start a trend here—the Punicians built hundreds of cities in North Africa, but none is better preserved, or conserved, than Kerkouane.
Since 1976, the site has been excavated by one of Tunisia’s leading archaeologists, M’hamed Hassine Fantar. In his 22 years of digging, Fantar has unearthed close to 22 acres of the city’s residential area, including an intact sanctuary, several city streets, parts of walls, 061the town gates and a whole host of smaller artifacts and objects.
The city is laid out in a checkerboard pattern common in many Greek and Carthaginian cities. It was surrounded by a double wall and the streets were arranged in regular blocks called insulae. The streets were also carefully planned to intersect at right angles to one another, much like modern city blocks. A city set on the sea, Kerkouane is bordered by the Mediterranean, which continues to tear away at its remains. Some of the city’s ruins can now be observed underwater.
Perhaps because of its remote and inhospitable location, Kerkouane never achieved the size or grandeur of other Phoenician capitols like Carthage or Tyre. Instead it remained a city on a human scale, in some ways simple and modest. At its height it was home to about 1,200 people. Walking through the streets of the city, it is not difficult to imagine the peaceful daily life of the Punicians as they fished and made purple dye from murex shells. (Huge 062numbers of these shells have been found at the site; it took 5,000 shells to make one gram of dye. The end product was known by the Romans as “Tyrian purple” and was in great demand as the “imperial color.”)
Like most Punic towns, Kerkouane was very much an ethnic mixing ground, bringing together Greeks, Etruscans, Berbers and Phoenicians. The city’s walls reflect this cultural blending; the masonry combines everything from leaning Assyrian slabs to several varieties of the architectural structure known as opus Africanum (a hallmark of Phoenician walls in the ancient Near East, this technique employs upright pillars or orthostats separated by sections of smaller shaped stones or rubble stones).
In contrast to the city walls, the plans of individual houses at Kerkouane are all similar—an entrance corridor leads to a central courtyard. Various rooms cluster around the courtyard. Occasional remains of a staircase indicate that originally the houses had a second floor no longer extant.
If their homes are anything to judge by, the Punicians must have been very clean. Each house has a lovely little bathtub and a drain that leads from the courtyard out into the street. The bathtubs have a small seat at the back and a place for the bather’s feet. The bathtubs are too small for the body to be totally immersed, so it may be more accurate to call them hipbaths.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kerkouane’s houses is their decoration. Some of them contain what may be the world’s earliest preserved mosaics. These mosaics were preceded in time by colored pebbles arranged mostly in geometric designs, but the Punicians seem to have created the first true mosaics—square-cut tesserae set in a mortar foundation. These Punic mosaics—so-called pavimenta punica—are mostly square-cut pieces of dull reddish pottery sprinkled with square-cut pieces of white marble. Sometimes the white marble tesserae 063are arranged in straight lines.
The only figured mosaic preserved at Kerkouane is set in the entrance to a residence. It is the sign of the most popular Phoenician-Punic goddess, Tanit. This sign is repeated hundreds of times on Carthaginian stelae marking the graves of infants sacrificed to the goddess. It also appears on stelae unearthed at Kerkouane. Tanit’s sign looks like a stylized woman—a circle for a head, outstretched arms and a triangle for a body. Supposedly the woman is dressed in a floor-length robe. The sign probably had an apotropaic function, warding off evil and protecting the inhabitants of the house at whose door it lay.
A small museum at the site fleshes out ancient Punic life in Kerkouane. A large sculptured foot found in a temple indicates that the city was not without its impressive statuary. Small bottles made of colorful glass paste are typically Phoenician. Other finds include terracotta figurines and a wealth of jewelry, largely from the Kerkouane tombs, as well as common pottery and fishing weights. The surrounding excavation site also houses some formal flower gardens, and several Punic burial grounds are only a short walk away.
Carthago delenda est!” Carthage must be destroyed, Cato the Elder concluded each time he spoke in the Roman senate. And so it was. At the conclusion of the Third Punic War, in 146 B.C., the Romans destroyed Carthage so thoroughly that archaeologists can find few traces of the huge Punic city today. (A few meager remnants of Punic Carthage have been recovered, but most of the city—once the second largest in Africa, after Alexandria—was lost to history forever when Julius Caesar erected a new Roman-African capitol on its site in 46 B.C.). If you want to walk through the […]
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