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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: Carthage

Carthage is one of those famous names on the WH List that we all know about. It got already inscribed in 1979, part of the second batch of sites that also included the Pyramids, Dubrovnik and the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately I never got around to visiting Tunisia so far, but I am surely interested in doing so in the near future. The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden currently holds a large exhibition on Carthage. Pieces from the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the Louvre and the British Museum are on show until May 10, 2015.

Punic god Baal-Hammon recognizable in his Roman alter ego Saturnus Africanus

The exhibition covers 2 floors of this canalside museum. The first floor is dedicated to Punic Carthage: the city was founded by Phoenicians from the area around Tyre (nowadays in Lebanon). They brought their gods and goddesses with them, and created a city-state with a far-reaching trade network and huge military power. Especially this period is a unique piece of North African history, which often is overshadowed by Roman Carthage. From the reviews on our website I gather that at the archeological site in Carthage itself not much of that era is left to be seen.

While reading the explanation texts, it became clear quite quickly to me that the exhibition's title "Carthage" has to be taken broadly. Many objects that are shown have actually been found in places such as Kerkuane and El Jem. "Carthaginian Empire" would have been a better name. The other sites are WHS too of course, so it did not really bother me.

Example of Carthaginian glass production (4rd/3rd century BC)

The exhibition on the second floor focuses on Roman Carthage. After the Romans sank the Punic city in 146 B.C., they rebuilt it in Roman style years later. And although the objects of this period clearly refer to Roman civilization (such as mosaics and sculptured heads), the oriental and multicultural disposition of the city is still noticeable. I liked the numerous stelae for example, often decorated with the head of Baal-Hammon or another Carthaginian god or goddess.

In the end I have to say that I had expected more of the exhibition: I was done in about 40 minutes. There's no clear story being told, it's "just" a bunch of (often very pretty) objects found in Tunisia and arranged by themes.

So there was time left for the permanent collection of the museum too. Leiden is the oldest University Town in the Netherlands (dating back to 1575), and this archeological museum was founded in 1818. It is quite typical of its kind, that can be found in university towns all over Europe: it has a sizeable collection of artifacts taken away by early explorers and collectors. Samples of all important near eastern civilizations can be found here. The Egyptian government even gave them a complete temple, as a reward for Dutch assistance in safeguarding cultural sites during the construction of the Aswan Dam.

I was especially looking for reminders of the Nineveh Valley in Iraq - exactly one year ago I was within a few km's of these grand archeological sites, and we all know now the fate they have suffered this week. And although I believe that objects should be best left in situ, I am happy that we still have some Assyrian "souvenirs" from Nimrud and Nineveh in Leiden.

Assyrian tablet from Nimrud

Published 8 March 2015

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Responses to Carthage
Ian Cade (10 March 2015)

That was really interesting to read, thanks Els.

Carthage has a slightly special place for me, as it was the firs major classical archaeological site I visited. Yep the built aspects of the Punic era aren't especially prevalent, however the port structures were really noticable, though they don't make especially interesting photos but are very clear on satellite maps.

Did they cover much about the Tophet in Carthage, I have always wondered how much of it is true in relation to child sacrifice and how much was Roman 'propaganda' against its enemy. It is still a regular trope that your enemies kill babies, is this just the case but entrenched over 2,000 years?

Kerkuane was perhaps the biggest surprise of Tunisia, it was a really rewarding place to visit. Especially as it was at the end of a trip where we saw lots of Roman cities built over Punic remains, it was nice to finally get a sense of what they would have been like prior to Roman intervention.

Tunisia was a lovely place to visit, and there is a real dense cluster of pretty high calibre sites. I would be interested to go back and see them post revolution to see how or even if things have changed. It was the first time I really came up against a real sense of limits on freedom of expression when talking to people on the street. I wonder if that has changed, and if so how much these changes are for the better.