Unheralded treasures

The North African country of Tunisia has a strong connection with ancient Rome. Many monuments in this country can rival those found in Italy, making it a fascinating place to consider as a travel destination.

Ancient Rome has always been a passion of mine. During visits to Italy, I have made it a point to see as many archeological sites as possible. On my last trip there, I decided to venture further afield to see what was on offer in other countries that the Romans had conquered during their period as the world’s superpower. Tunisia sounded promising.

I base myself at the tiny port of La Goulette, just outside Tunisia’s capital city of Tunis. The room at my hotel has a balcony overlooking the glistening Mediterranean Sea. The beach is empty, bar for the local fishermen bringing in the daily catch. Cats skulk around the boats hoping to catch a morsel of disregarded fish. During my stay, I feast at local restaurants, where I enjoy an abundance of delicious seafood presented on overflowing plates – at rock-bottom prices!

The first stop on this discovery tour is the ancient Roman ruins at Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis. In Ancient Rome, the historian Nigel Rodgers explains how Carthage became the major port city for the North African provinces during Rome’s rule. It had all the features of a typical Roman city of its time, including a forum, basilica, and temples. But it is the incredible Antonine Baths that I have come to see. According to Rodgers, they were second only to the Caracalla Baths in Rome, in size, at that time. There is enough of the baths remaining to fuel the imagination, but its position on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea is what is truly stunning. Be prepared for an Instagram-worthy moment of the ruins merging with the aquamarine hues of the sea.

Roman mosaics, Bardo Museum

Next stop is the Bardo Museum, considered to house the best-preserved Roman mosaics outside of Italy. To get there, I take a short tram ride from central Tunis. According to Rodgers, the settlers from Rome became quite wealthy during the period of Roman Carthage. Quite sumptuous villas were built in the towns that dotted throughout present-day Tunisia. Many artifacts have been taken from these villas for display at the Bardo. But it is the floor mosaics that stand out – they are simply stupendous. What they reveal is an incredible snapshot of all facets of daily Roman life. We can see examples of the foods grown and eaten, as well as popular leisure activities of the day. No self-respecting household would be seen without portraits of the gods, and many examples are displayed throughout the museum. We can also witness the sports Romans enjoyed watching – including grizzly examples of blood sports held in the arenas, matching gladiators against wild African animals.

The final stop is to see an amphitheater where these battles took place. To see this site requires a few hours of travel by train from Tunis to the small market town of El Jem. From the train station, I am told it is a short walk to the center of town. Upon turning into the main street, I am stopped in my tracks by the sight in front of me – I am speechless. What lies ahead is a magnificent amphitheater. Massarra Dhahri, writing for the online Carthage Magazine in 2021, reiterates the magnitude of this UNESCO World Heritage site by claiming that it is only behind Rome’s Coliseum in size. It truly is a mesmerizing monument. I spend hours walking throughout the amphitheater, which I have practically to myself. This is a different experience to battling with the crowds at the Coliseum in Rome. Also, I am able to walk onto the center of the arena and head below to the basement areas, where the gladiators would have nervously waited for their fate above.

Amphitheater in El Jem, Tunisia

This unforgettable trip has come to an end. I decide to return back to Europe, as the ancient Romans would have done, by boat across the Mediterranean Sea. The first port of call is Palermo, in Sicily, where more Roman ruins wait for me to explore.

But that is for another story!

Cover ph.: Antonine Baths at Carthage, Tunisia