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Tunisia stretches along the Mediterranean for 810 miles, 700 of which are fringed with soft, white sand along the piercingly blue sea. Siituated at the eastern end of the Atlas Mountains, the greater part of the country beyond the fertile north and north-eastern coast is semi-arid or desert.

Sand and Surf Meet
photo by G.Wilson

It is Africa's most popular tourist destination and attracts millions annually because of its mild winter climate and its safe society. Tunisia lies between two fundamentalist Moslem countries, Algeria and Libya. According to our guide, Tunisia guards its borders closely to ensure radical extremists remain outside. Tunisia is proud of its progressive country whose people are friendly, hard working and tolerant of differences and determined it will remain that way.

The countryside is very diverse with fertile farmland alternating with desolate stretches of sand and salt. In the rolling hills to the north, great fields of wheat and barley flourish, while to the south the soil turned to sand. The desolate landscape was often dotted with the tents of wandering Bedouins, nomads whose name comes from the Arab word, Bedou meaning "desert dweller.". Nearby tended by one woman, there were usually small herds of goats nibbling at negligible knots of grass, Women are the workers in Tunisa and they could be seen hoeing the fields, hauling great loads on their backs or driving heavily laden donkeys along the road side. These creatures were tiny, but terrific beasts of burden seen everywhere.

A Bedouin and Beast of Burden
photo by G. Wilson

Throughout Tunisia were well-cultivated groves of olive trees located in shady corners of the countryside, that nurtured thousands of palms and olive trees. The olive today and in antiquity is the source of much of the nation's wealth. Once used by the poor as a subsitute for fat, olive oil was also treasured by the Romans for massages.

Olive Grove
photo by G. Wilson

A highlight of our trip to the south was the camel ride into the Sahara Desert. The saddle blanket is behind the hump and wooden handles were fastened in front of it. The rider is warned to hang on as the camel prepared to stand. It is precarious for as the Dromedary rises, the rider is pitched forward quite suddenly and then just as suddenly jerked backwards. Off we undulated into the great Sahara as the sun was setting behind the sand dunes stretching away to the horizon. It was a scene straight out of Lawrence of Arabia, except the unsteady riders were hanging on for dear life.

'Sahara' Bill and Beast
photo by G. Wilson

The Sahara sand is not so much sand as powder for its grains are extremely fine. This doubtless explains the ease with which winds can shape and contour it into oftimes startlingly beautiful formations.

Sahara Sands Sculptured by the Winds

The immortal name Carthage evokes grandeur, prestige and power. Tunisia is the birthplace of the powerful Carthaginian Empire built in 800 BC by Queen Dido, the Phoenician Princess of Tyre. She chose for its site a spot on the coast at the heart of a gulf facing North to the Mediterranean Sea. Originally a Phoenician settlement, Carthage was an ancient city and the civilization that developed within that city situated in what today is Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

Carthage became a major force because of its stragegic location on the Mediterranean and as such contested with an equally great power, Rome, for dominance in the area. Their rivalry resulted in the Punic Wars, the last of which occurring between 149-146 BC concluded with the total destruction of Carthage. [Punic derives from the term 'Punicus' (earlier Poenicus) borrowed from Greek 'Phoenicia.']

Hannibal (247 BC- 183 BC)

Terra Cotta Statuary: A Carthaginian Warrior

Carthage was a great sea-faring nation, but the country is best remembered for its great leader, Hannibal's lumbering land journey across the Alps. This becomes easier to understand, when it is realized that the event took place when Roman ships ruled the ocean waves.

It was said of Hannibal, "one of the most illustrious figures in the history of humanity," that the great Carthaginian general had disciplined his body to hardship, his appetite to moderation, his tongue to silence and his thought to objectivity. He ate the same food, wore the same clothes, slept on the same ground and suffered the same hardships as his men. His personal bravery as the first man in and the last man out of any battle was equalled only by his brilliance as the greatest general of his time. This commanding presence with piercing eyes and penetrating genius, set out with 59,000 troops and 40 elephants on an intrepid trek across the Alps to face and fight the Romans in an epic battle in northern Italy. To inspire terror Hannibal situated the elephants in the front line. The trumpets and horns of the Roman army caused such a clamour that elephants on the left flank turned back against their own lines. However, some of the daunting, daring behemoths lumbered on against the enemy with devastating effect on the ranks of the light infantry.

Hannibal at the Battle of Zana

While he defeated the Roman army in a number of subsequent encounters. Hannibal was never powerful enough to attack Rome itself for his forces were outnumbered ten to one by a resolute foe. For some 15 years Hannibal maintained an army in Italy until a successful Roman attack in 146 BC resulted in defeat and Hannibal's forces retiring to Carthage which led ultimately to the end of Carthaginian power. Hannibal was betrayed and rather than face his foes in chains, he committed suicide by taking poison carefully preserved in the setting of his ring. He was buried in a plain stone sarcophagus with a fittingly simple epitaph: "Here lies Hannibal."

"It was not the Carthagian army which, before the gates of Rome, made the Eternal City tremble, but Hannibal." Napoleon

Punic Wars

Rome's fierce revenge was swift. The city was set ablaze and razed with only ruins and rubble existing in the aftermath. Carthage never rose again. Its remnants were taken over by Rome and by the 1st century it had grown to the second largest city in the western half of the Roman empire, Excavations have revealed remains of Punic Carthage buried under its own ruins and those of the Roman period.

Ruins of Carthage

Carthage/Punic Ruins
by G. Wilson

Glorious Ruins

After the destruction of 146 BC, the site of the city was rebuilt by Augustus in the 2nd century AD as the capital of Proconsular Africa. Life returned as Roman togas took the place of Carthaginian tunics. Carthage rose from the ashes and mosaics, marbles and granite columns with their finely carved capitals told and still tell of the magnificence and munificence of the rich Roman builders. Latin became the language of the day as for nearly 600 years, Romans tred the sands of Tunisia. There is no need to go to Rome to see spectacular ruins which still inspire awe and wonder despite centuries of weathering by wind and sand. Most of the exisiting ruins - baths, cisterns, basilicas and old streets - recall that Roman capital.

Overlooking the countryside at Dougga, a particularly imposing temple celebrates the Roman trinity: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Archeologists from various countries including Canada are restoring it.

Ruins of Roman Trinity Temple of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva
photo by G. Wilson

Ruins of Jupiter Temple
photo by G. Wilson

by G.Wilson

Looking Out to Capitol Temple from Theatre Seats [2nd Century]
photo by G. Wilson

Tunisia's great amphitheatre is as imposing as the pyramids.

Stone for the structures was cut and carried from quarries often great distances from their sites. The quarries often contained caves, some of which are infamous as hiding places where Erwin Rommel and officers of his Africka Corps sheltered before finally fleeing from North Africa.

Roman Quarries 'Les Croites" at the tip of the peninsula
photo by G. Wilson

Tunisia is home to 50 Roman amphitheatres, the most magnificent of which is the colosseum located at El Jem and built in 250 AD. It is said to be second in size and grandeur only to Rome's Colosseum. The latter, initiated by Vespacian, derives its name, not from its size but from a Colossus of Nero as Apollo a 153 feet high which stood nearby until the fourth century A.D. The eliptical-shaped stadium had 80 entrances and exits [vomitoria]. The first four passageways were reserved for the emperor and his entourage to give them the best view of the daily blood-bath of public entertainment. As the gladiators passed before the emperor, they shouted the address, Caesar, Morituri te salutant! (Caesar, those about to die salute you!) The lower classes sat in progressively higher tiers. It was claimed the Colosseum could be emptied of its 50,000 occupants in a few minutes.

Ravaged by time, looting and lawlessness, El Jem's gem, this "jewel of chiselled stone" is being restored. The ellipitically shaped structure is 148 m. long by 122 m. wide and has a 427 m. perimeter. Stone for it came from quarries some 30 kilometres distant. No inscription marks this mammoth creation, but it is thought to have been initiated by Emperor Gordien I, a patron of the arts and an enthusiastic fan of the 'games'. The limestone was shaped into blocks held together with iron pins rather than mortar. Because of the heaviness of its arches and the softness of the limestone which meant it could not be finely sculpted, it has a rather harsh, grim appearance.

El Jem's Colosseum
Caesar, Morituri te salutant!
["Caesar, Those about to die salute you.!"]

The colosseum's three stories are supported by various kinds of columns including Tuscan-Doric, Ionic and Corinthian with an arch in each intercolumnar space. The main corridors were roofed with barrel vaults.

Outer Perimeter of Colosseum Columns in El Jem
by G.Wilson

In those long-gone, gory days, afternoons saw the 30,000-seat amphitheatre fill briskly for the very popular games that pitted man against man, man against animal and animal against animal. Rare and exotic creatures were caught and brought at great expense from all over Africa solely for slaughter in the arena before wild-eyed fans who could never get enough of the butchery and blood. Gladiators were the earliest sport celebrities. Those who survived the wars for any length of time grew rich in gold from the governors and gloried in the adulation of adoring fans, most of whom were women - the first groupies.

The chambers beneath the floor held the animals, machines and men. The large rectangular part of the coliseum's immense wooden floor, which was strewn with sand, could be lowered to admit gladiators and others chosen to fight or to feed the animals. The animals included elephants, lions, tigers, crocodiles, apes, panthers, leopards and lynxes to mention only a few. These ravenous creatures were raised from the depths in mechanical elevators powered by beasts of burden through the two small square openings. Animals fought animals and man and if they were too mild-mannered, they were taunted to fever pitch with sharp spikes or red hot irons. On the day the Colosseum in Rome was dedicated, 5000 animals died.

Openings For Closures
by G. Wilson

Another Opening, Another Show
by G. Wilson

Colosseum Composite

by G. Wilson

Contemplating the site of such slaughter
by G. Wilson

The history of Tunisia, the African Riviera, is like a great history book that embraces Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romand, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and Muslims, Crusaders, Spaniards, Turks and French. Most have left a heritage that is fascinating to follow, made easy by a legacy of preservations and pride in the Tunisia of today. It future shines in its youth whose warm, welcoming happy faces were everywhere another Tunisian bonus.

Tunisian Youth
by G. Wilson


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