TUNISIA'S ROMAN RUINS

Tunisia is not just a fly and flop beach holiday destination; this was the first African territory occupied by the Roman Empire. First Caesar, and then Augustus, colonised the entire area and considered Carthage, on the outskirts of modern day Tunis, to be the second most important city in the Western Roman Empire; the first being Ephesus on the west coast of modern-day Turkey.
In June 2015, Tunisia's tourism industry was changed forever by a terrorist attack on western holiday makers on a beach in Sousse. Global media coverage escalated the perceived threat and the country is still stigmatised; this is despite being categorised by the US travel advisory board alongside France and Mexico in terms of exercising caution when travelling.
The aftermath of the attack had long-lasting effects on local people, particularly those involved in the tourism industry. Specialist local guides who had made a living from showing travellers around the archaeological sites and ancient Roman ruins were forced to return to picking dates and olives.
As Tunisia tries to get back on its feet, it's important that tourists realise how their presence can help with the process. Visiting Roman sites in the company of a local expert not only allows you to ask questions and find out more about some of North Africa's best preserved ancient sites but you'll also be opening up employment options for educated and passionate local people.

What have the Romans ever done for Tunisia?

Tunisia’s archaeological sites are certain to be a highlight of any visit, even if you’re not especially into history. Whole towns can be found frozen in time with footprints, cart tracks, temples and houses all remaining relatively intact. You can go right up to buildings and see the individual stones and mosaics. You just can’t do that in Rome, Greece or Egypt. As Tanner explains, “A lot of the ancient archaeological sites associated with Rome and Greece can get very crowded and you’re often quite a distance from the ruins. Tunisia is very different as you can literally walk amongst the buildings and get a real size of the scale. All seven of Tunisia’s UNESCO sites have information boards in English however, visiting with a local guide reveals far more about what you’re seeing as well as giving you the chance to ask questions to an educated local history expert.”
The Baths of Antoninus, for example, which are part of the extensive archaeological site in Carthage, are exceptional and also offer great views from their hillside setting. The whole site provides fascinating insight into the area’s ancient lineage with Punic, Roman and Islamic occupation revealed within the layers of architecture. Monty Python fans should also take note as the amphitheatre at Carthage was where Brian Cohen was recruited to join the People's Front of Judea during the ‘children's matinee’ gladiatorial performance.
The Amphitheatre of El Djem is almost as large as its counterpart in Rome but you can walk right through it and see individual brick work up close. It’s breathtaking. Original mosaics, too, are incredibly well preserved thanks, in part, to the dry desert climate and to the lack of tourists. The most famous of Tunisia’s mosaics can be found at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis. It houses the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics depicting mythical heroes and legends often in vivid and vibrant original colours.

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Specialist local guides

Main guides, like Jamil and Taieb, will take you around Tunisia and will be the interpreter between you and your driver, your guesthouse hosts and stall holders selling makroudh (sweet and sticky pastries) at the souks in downtown Tunis. However, when it comes to finding out more about Tunisia’s Roman ruins, specialist guides are employed who have expert knowledge relating to individual locations.

As Tanner explains, specialist guides can make all the difference, “When I first visited Tunisia I was accompanied by conservationist, ecotourism pioneer and Harvard Professor, Megan Epler Wood. Professor Wood introduced me to local tour operators, like Jamil and Taieb, as well as the specialist guides who now accompany our travellers around the UNESCO sites and Roman ruins. Half of our specialist guides are women and all are highly educated, often speaking at least two or three different languages, including English. For many of these guides showing people around is like a hobby, something they’d happily do on their day off. For our travellers, however, being shown around Tunisia’s archaeological sites in their company is an extremely insightful and worthwhile experience, not to be missed.”

Visit the Bardo Museum in Tunis and it will be Haithem showing you around the magnificent 19th-century palace. This museum, in the centre of the capital, holds the largest collection of mosaics in the world. An eclectic mix of myths and legends, botanical depictions and geometric designs align everywhere from floors to walls to ceilings. Haithem will explain more about what you’re seeing as well as imparting the importance of Roman and French influence on the city’s cultural heritage.
The Roman ruins of Bulla Regia is another 'must see' site, and is situated 160km northwest of the capital. This was once an affluent and influential citadel that continued to rise well after the Roman Empire was already entrenched following on from the first century AD. Still to this day you can see the subterranean Roman dwellings that were used to keep cool in summer, and explore above ground amidst Bulla Regia’s temples, mosaics, amphitheatres and public bath houses. The specialist local guide that Tanner usually works with in Bulla Regia is Amel.
To the southeast of Bulla Regia, almost equidistant from Tunis, another prosperous Roman town can be found on a hillside overlooking vast plains below. Dougga maybe smaller than many of the other sites in Tunisia but historians consider it to be one of North Africa’s best preserved Roman towns. Exploring the UNESCO protected ruins in the company of Mouna, the specialist guide that Tanner usually works with in Dougga, allows you to find out the facts and mythical tales related to almost 17 centuries of historical civilisation leading up to the annexation of Tunisia by the Roman Empire.
Visiting Tunisia in search of winter sun and Mediterranean Sea views is an attractive offer but visiting with a local guide reveals much, much more than the bucket and spade brigade could ever dream of. Not only will you be able to piece together the Roman’s occupation of North Africa in the company of experts but you’ll also get to explore ancient UNESCO sites, mosaic-filled museums and Roman ruins up close and without the crowds associated with Greece, Egypt and Rome. You don’t have to be into Roman history to come to Tunisia but you certainly will be once you leave.
Tanner C. Knorr is the owner and founder of our Tunisia tour specialists, Off Season Adventures & Safaris. He works closely with local guides in Tunisia as well as local drivers and small boutique guesthouse owners. Jamil and Taieb are two of the main guides that Tanner works with. They help to put together Roman history and cultural itineraries for travellers as well as acting as interpreters, “The drivers, especially, and some of the accommodation hosts don’t speak English – French is widely spoken alongside Arabic. English is typically thought of as a third or fourth spoken language. Guides are often very well educated and speak at least two or three different languages, including English.”
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dennis Jarvis] [Carthage: Riyadh Al Balushi] [Baths of Antonius: Dennis Jarvis] [Museum Bardo: Herbert Frank]
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