Tunisia Unveiled: A Journey Through Ancient History, Where Ruins Outnumber Rome and Beaches Give Way to Timeless Wonders

"Reviving Carthage: Tunisia's Ancient Echoes Beyond the Beaches"

Marble columns and granite pillars create a captivating silhouette against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea. Latin inscriptions, weathered by the passage of time, hint at a city's former glory—one that once hosted hundreds of thousands, its grandeur echoing through the 2,000-year-old stone archways that rise above an arid coastline. This isn't the familiar landscape of Italy or any European destination; instead, it unfolds on Tunisia's northeastern shores— the remnants of Carthage, Rome's formidable rival.

In 146 BC, the Romans razed Carthage to the ground, only to rebuild it with even greater splendor from the rubble. Yet, like Hannibal himself, Carthage seemed destined to linger perpetually in the shadow of its conquerors. Even today, few venture to explore its ancient ruins, overshadowed by more renowned historical sites in Europe. However, a revival is underway as the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, with support from the EU, transforms Carthage National Museum into a cutting-edge visitor attraction. Simultaneously, vital restoration projects are breathing new life into UNESCO World Heritage Sites like the Roman amphitheatre of El Jem.

As Tunisia endeavors to entice travelers away from its sun-kissed beaches, I embarked on a journey through the country's rich tapestry of ancient and Islamic history. Moncef Battikh, a representative from the Tunisian national tourist office, pointed out the abundance of ancient ruins in Carthage, testifying to the city's storied past. Despite having passed through Tunis-Carthage International Airport just half an hour earlier, the short drive (or half-hour train ride from Tunis, the capital) transported me to a realm beyond beaches and all-inclusive resorts.

Founded in 650 BC by Dido, the legendary Phoenician queen, Carthage evolved into the epicenter of a Carthaginian empire that rivaled Rome for control of the Mediterranean for centuries. The renowned Carthaginian general Hannibal famously marched elephants over the Alps to invade Italy, but the Romans, ultimately triumphant, wreaked merciless havoc on Carthage in 146 BC.

Today, as ancient ruins spring to life and UNESCO sites undergo revitalization, Tunisia beckons intrepid travelers to delve into a captivating blend of history and culture. Beyond the sun-soaked shores lie echoes of civilizations that once shaped the destiny of the Mediterranean—a compelling invitation to explore the hidden treasures of a nation determined to rewrite its narrative beyond the allure of its beaches.

"Resilience in Ruins: Carthage's Echoes in the Heart of Tunisia"

Carthage, a city with a tumultuous past, stands as a testament to the ebb and flow of civilizations. Emerging from the ashes to become the crown jewel of the Roman province of Africa, it weathered destruction by the Vandals, rose again under Byzantine reconstruction, only to be erased from the map by Umayyad forces during the Arab invasions in 698 AD. Despite the encroachment of modernity with minarets and apartment blocks framing its ancient remnants in Tunis, the magnitude of a civilization that once dominated the North African coast resonates in the sprawling ruins.

Crumbling villas trace the hillsides, an ancient theater still echoes with the sounds of concerts, and an aqueduct gracefully descends from the Atlas Mountains' foothills. Excavations spanning the 19th and 20th centuries unveiled the Baths of Antoninus, early Christian basilicas, and a myriad of residential homes and workshops. Thanks to generous financial grants from the European Union, the Carthage National Museum, situated on Byrsa Hill at the ancient city's heart, undergoes a significant upgrade, promising to restore the surrounding ruins and enhance access to this archaeological treasure trove.

Moncef Battikh, a guide from the Tunisian national tourist office, narrates the history beneath a stone archway in Tunis, the city whose foundations were laid by the Umayyads after the destruction of Carthage. This arch marks the entrance to the medina, the old city built by the Arabs, juxtaposed against the European side constructed during the French colonial era. No journey through Tunisia is complete without navigating the labyrinthine alleys of the medina, a walled city embracing the Zitouna Mosque dating back to the late seventh century AD. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, the medina's covered alleyways beckon exploration, where shoppers haggle for vibrant dresses and fake football shirts amidst uneven cobblestones underfoot.

Emerging from the medina, the distinctive rectangular minaret of the Zitouna Mosque pierces the skyline, while the call to prayer weaves through the craftspeople's din in the souks. The seventh-century mosque in Kairouan, another jewel of Tunisia, stands as a testament to the interconnectedness of civilizations, constructed with Phoenician columns and Roman marble pillaged from the once-majestic Carthage.

"Traversing Tunisia: From Ancient Cities to Coastal Retreats"

Embark on a train from Tunis or hop on a louage, a minibus filled with fellow travelers, and within two hours, the coastal city of Sousse unfolds. While renowned for its golden beaches and resorts, Sousse boasts a history stretching back to its Phoenician roots in antiquity. Taoufik Gaied, the regional director of tourism for Sousse, envisions showcasing more of the city's heritage to the beach-loving tourists who have frequented its shores since the 1950s.

Gaied proudly touts the significance of Sousse's museum, ranking second only to the renowned Bardo Museum in Tunis. The city's medina, over a millennium old, features a rich intangible cultural heritage showcased in its distinctive Arabic architecture. Like Tunis, Sousse's medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site, offering a more relaxed ambience compared to the bustling streets of the capital. Gaied expresses concerns about the potential loss of the medina's cultural heritage as historic houses decay when owners migrate to more modern lodgings. He sees tourism as a means of preserving Sousse medina's traditional character, encouraging the development of guesthouses within abandoned historical homes.

A short louage ride from Sousse leads to Kairouan, where towering sandstone walls encircle another medina. Home to a seventh-century mosque, constructed with Phoenician columns and Roman marble pillaged from Carthage, Kairouan stands as one of the holiest sites in the Islamic world. As the city prepares to welcome pilgrims for the Prophet's birthday, local guide Omar Guebli emphasizes the hospitality ingrained in Kairouan's culture, where even shop owners open their doors to strangers.

In Tunisia, a seamless blend of ancient and Islamic history unfolds with each journey. A brief train ride further unveils El Jem, where the remnants of an amphitheater rivaling Rome's Colosseum stand as a testament to Tunisia's rich and diverse historical tapestry. From coastal retreats to ancient cities, Tunisia invites travelers to explore a captivating fusion of past and present.

"El Jem: A Timeless Spectacle Preserved in Stone"

El Jem, with its enduring grandeur, stands as a silent testament to the echoes of ancient civilizations. Surpassing even Rome and Capua, this colossal Roman amphitheater, boasting a capacity for 30,000 spectators, emerges as the third-largest in the world. Unlike its more renowned counterparts, El Jem offers a tranquil exploration, free from the bustling queues.

For a mere 40 dinars (approximately £10), Salem Antar serves as a knowledgeable guide, unraveling the history embedded in El Jem's stone walls. Construction commenced in 230 AD under the rule of Gordian, the local proconsul who would ascend to become a Roman emperor. Situated in one of the wealthiest provinces of the Roman Empire, El Jem became a symbol of opulence, catering to its citizens' desire for the finest entertainment.

Enduring the ravages of earthquakes, conflicts, and even Ottoman bombardment, El Jem has stood the test of time. Since 2019, a meticulous preservation project, with a focus on authenticity rather than mere reconstruction, has been underway. From the dignitaries' box high above, Salem Antar shares insights into the ongoing restoration work led by UNESCO, emphasizing the commitment to preserving the arena with genuine reverence.

Tunisia, recognizing the value of its historical treasures, is investing in comprehensive preservation initiatives. The renowned Bardo Museum in Tunis, housing archaeological relics from across North Africa, recently reopened in September 2023 after a two-year revamp. The recognition of Djerba—the largest island in North Africa—as Tunisia's ninth UNESCO World Heritage Site further underscores the nation's dedication to safeguarding its rich cultural legacy. Djerba, adorned with Carthaginian and Roman ruins, Christian churches, Islamic mosques, and a 2,400-year-old Jewish synagogue, beckons history enthusiasts to explore its storied landscapes.

For those inclined to uncover Tunisia's historical tapestry, convenient travel options abound. Direct flights from London to Tunis-Carthage airport are operated by Tunisair and Nouvelair, while easyJet and Tui offer seasonal flights to Enfidha-Hammamet airport. Travelers can also opt for overland journeys, with regular ferries connecting Tunis to France and Italy. Navigating Tunisia's landscapes is made easy with affordable and accessible trains, complemented by the flexibility of louages that can reach destinations beyond the railway network, including the historically rich city of Kairouan.

"Immersive Heritage Retreat: Dar Ben Gacem in Tunis"

While Tunisia boasts an array of resorts and all-inclusive hotels adorning the shores of Hammamet, Sousse, and Djerba, those seeking a unique and immersive experience in Tunis should consider a stay at the remarkable Dar Ben Gacem. Nestled in the heart of the medina of Tunis, this exceptional bed and breakfast, starting at £98, is housed within a 16th-century courtyard home—a true haven for heritage enthusiasts.

Amidst the bustling modernity of Tunis, Dar Ben Gacem offers a retreat into history, enveloping guests in the charm of its ancient surroundings. The 16th-century courtyard home exudes a timeless ambiance, inviting visitors to step back in time while enjoying modern comforts. The intricacies of traditional architecture, coupled with the warmth of Tunisian hospitality, create an unparalleled experience.

As Tunisia undergoes ambitious redevelopment, epitomized by the transformation of Carthage National Museum into a cutting-edge visitor attraction, Dar Ben Gacem remains a bastion of authentic heritage. While the medina's labyrinthine alleyways outside beckon hagglers and curious explorers, this bed and breakfast provides a serene sanctuary within, where history is not merely preserved but lived.

For travelers seeking a departure from the ordinary, Dar Ben Gacem stands as a beacon of cultural immersion, offering a genuine connection to the storied past of Tunis. In the heart of the medina, where each cobblestone holds tales of centuries gone by, this 16th-century retreat offers not just a stay but an invitation to step into the living history of Tunisia.

"In conclusion, while Tunisia's coastlines glitter with resorts and all-inclusive havens in Hammamet, Sousse, and Djerba, those yearning for a more profound connection to the country's rich heritage will find solace in the heart of Tunis at Dar Ben Gacem. This extraordinary bed and breakfast, nestled within a 16th-century courtyard home, beckons travelers to step into the annals of history. Priced from £98, Dar Ben Gacem offers not just accommodation but a genuine immersion into Tunisia's past.

Amidst the ongoing redevelopment that seeks to modernize Tunisia's attractions, this haven in the medina of Tunis stands as a testament to the preservation of authentic heritage. While the world outside the medina's labyrinthine alleys teems with activity, Dar Ben Gacem provides a tranquil refuge where the echo of centuries past resonates. As Carthage National Museum undergoes a transformation into a state-of-the-art visitor attraction, Dar Ben Gacem remains a sanctuary that allows guests to live amidst history.

For the traveler who seeks more than the ordinary, this bed and breakfast offers a unique blend of traditional architecture, modern comfort, and the warm embrace of Tunisian hospitality. Stepping into Dar Ben Gacem is not just entering a room; it's a journey into the living history of Tunisia. As the medina's cobblestones whisper tales of bygone eras, this 16th-century retreat invites guests to not only stay but to become part of the vibrant tapestry of Tunisian heritage."