Carthage is a remarkable neighbourhood a few miles up the coast from Tunis. It’s dotted with ruins, excavated sites and museums pertaining to the Phoenician, Punic and Roman civilisations, which were the main players in this region’s early history.
In the year-and-a-half that I’ve lived in Tunis, I’ve managed to visit most of the historical and archaeological attractions of Carthage – the Musee de Carthage on top of Byrsa Hill, the amphitheatre, the Roman villas, the Basilica of Dermech and the Sanctuary of Tophet. It wasn’t until five days ago, however, that I made it to the Antonine Baths in the district’s north-eastern corner.
In their day, the Antonine Baths were a leisure complex of saunas, pools and gymnasiums, which ranked as one of the largest such establishments in the Roman Empire. Their ruins stand on a site that slopes down from the TGM railway line and Avenue Habib Bourguiba to the Mediterranean coast. A garden covers the site’s upper half while what remains of the baths themselves occupies its bottom part. The site’s southern side is bordered by a street called Avenue des Thermes d’Antonin, while overlooking its northern side are the grounds and buildings of the Presidential Palace.
(Until last January, presumably, this palace was where ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and his numerous Trabelsi-family in-laws spent their evenings, unwinding after their hectic and stressful day jobs, which consisted of plundering the country’s resources and pocketing its wealth.)
The upper-level gardens are pleasant enough. Criss-crossed with paths and shaded by palms, eucalyptus trees and tangled cacti, they contain underground vaults, a kiln and the ruins of a necropolis and an early Christian chapel. Here are a few pictures of carvings and sculptures that I discovered in the subterranean chambers.
But the baths themselves, ranged along the shore, are the main attraction. Even though the most intact parts of them now are their foundations – an impressively labyrinthine network of vaults, archways and corridors extends below ground-level – there are enough ruins standing above to give you a sense of the complex’s original dimensions. Indeed, one column has been re-erected to its original height of 15 metres, which suggests how its roof must have loomed over the sea.
Construction of the baths started during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the man responsible for the great wall that ran across the far north of England and protected Roman-held territory from unruly Scots and Picts. Did any legionary, during his military career, have the experience of being posted to both these testimonies to Hadrian’s ambition? Imagine the contrast. One year you’re guarding the Antonine Baths, beside the sparkling Mediterranean, in the sultry heat of Carthage. The next, you’re stuck on the top of Hadrian’s Wall in windswept, rain-lashed Northumbria, fearfully on the lookout for marauding hordes of woad-covered, mud-splattered Scots. I know which posting I’d have preferred.
The complex was razed by the Vandals in 439 AD (with the Arabs using much of the stone later in the building of Tunis). Unfortunately, you don’t have to wander far before you notice traces of modern graffiti on the ruins and artefacts here – evidence that not all the Vandals died out in the fifth century.
The item in this last picture might look like a pre-revolutionary relic that was taken from the Presidential Palace – a Michael Jackson-style suspended animation capsule, in which the Trabelsi family kept the moribund and barely-sentient Ben Ali like a cling-film-wrapped pork chop in a freezer. It’s not, however. It’s actually a plastic dome that houses a model of the baths when they were in their post-Hadrian, pre-Vandals, intact and glorious prime.