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I am discussing the apparent Punic custom of child-sacrifice over dinner with my hosts. I cannot bring myself to believe that the Punics ever really sacrificed their children.

“It reminds me of this,” I say at one point. “You’ll know that British society has a uniquely needy relationship with child-protection. The most radical example of this is something called “shaken baby syndrome.” Every year in the UK around three hundred babies die of “cot death” or sudden infant death syndrome. Experts in child-protection suspect, however, that a proportion of these babies have been shaken to death. Sometimes a parent is put on trial for this, convicted, and sent to prison. This has occurred even when there have been no witnesses or even corroborating marks on the dead baby’s body.

“Some medical experts, rather than experts in child-protection, have questioned whether it is possible to kill a baby by violently shaking it. Since nobody has a baby going spare to test the theory, it can only ever remain a theory. In the end, shaken baby syndrome can only ever be an article of faith. It all comes down to whether you believe that a parent can really kill their baby in the same way that careless children break their toys.”

I am unexpectedly floundering. I seem to have taken us very far from child-sacrifice. “Well, there is just as much evidence that the Punics sacrificed their children as there is for the existence of shaken baby syndrome,” I gibber. “And in the absence of definitive evidence, you have to rely upon how intrinsically innocent you think we are as a species. To me, child-sacrifice sounds so implausible because it is so inhuman. There is basically no core of human plausibility to the narrative. It is surely unreal that any parent could go through years of bringing up a child, to then volunteer it to be burned simply to pep up the weather or to fix a badly-fought war. The stated motivations for child-sacrifice are always so trivial when compared to the parents’ ultimate motivation to keep their child safe and happy.”

One of my hosts has studied and taught ancient Hebrew. He points out something which has not so far occurred to me: that child-sacrifice is relatively central to the Bible’s plot. Abraham marched his own son up the hill in an exceptionally draconian test of faith. Abraham’s faith in his Father was here grotesquely parodied by Isaac’s blind trust in the father who was intent on murdering him. And when God later sacrificed His own son, the strangeness or unnaturalness of this never excited any particular remark amongst His worshippers. Maybe people in past times just had some of the mental equipment which is needed to comprehend child-sacrifice.

The story is told by the Greek historian and Roman propagandist Diodorus Siculus, who was writing over a century after the Romans had burned Carthage. According to him, the Punics had roasted their babies “alive and conscious” on heated bronze statues of Baal Hammon and Tanit. Needless to say, these devices are no longer operational, or even to be seen, at today’s Sanctuary of Tophet. The sanctuary was a sacrificial site and burial ground, which, when it was excavated in the 1920s, gave up over twenty thousand urns of children’s and animals’ ashes. Many of the stelae (or headstones) at the site can be dated to times of hardship. Either lots of children had died naturally during these times or they had been sacrificed in response to them.

If a tophet is a “place of burning,” the Sanctuary of Tophet is today more of a sanctuary. It is located midway down a quiet suburban street, a little out of the way from the rest of Carthage. There is a meandering, tumbling garden, which ranges over its own system of levels, with palms and cacti and fig trees and wildflowers all jostling soundlessly to win your eye.

It took me less than ten minutes to inspect the site. The stelae are dumpy, weather-beaten stone boxes which are occasionally adorned with crude motifs or blotched figures. These stones are all laid out in the simulacrum of a peaceful country churchyard.

There is a dank earthen crypt at one end of the garden, though this is actually a Roman structure. It is cool inside and a single ray of dappled sunlight falls on one hoary old stela, as if to suggestively nominate a spot for a sacrifice. This is as creepy as it gets. The spookiness is all rather hopeless, really. Outside a butterfly plunges past on its circuit and the flowers seem to be tittering amongst themselves at the very idea of what is supposed to have happened here. I am not sure that my internal debate on child-sacrifice should be settled with a bit of sunshine, but it has been.

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