Antonine Baths, Antoninus Pius, Carthage, Carthage Presidential Palace, Damous el-Karita Basilica, History, Humor, Malik ibn Anas Mosque, Romans, Tourism, Tunis, Tunisia, Tunisia 2016, Villa of the Aviary
The sun has got its hammer out and the strokes are beating on my brain. Tunis in April usually mixes the heat of an airless August beside a British canal with an extra gentle blusteriness, a constant playful frisking amongst the palms. Today, however, these fans have been switched off. The coolness which pours over the city from the sea is absent. My neck and arms proceed from a smarting, almost luminous pink to a faded wine colour.
I reach a crossroads. The signpost claims that the Antonine Baths are to the south; my guidebook insists they are to the north. I head north. The entrance is actually to the east but this won’t be revealed to me until two or so hours later.
North takes me past the Palace of the Republic. The pigs are jumpy and over-alert, as if it might not be impossible that they would for once use those guns that normally look too cumbersome for them to even hoist up. They peer at me through eyes which are like the spyhole in a front door. I can walk past the palace but I have to remain on the left pavement at all times.
I am sure that a meeting with me would do the President of Tunisia the world of good. I nonetheless resist the temptation to take a detour. I can picture myself climbing through his sitting-room window with my finger wagging, to lecture him about liberalising the state policy on alcohol distribution. The dear man has so much to learn.
On the other side of the palace, back in everyday Tunisia, I realise that I am now way adrift of the Antonine Baths. I will have to follow the road all the way back around to the crossroads. I could just turn in my tracks and walk past the palace again, but I don’t want to worry and upset the police.
The road, the Boulevard de l’Environnement, immediately becomes a hurtling highway. Midway along and to the left-hand side, where you might have otherwise expected them to have put a petrol station, stand the ruins of the Damous el-Karita Basilica. It is a pretty spot, strewn with little mazes of meadow flowers, though the basilica would benefit from an information board, some pictures, and a bit more to help it make its presence felt. The structure is today nothing more than several lines of stone pillars, in a configuration the size of an orchard.
There is nothing here to say how old the basilica is but it is amazingly old. It probably dates from the late fourth or early fifth century and it is no doubt older than the oldest church in the UK. I gather that archaeologists currently despair and puzzle over this site. The ransackings of the nineteenth century had left such a mess that they can no longer interpret a structure which appears to have been repeatedly rebuilt or extended throughout its working history.
If you poke around a little further down the road from this (heading west), there are ominous stairs disappearing underground and, if you are feeling adventurous, a small, ornate subterranean rotunda for you to discover. You can scramble about like Indiana Jones down here. I got the impression that I was the only person to have set foot in the rotunda for years and mine were certainly the only boot prints in the dust. Some archaeologists think that the rotunda was a baptistery; others that an unidentified martyred saint was kept down here.
Like all of the ruins that I will visit today, the basilica is picturesque on a garden scale, with wildflowers marauding everywhere in a hodgepodge of pinks and purples. Christian severity has been lately replaced with unutterable decadence, although the bright minaret of the mosque further along the highway still glares gigantically down upon the ruins.
This is the Malik ibn Anas Mosque, which was completed in 2003. Until 2012 it was named El Abidine Mosque after the now-deposed dictator. You might, at some unblinking reptilian level of unconsciousness, remember it from its depiction on the ten dinar banknote. It is stunning but it has a windswept, out-of-town look, rather like a Toys R Us.
Next on my map, walking south-east down the Avenue 7 Novembre, is a Roman theatre which falls somewhat short of being imposing. A 1960s refurbishment has left its crust of tiered seats looking strangely ageless or indistinguishable from a modern copy. The villas which follow sketch out some Roman farmhouses in a scrappy hand, but lovers of the Bardo can nonetheless get a vivid sense of how its mosaics must have looked when they were at home.
The most complete villa, the “Villa of the Aviary,” features a portico, a peristylium (courtyard), and the substantial remains of mosaics. The villa takes its name from the peristylium mosaic, which is adorned with birds. Another terraced floor contains mosaics in a tile formation which show animals and figures. Headless and armless statues linger around the villa, like partygoers who have turned up in a radical state of undress.
As of late, the villas have been colonised by several seedy characters. One of them places airy discs on the palm of my hand and he tells me that they are coins from the Punic and Augustine periods. They look authentic to my incompetent eye and it is interesting to handle them, but the looming purchase seems rather mad and so I make a polite escape.
Admission to the theatre and villas is gratis with the ten dinar ticket to the National Museum of Carthage (along with access to sites such as the Sanctuary of Tophet). This pricing concedes the unlikeliness of many people paying to see the first two by themselves.
At last, the Antonine Baths. Back at the crossroads I smile fondly at the misleading signpost, as if at the memory of a medina trader who had wildly overcharged me but still talked a bounteous talk. So all along the entrance to the thermes was here, on the road which leads down from the crossroads to the seashore.
The Antonine Baths date from the mid-second century AD. They seem to set in stone Edgar Allan Poe’s musical line about “the grandeur that was Rome.” There appears to be barely a third of the structure intact today, after it was dismantled by various peoples from the Vandals down, but however much is subtracted cannot dent the baths’ surprising enormity. A lone pillar, fifteen metres high, has been restored to convey their original height.
There was a vast frigidarium (cold room) surrounded by a system of differently heated rooms, wrestling-rooms, and gyms. Why has nobody ever tried to build a replica of this extraordinary facility, in Las Vegas or Guangdong province or somewhere similarly favourable?
The idea of the Romans’ grandeur comes to me anew with the realisation that the Antonine Baths, here at one of the southernmost points on the planet that I have ever visited, is named after the same emperor who had ordered the construction of the Antonine Wall less than twenty miles from where my flat is today in Edinburgh.
There is a jumble of ruins to be explored landward of the baths, displayed in a park which looks not unlike a British botanical gardens. The shade is supplied by the fronds of palms and the colours by teeming wildflowers. The ruins include Punic necropoleis, Roman villas, and early Christian chapels, and such a liberal combination gives them the effect of follies dotting English parkland. They are also in a state of quiet distress. The information boards are bleached almost to whiteness by the sun and there are pools of rubbish everywhere, as if there has been a flood.
Carthage in the twenty-first century is given over to the townhouses of playboys and politicians. The Roman sites often resemble leftover slum pockets which nobody wants to visit or acknowledge. These downmarket neighbours are hogging prime land! If only they could be gentrified out.