Ancient Civilizations in North Africa

After spending more than two weeks in Portugal, arriving in Tunisia was a complete culture shock. It was loud, chaotic, and the locals primarily speak only French or Arabic, neither of which I’m fluent in (even though I’m half-Egyptian). It’s all part of the adventure though. What’s more, the weather was sunny and a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 25 degrees Celsius), so I could actually wear shorts for the first time during my trip.

For me, the highlight of Tunis was the world-famous Bardo museum, which contains the most extensive collection of ancient mosaics in the entire world. The sheer size and complexity of these mosaics is unbelievable. Many were decked out in elaborate patterns consisting of Roman and Greek gods, floral patterns, animals, and words inscribed in Latin. Their state of preservation is amazing, especially considering that most of the mosaics date back to around 2000 years old.

It was also interesting to wander around the old medina, which is a labyrinth of narrow, winding alleyways and tiny souks (shops). Even though I’m not much of a shopper, the atmosphere was fun to soak up, and felt a bit like stepping back in time (especially considering there are no cars inside the medina).

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The medina at Tunis

Aside from the Bardo museum and the medina, Tunis doesn’t have a ton of interesting sights. However, it makes a good base for some fantastic side trips. One of these places is Carthage, which was the capital of the ancient Roman empire in Africa. Prior to that, it was the capital of the Phoenician empire, before it was conquered, destroyed, and then rebuilt by the Romans. Unfortunately, much of the ancient city has not been well preserved, but there are still some interesting sites. Foremost of these are the Roman Baths, which are the largest outside of Rome and are still in a pretty good state of preservation. Since the archaeological sites in Carthage are pretty spread out around the city, it requires a lot of walking to see them all (unless you want to splurge a bit and hire a taxi for a few hours).

After Carthage, I paid a visit to the nearby seaside town of Sidi Bou Said. This small town is right on the Mediterranean, and is spattered with beautiful whitewashed buildings. Wandering around felt like being on one of the Greek islands, like Mykonos. After wandering around town for a bit and soaking up the relaxed atmosphere and great views, I stopped in one of the local restaurants for some fresh fish, which is known to be Sidi Bou Said’s specialty. Needless to say, it lived up to its reputation.

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Whitewashed houses on the Mediterranean in Sidi Bou Said

The following day I look a louage (shared taxi) to visit Dougga, a World Heritage site and the most extensive Roman ruins in North Africa. Sitting for two hours in a cramped minivan was slightly uncomfortable, but what’s more, the van dropped me off in a town that’s still about a 15 minute drive from the archaeological site itself. While trying to figure out how to get there, a college kid in his early twenties drove up on a motorbike and asked if I was going to Dougga. Thinking that he was a taxi driver, I asked him how much, but he didn’t want any money. Apparently, his mother was in the same louage as me, and when she found out that I was heading to Dougga, she called her son to take me to the site. He not only drove me to the ruins and back, but we ended up hanging out for almost three hours while exploring the site. The hospitality of the woman and her son (whose name is Oussama) was really touching and heartwarming, and is something I won’t soon forget.

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Ancient Roman city of Dougga

Speaking of Dougga, the city itself is massive, and we practically had the whole place to ourselves, which is very rare for a World Heritage site. The ruins are spectacular and really well-preserved. Near the entrance, there is a large amphitheatre with great acoustics (I can imagine watching a performance there from 2000 years ago). In the center of the city, there is an imposing huge temple which was used for worship of the gods. Another highlight is a 60-foot tall mausoleum near the outskirts of the city, which was actually Punic in origin and predates the Roman occupation. Apparently, it was kept intact when the Romans conquered the region. Aside from these highlights, the city is littered with ancient statues, plaques, baths, tombs, and arches. I have visited many ancient Roman cities during my travels, and I have to admit that this is one of the most impressive that I have seen.

After spending a few days exploring in and around Tunis, I was becoming more accustomed to the change in culture, and starting to feel more confident and comfortable getting around. It was time to head further south to Sousse, and to experience some more ancient Roman and Islamic history.

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