Tag Archives: tunisia

Lesson from Carthage: How to catch an octopus, defeat an empire

Almost all that remains of the ancient city of Carthage is a small harbor on the peninsula outside Tunis. The Romans leveled and burned the rest of the city at the end of the Third Punic War. Many more recent cities have since been built over the rest of the Carthaginian remains. “Carthage” is now an upscale suburb of Tunis.

From Google Maps:


The harbor is now a fishing port, used by the small, colorful boats that are common in many Tunisian ports.







IMG2587Stacked along the dock were piles of ceramics, each threaded with ropes or netting. These are octopus traps. Thinking they have found a good rock nook, octopuses slide inside the submerged containers. When the fishermen pull on cords, the jostling alarm causes the octopus inhabitants to hunker down. Fear is their undoing. There is an unfortunate echo of the two-thousand-year-old history of this harbor, as the Carthaginians used a similar strategy of holing up, one that the Romans overcame, ending Carthage’s rule.

Now, though, the harbor is peaceful, inhabited by fish-scrounging cats, a few local kids at play, and fishermen joking as the stow their pots.





Birding at the Bardo

Some of the world’s best preserved Roman mosaics are housed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, and the Archaeological Museum in El Jem, just a little south of Tunis. They date from the time of the “Roman African Province,” 146 BCE–435 CE, a time of great prosperity (for some). After the defeat of the Carthaginians, what is now Tunisia become a trading and agricultural hub in the Roman empire. The wealthy built many large, lavish houses, some of which were eventually buried under sands and rubble until the last century. Now, they stand in fabulous museums in Tunisia.

The mosaics are often huge, several meters in both dimensions. A few are comprised of geometric designs, but most show scenes from mythology and everyday life. The mosaic artists’ work is remarkable for its attention to the particularities of natural history: local birds, fish, and other species are represented with skill and often a touch of humor.

A painful beach scene:


Some ornithology: swallow, hoopoe (fairly common in rural areas, even today), crane, owl (standing as a symbol of defeat over envy, according to the signage), a peacock, moorhen, quail, what appear to be some thrushes ready to be made into pie, and, finally, a bird being made into pie.





















IMG2737Sadly, the museums are empty of visitors. We walked through hall after hall, alone save for museum employees. The same is true in much of Tunisia. A country whose coasts were thronging (and thonging) beach holiday resorts and whose cultural sites were popular destinations for history and archaeology buffs now receives few foreign visitors. Miles and miles of beach hotels stand completely empty, as if the Rapture had taken away all the lovers of blue seas, discos, and seafood. Historical sites — Roman, Carthaginian, Byzantine, French colonial — are visited by local schoolkids and few others. Two bombings by extremists succeeded in closing down a thriving tourist economy. The terrorists got exactly what they wanted: travel warnings from Western countries that stemmed the flow of foreign money to the only remaining Arab Spring democracy.

We tolerate all kinds of risks in life, but if a minuscule risk comes from a jihadist, our governments capitulate, promulgating the message of fear, enclosure, avoidance. Travel in the last years in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and now in Tunisia, all areas flagged as “dangerous” by State Department warnings, suggests to me that a more productive approach might be one of informed engagement.

To whet the appetite, the Roman amphitheater at El Jem. Seating for 35,000. Gladiator and animal rooms still intact. Walk right in…only a nesting kestrel in the high arches and some schoolkids for company:





Photo credits: David Haskell, Katie Lehman

Sebkhet Halk el Menjel

Underfoot: the crunch of thousands of shells. On the nose: a tang of salty algae. In the eyes: dust thrown here from the Tunisian deserts and over-plowed olive plantations to the south.

The lake was a surprise, a silver sheet interrupting a day’s drive through scrub and bare soil. As we approached, the sheet expanded, nearly thirty thousand acres of shallow water.


On the southern shore, shells were blown into drifts, a molluscan gravel onto which the wind also piled the discards of humanity.



Looking down into the lake, at first we saw only multicolored bivalve shells. Then, motion: turning, spinning, leaping. Tiny shrimp-like creatures, almost translucent.


These brine shrimp (Artemia, see a pair just to the right of the black pebble above) are among the few animals that can survive the hyper-saline waters of this lake. They feed by filtering specialized halophile bacteria and algae from the lake’s shallow waters.

Birds, including thousands of flamingos, are drawn by the abundance of shrimp. Like the shrimp themselves, flamingos filter the water for their food, pumping tongues through sieve-like beaks. Long experience with humans has taught the birds to stay away from the lake edges, but we approached close enough to hear the sluicing sound of shrimp-filled water squiring through lamellae in flamingo beaks.


This lake is one of many “Sebkhets,” salt lakes, in central Tunisia. The water seems to taunt the donkeys, camels, and goats that live around them: great expanses of liquid in a parched land, yet utterly undrinkable. To the north, more abundant Mediterranean rains turn the land green and hospitable. Further south, the taunting ends where the Sahara begins.


Photo credits: David Haskell, Katie Lehman