Byrsa Hill: the Cradle of the Carthaginian Civilization
Probably almost every famous city has a legendary, sacred place — the place where it was founded, which is associated with historical legends, stories of victories, and sometimes bitter defeats. In Tunisia, this place is the hill of Byrsa, where Carthage, the great and powerful city-state of the Phoenicians, was built.
Externally, the hill is not very remarkable: only 60 meters in height, a small area, there are no flowering groves and majestic ancient buildings — only ruins. But the history that is hidden in this place creates a special atmosphere and attracts thousands of tourists to Byrsa Hill.
The legendary history of Byrsa Hill
The history of Carthage foundation is connected with a woman — a strong, brave and independent one — Princess Elissa, or Dido, which means «wanderer». She was the daughter of the Tyrian king, but after the death of her husband and the betrayal of her relatives, she had to flee from her homeland. She arrived on the shores of Africa, where she founded a new state right here, on the hill of Byrsa.
To establish a new settlement, Dido had to show cunning and ingenuity. She decided to buy a piece of land from local tribes, and she was allowed to take just as much land as the bull hide could cover. Dido cut the hide into thin ribbons and surrounded the hill with them. The local king had no choice, and the princess received the land on which the construction of the fortress began.
The hill was called «Byrsa Hill», which can be translated from Greek as «bull skin». Although according to another version, the name comes from the Semitic «fortress» or «rock». The city was founded in the 9th century BC.
Then the city turned into a powerful state that had been controlling the entire Mediterranean for six centuries. It was the largest maritime power. On the hill of Byrsa there was a citadel surrounded by a 3 km-wall. In peacetime, the treasury and state archives were kept here, in wartime it sheltered the inhabitants of Carthage, who were, according to the ancient authors, up to 50 thousand people.
At the top of the hill there was a rich temple of the Phoenician god Eshmun, located on a flat terrace and surrounded by sacred cypresses. There were residential areas on the slopes of the hill even with multi-storey (up to 6 floors) buildings. Below there was the famous port of Carthage with three hundred ships.
Carthage was destroyed in the 2nd century BC by the Romans, who razed the city to the ground. Nothing survived on the top of the hill, archaeologists managed to find the remains of several residential quarters only on the slopes. By the way, the last defenders of the city, who did not want to surrender to the Romans, took refuge on the very top of the hill of Byrsa in the temple of Eshmun, where they were burned by traitors.
The Romans began to build a new city on top of the hill, leveled it, making a flat platform on which the forum, Capitol, library, temples, courthouse were placed. By the way, the center of Roman Carthage was much larger than similar buildings in other cities, including Rome. It was here that the Romans wanted to make the center of the entire province of Africa. However, Roman Carthage was also destroyed by vandals in the 5th-6th centuries.
Another important date in the history of these places is the 13th century, the time of the Crusades. The French king Louis IX died here during the eighth campaign, and he was buried here as well. Subsequently, the Catholic Church canonized him, his relics were transported to France, and a huge cathedral was erected at the burial site. You will find the detailed information about it further.
What can you see on Byrsa Hill?
Visiting Byrsa Hill is one of the most popular excursions in Tunisia. Like many other monuments and cities of Tunisia, it preserves the history of three millennia. And each civilization has left its trace on the hill. What is left here of the great Carthage? Is it possible to feel the spirit of ancient Rome here? What contribution did the French make to the current look of the legendary hill? Let’s talk about everything step by step.
The remains of ancient Carthage
Sections of the city on the hillsides have survived under the Roman mounds. On the south side, archaeologists excavated a residential quarter, which was called the «artisans’ quarter» or «Hannibal’s quarter».
The area was well designed, and the residential buildings were meticulously decorated. The areas of buildings were small, but they could have several floors. Even the crossroads was found, from which the streets branched off and rose in ledges to the top of Byrsa Hill.
Also on the slopes of the hill, scientists found large ablution pools designed for ritual purposes. And under the streets of ancient Carthage there were septic tanks for sewage — a kind of sewer. Archeologists managed to find ancient necropolises and a crypt with the tomb of a young man who was called «the young man from Byrsa».
Finds related to the Punic period of the history of Carthage are very rare. Some of them are displayed in the Bardo Museum in the suburbs of Tunis.
The Romans buried under the new city everything that remained of the hated Carthaginian civilization. But the Roman city today is in ruins as well, and it is difficult to imagine what it looked like during its heyday.
It was already mentioned above which buildings were constructed by the Romans, but only their bases, columns, and several statues, which also suffered greatly, for example, they lost their heads and some body parts, have survived.
Of the Roman buildings, the remains of the basilica, aqueducts, cisterns, the famous baths of Antoninus Pius and the amphitheater, where gladiatorial combats took place and Christians were executed, are preserved.
For those who need to understand what they can see now and what was here before, there are signs with descriptions scattered throughout the park.
Saint Louis Cathedral
Probably the most striking building on the hill, first of all, because of its preservation, is the Saint Louis Cathedral, built at the end of the 19th century by the French on the site of the death of the king Louis IX in the 13th century. It was built in the Byzantine-Moorish style and is believed to stand on the site of the temple of the Phoenician god Eshmun — the main temple of the Carthaginians.
Now it is not used as a Catholic cathedral, it hosts concerts of national and classical music.