Friday, August 2, 2013

History mystery: Carthage Gateway to rich Western trade -2

In Tunisia, they looked inland. Some of the most fertile land in North Africa was within reach of their city. By the time of Agathocle’s invasion they were farming it, producing cereals, livestock, fruit, and vegetables. A Sicilian historian, Diodorus, gives a vivid impression of Agathocle’s soldiers gazing open-mouthed in awe at the abundant orchards and rich country houses of Cape Bon, north-west of the city. Meanwhile, Carthage extended control over the trading bases on the North African coast and the Mediterranean islands. Almost accidentally, an empire was born, and Carthage came to rival the most advanced cities of the Greek world.

Its population was estimated by the geographer Strabo at 700,000. This seems excessive; Athens itself had no more than about 250,000 inhabitants. The figure may refer to Carthage and the territories it administered but a six-figure population is plausible for a city which, at its height, covered an area of 5km2 (nearly 2sq miles), with a further 15 to 25km2 (6 to 9½ sq miles) of suburban villas. Archaeological evidence, once meagre, has grown rapidly since UNESCO launched a ‘Save Carthage’ campaign in 1972. It has emerged that Carthage was every bit as magnificent as the descriptions suggest.

The heyday of the city is termed Late Punic, referring roughly to the years between 30 and 146 BC. (Punic is simply a term of Phoenicians of the west.) The key period in the city’s expansion corresponds with the era when the Carthaginians started farming and established themselves as an imperial power. But remains of an earlier, more modest Carthage have also been found – tombs, a sacrificial precinct, and the debris of a few buildings. The position of these tombs provides fascinating evidence of the city’s growth. Historians believe that, like the Greeks and Romans, the Carthaginians had religious taboos about burial within the city limits, and moved their burial places farther out as the settlement grew bigger. But early cemeteries lie beneath the later town.

For example, 6th century BC burials lie under 3rd and 2nd century BC houses on the hill which dominates the city. The hill is the Byrsa, or citadel, of Carthage – mentioned in ancient texts as the last bastion of the defenders under the final Roman onslaught. On its slopes, archaeologists have discovered one complete insula or block of buildings, with its surrounding streets, and parts of neighbouring insulae and streets. From this evidence the shadowy city begins to take form and substance. The main buildings were grouped around a large market square, which served as a meeting place. On top of the Byrsa was the Temple of Eshmun, the Carthaginian god of healing. The other buildings on the Byrsa – shops and houses – date back to the city’s later days. They seem to have been two storeys high, built of sun-dried brick and stone. Their walls were faced with plaster, and their floors decorated with mosaic and coloured cements. The shops opened onto the street, and people gained access to the houses behind them through corridors leading to small courtyards. Other houses, found by German archaeologists working down on the coast, reveal the same basic plan, but are larger, with colonnades surrounding the courtyards. These were the seaside homes of the wealthy – though the sea view must have been obstructed by the massive city wall in front of them.

 The wall, according to an ancient text, was over 12m (39ft) high and 9m (29½ ft) thick, with arsenals and even stabling for elephants set into its stones. This daunting fortification enclosed the whole of the city, including the harbours and some suburban areas, over a circuit of 32km (20 miles). The harbours were among the most striking feature of ancient Carthage. The two man-made basins, one for merchant shipping and one for military fleets, were connected by a channel of water. Covered dry docks could take in a fleet of 220 vessels. British excavations in the military basin revealed sheds for vessels measuring about 5m (16ft) across and 30m (98 ft) in length. The warships would have been shallow-bottomed oared galleys, which relied on speed for their effectiveness in battle. The harbours were only about 2m (6½ ft) deep, but were extensive; the merchant basin covered some 6ha (15 acres) or more, and the military some 5ha (12 acres). Scooping them out was an impressive feat – it would have yielded some 191,150m3 (6.75 million cu ft) of soil. The work seems to have been carried out as late as the 3rd century BC.

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