Question: Where in the world did a powerful ancient civilization begin at only the size of an ox hide?
Answer: Byrsa Hill Ruins in Tunis, Tunisia
Before Carthage became one of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean, it was just a small encampment on a hill above the shimmering sea in Tunisia. For nearly 500 years the affluent civilization ruled the classical world, but according to ancient accounts, it all began with the site of Byrsa Hill. Today, the hill contains a small collection of ancient ruins with stunning views of the Tunis Gulf, mountains, and whitewashed villages beyond.
It all began with the Phoenicians, an ancient civilization of the eastern Mediterranean who lived in modern-day Lebanon and Syria. According to writings, the Phoenician Princess Dido left her homeland to sail westward. Her party arrived in North Africa and camped on a hill overlooking what would one day become Carthage. A local Berber chieftain offered her as much land as could be covered by a single ox hide, and outsmarting him, she cut the hide into tiny strips and laid them on the ground from end to end until she had completely covered the hilltop of Byrsa.
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With this advantageous spot secured, the settlement quickly grew and prospered, developing into the civilization of Carthage. It gained its independence from the Phoenicians in 650 B.C.E. and became a large commercial hub in control of the central Mediterranean. Byrsa Hill was its walled citadel and stronghold of military power. With views all the way out to the Gulf of Tunis, the Carthaginians could see any incoming enemy ships.
Carthage existed as a powerful civilization for more than 500 years before the Romans eventually besieged and conquered it in 146 B.C.E. Because of the city’s destruction by the Romans, there are few remains of the original capital city, however, the spectacular downfall of the civilization still captivates minds. While there are only small remains left at Byrsa Hill, the hill is also home to the Carthage Museum which contains a collection of archeological fragments from around the site. On display are fourth-century B.C.E. marble sarcophagi, masks, jewelry, and colorful mosaics.
5 More Ancient Ruins Near Byrsa Hill:
- Baths of Antoninus: Located in Carthage, these are the largest set of ancient Roman bath complexes built in Africa and the third-largest out of the entire Roman Empire. The remains allow you to imagine walking through the different rooms including a hot room, cold room, and gymnasium as the bathers would have millennia ago.
- Tophet Sanctuary: Excavations of this religious sanctuary revealed that during the early days of the city, it was common to sacrifice first-born children to make sure the city was in favor with the gods. Though that practice eventually ended, the sanctuary was used as a cult site up until the Christian era. It’s now a small maze of burial sites and the remains of building foundations.
- The Cisterns of La Malga: Located at the foot of Byrsa Hill, the restored ruins of these huge second-century cisterns once housed Carthage’s water supply.
- Roman Theater and Villas: There is a second-century Roman theater built into a hillside facing the sea which would have fit about 5,000 spectators back in the day. Adjacent to the theater is the Park of the Roman Villas which contains a third-century house.
- The Amphitheater: Less than one mile away from Byrsa Hill are the ruins of a second-century Roman Amphitheater. About 50,000 spectators would have gathered here for mock naval battles. Sadly, the structure has largely been destroyed other than its foundation and a few underground rooms.
Explore Tunisia’s many remarkable ruins, including those of Byrsa Hill, during our New! Tunisia: From the Mediterranean to the Sahara adventure.