Tunisia Archaeology


The Carthage Museum, Amphitheatre, Theatre & Roman villas
The Byrsa quarter of Carthage, recently discovered by French archaeologists, dates from the time of Hannibal and gives an idea of urban life in the early second century BC. When the Romans returned to rebuild Carthage they covered over the ruins of the 146 BC construction on Byrsa Hill with thick layers of rubble and earth thus preserving the whole site.

Here there is the large cathedral named in honour of St Louis and seminary (now the museum), constructed by the French during the Protectorate which has been made into a cultural centre. On the southern slope are the remains of the Punic residential quarter (second century BC) built in a regular rectangular grid, houses, water tanks, drains, plastered walls, tiled floors. Down the other side of the hill the amphitheatre is on one side of the road and a collection of cisterns on the other. Returning towards the sea down Avenue 7th November on the left is the theatre behind which lie the Roman Villas. If you visit the Basilicas of Damou and St Cyprien next then backtrack to the Baths of Antoninus, you will have visited all the major sites and be back at the TGM station.

The Magon Quarter dating from the fifth century BC is approached down Avenue de la Republique. It was destroyed in 146 BC and rebuilt under Caesar Augustus. Following the excavations by the German Archaeological Institute, the site was turned into a garden and it is possible to walk along the restored Roman road by the sea front. A small museum displays household items, found during excavations. Models and diagrams illustrate the development of the Punic settlement and the rebuilding a century after its destruction.

In the amphitheatre, built during Hadrian's reign and capable of seating 35,000 spectators, early Christians were thrown to the lions and gladiators as entertainment for the audience. There is very little to see since only limited excavation work has been carried out. The cisterns at La Maalga, behind Le Phenix de Carthage entertainment complex, were the main reservoirs for the Carthage water supply. Their very size and complexity is a good indication of the population of the ancient city.

The Odeon Quarter is set to the west of the railway and Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The Roman theatre, which could hold 10,000 spectators, is located in the Odeon area, though most of what can be seen is a restoration. The original pieces exist only in fragmentary form, but at least give an idea of what the entire seating area of the monument was once like. The semicircular orchestra with some of its original marble flooring can still be seen too. The International Carthage Festival is held here every year.

Also on Odeon Hill, north of the theatre, are a series of excavations of Roman villas and similar buildings, reached via the entrance at the nymphaion with its water feature. The villas are of classical proportions, built around the peristyle or central pillared courtyard giving access to the main living rooms. The famous and now restored fifth-sixth century House of the Aviary has an octagonal garden in the middle of its courtyard. Many of the artefacts on show here in the house, including statues and a bust of Dionysus, are from other sites at Carthage. Other adjacent villas such as the House of the Horse and the Odeon itself are worth a visit. The Odeon was an indoor theatre but only its confused ruins remain - most of the material has long gone, used to construct new buildings.
The Antonine Baths, once the biggest baths in North Africa and the third largest in the Roman world, were truly enormous. They are in a splendid position between Avenue Habib Bourguiba and the sea and are one of the best preserved sites in Carthage.

El Jem

Main amphitheatre
The size of the remaining monuments at El Djem give a clear indication of the size of the original city. The huge Amphitheatre, 148 metres long by 122 metres wide, has a perimeter of over 425 metres. The long axis of the arena is 65 metres and the shorter axis 39 metres. The tiers rose to more than 35 metres providing seating for a capacity of 45,000 spectators. It was the third largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire and the most famous and best preserved in Africa. Construction is attributed to Emperor Gordien I and probably began in the second century between 230 and 238 AD. The theatre was used for 'live entertainment' of the gladiator variety and some of the bloodthirsty events are recorded in the mosaics found here.

Later the Amphitheatre was used as a rebel stronghold famed for the underground tunnels leading from El Djem to the sea. In 1695, Mohammed Bey ordered a hole to be made in the amphitheatre's walls to prevent its use during any further uprisings by the local population. This hole was further enlarged in 1850 and after this the theatre became a good source for building stones. The bulk of the original building still remains though and makes an impressive sight. The theatre is open daily from dawn till dusk.

Other excavations
El Djem has two smaller amphitheatres, one built on top of the other. These are found to the south of the main amphitheatre on the other side of the road to Sfax. The older one dates from the first century and was cut into the rock. The second one, which was used up to the construction of the large amphitheatre, was built against the hillside on top of the first. Behind the museum there is a group of villas bounded by a Roman necropolis to the south and a well preserved, paved street to the east.

The large number of fine Roman villas excavated at El Djem is an indication of the wealth of the town. The dwellings, built round an inner courtyard and surrounded by a colonnaded gallery, were paved with colourful mosaics depicting mythological themes. Mosaics from the earlier excavations of these villas are now displayed in the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, in Sousse and in the local museum in El Djem. In the more recently discovered villas the mosaics have been left in situ. The baths cover a surface area of over 2,000 square metres and also contain some fine mosaics. The Archaeological Museum, clearly signed is set in a replica of a Roman villa. It contains some lovely mosaics, including one showing Orpheus charming animals with his music. The museum is open 0700-1900 in summer and 0730-1730 in winter.

Music Festival
El Djem has hosted an annual International Music Festival since 1986 which takes place in late July/ early August in the Amphitheatre. The festival usually concentrates on European symphony and chamber orchestras and opera.


Sbeitla contains at least seven religious buildings and is an indication of the strength of early African Christianity in Tunisia. The Arch of Diocletian which formed part of the old walls to the south of the site is the first feature to strike the visitor. The Byzantine quarter consists of the remains of three forts/dwellings and the nearby Byzantine church is dedicated to Saints Gervais, Protais and Tryphon. There are also some baths in pretty poor condition. Towards the central area is a large cistern which supplied water to the city. Close by are the remains of a large public baths, with hot and cold rooms and a mosaic decorating the room. The nearby fountain is one of three public fountains dating from the fourth century. Overlooking the Oued SbeItla is the theatre - the tiers are in ruins but the orchestra pit is still visible as are the colonnades near the stage.

The capitol
The capitol is entered through the Arch of Antonius Pius. This gateway was built in the style of a triumphal arch and formed part of the ancient walls. The arch can be dated between 138 and 161 AD thanks to an inscription which refers to the Emperor Antonius Pius and his two adopted sons, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

The three temples opposite this gate are assumed to be dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva. The central temple was the grandest but the temple of Minerva has the more elegant columns. The Forum, paved with huge stone slabs, is a highly impressive sight.

The 'Episcopal group'
The episcopal group of buildings to the northeast, comprises two churches, a baptistery, a chapel and small baths. The Basilica Bellator. excavated in 1907 is named after a fragment of inscription found there. Measuring 34 metres by 15 metres, the building has a central nave, two side aisles and a double apse. The mosaic floor in the choir still remains. The adjacent Basilica Vitalis is a later, larger building. It has five naves and double apses. A marble table decorated with biblical themes found here is now in the Bardo Museum.

The museum
The recently constructed museum contains exhibits from the Libyan period, the early Roman period, and Christian, Muslim and Byzantine times. There are also many items from Sufetula and Sbiba.

Visiting the site
Open 0830-1730 winter and 0600-2000 in summer. Closed Monday, entrance 2Dt, photo fee 1Dt.


Dougga, one of the most important sites of the country has a Libyco-Punic mausoleum, a capitol, a theater, thermal baths, monumental arches, temples and extremely well preserved houses.
Of Numidian origin, Dougga is representative of the Romano-Africa civilizations, an original and brilliant civilization which witnessed the birth of numerous cities and developed its own architectural style as well as the flourishing art of mosaïcs.

The Roman ruins are spread out across a plateau and on to the steep side of the djebel overlooking the Cued Khaled. It was originally a Numidian town allied with Rome against Carthage. As a consequence, after the downfall of Carthage, the town was granted a certain degree of independence. Romanization only started towards 150 AD, after two centuries of coexistence. By the time Carthage had been rebuilt by the Romans, Dougga had become the economic and administrative centre of a very rich agricultural area. It also controlled the route to the coast, and enjoyed great prosperity. Having become a Roman colony by the end of the second century, the town reached the height of its wealth under the rule of Septimius Severus. Its downfall in the fourth century was caused by the heavy duties paid to the Romans and religious quarrels. When the Vandals invaded, most of the population had moved to Teboursouk.

The ruins
Dougga, at 25 hectares, is one of the largest of the Roman sites in Tunisia and certainly one of the most dramatic. The ruins are on a sloping site, a superficial visit takes an hour or so.
The concentration of well preserved or well restored Roman buildings makes Dougga stand out. The site is open 0830-1730 winter and 0700-1900 summer, closed Monday.

The Theatre
The Theatre was originally built in 168/9 AD, and is a typical example of a Roman theatre. It could seat 3,500 people on its 19-semicircular tiers, in three stages, cut into the hill slope. The seating was closed off at the top by a portico, since destroyed. Some of the columns have been re-erected on the stage, but now that the back wall of the stage has disappeared the seating area provides a panoramic view of the plain below.

The central area
At the heart of the Ancient Thugga was the capitol, with the Temples of Augustan Piety and Mercury adjoining. The Forum and the Market were close by. The Temple of Augustan Piety was a small raised sanctuary with an even smaller vestibule entered from the west by a small stair. The engraving on the architrave supported by columns with Corinthian capitols indicated its name and use.

Approaching the forum and the great mass of the main temple, the visitor comes to the Square of the Winds, which is named after a compass-based inscription naming 12 winds cut into the paving. This square has in fact a semicircular wall at its East End, behind which stands the Temple of Fortune and Temple of Augustan Piety.

Temple of Mercury
The Temple of Mercury was constructed between 180 and 192 AD and composed of three chapels, the rectangular central one being larger; the lateral chapels, much smaller, are almost hemispherical in plan. All three are dedicated to the same god, Mercury. This temple, dedicated to the god of, among other thing trade, faces towards the market.

The Market is bordered on its two longer sides by a series of small shops which were built under the portico - now vanished. Each shop was exactly the same size, 2.8 metres by 2.7 metres. In the centre stood a fountain. The south end held a large alcove, which probably held a statue of Mercury. To the right and the left of this alcove, a doorway leads out to separate stairways which descended to rooms below.

The Capitol has an impressive set of steps and six huge fluted monolithic columns over eight metres high on the edge of the portico. It was built between 166 and 169 AD and dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The Corinthian capitols on these huge columns support an architraved frieze, bearing a dedication to the Triad for the salvation of the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Behind the portico is a cellar 13 metres by 14 metres, entered by a central doorway and divided into three parts, each with a niche in the end wall. The central, largest niche once held a white marble statue of Jupiter and the smaller side niches statues of the other two deities. Beneath the podium constructed to lift this capitol to its elevated position is a crypt, in three compartments and used at one time as a fort.

The open piazza in front of the Capitol at the base of the staircase opens on the West Side into an open space which is the Forum, also dating from the end of the second century. It was the centre of public life and administration. Few of the original 35 columns (red veined marble from Chemtou with white capitals) and base remains. The floor beneath the porticos which once surrounded three sides of the building was mosaic tiles. At the Forum, traces of the Byzantine fortifications can be seen to the north and south of the Forum. The fort covering some 2,800 square metres in fact enclosed both the Forum and the Capitol and the gateways to the north and south. Much of the stone used to construct this fort was taken from older buildings on this site.

Also close to the central area is the small Temple of Tellus, the goddess of crop fertility. Close by are the remains of a building referred to today as the Dar el Acheb. It was probably a temple originally. The four rectangular basins enclosed in the larger rectangular building were accessed from a door to the north.

The Arch of Severus Alexander and around
Close to the central area are the Arch of Severus Alexander and the Temple of Juno Caelestis. Close to the Arch is the Temple of Caelestis, also constructed during the reign of Alexander Severus, a few years before Christianity began to gain a hold in this part of North Africa. The rectangular sanctuary, once entirely enclosed by columns, is approached by an elegant flight of steps. There is a large, closed semi-circular courtyard with a portico on the curved side.

Licinian Baths and around
This third-century gift to the city by the Licinii family is a very large and complicated building. The furnace room, the hot room with the pipes visible in the walls, the cold room and the palaestra or exercise room remain.

The Temples of Concordia, Frugifer and Bacchus were constructed between 128-38 AD. The Temple of Bacchus is the largest and has a large square central area flanked by porticos, while at the northwest side are five rooms, the largest in the centre, while in the opposite direction was a small theatre, seats still present.

Below the Licinian baths, heading away from the Forum, is a complex area of ruined housing where you can also see sections of the ancient Numidian walls, part of the same fortifications running north of the Theatre and west of the Temple of Saturn. In this neighborhood is the well-preserved House of Dionysus and Ulysses, where part of the first floor still survives.

The lower residential area
Below the Licinian Baths is an area where city homes and a further, smaller, bath complex have been excavated. The House of the Trifolium dates from the third century and is the best-conserved and largest house discovered on the site. It is built on two levels with the entrance at street level and the rooms a floor below. The stairs on the north side of the house lead to a rectangular central garden or viridium. There was a small semicircular pool at one end, surrounded by a portico with a mosaic floor.

Next to the House of the Trifolium, the Cyclops' Baths are named after the magnificent mosaic taken from the floor of the cold room here and now on display at the Bardo Museum. The baths are not in a very good state, except for the communal latrine. The mosaic, dated as fourth century, shows the three giants, the Cyclops, working at the forge in the cavern belonging to Vulcan who was the god of Hell. Further down towards the Libyco-Puriic Mausoleum is the House of the Gorgon, named after the mosaic discovered here showing the Gorgon's head held in the hand of Perseus.

The Numido-Punic Monument
In the lower part of the city is the Numido-Punic Mausoleum one of Tunisia's most famous pre- Roman ruins. Dating from the second century BC, the monument hints at a faint influence of Hellenistic models. The mausoleum is dedicated to the Numidian Prince Ateban who was a contemporary of Massinissa. The three-storey tower rises from a plinth of five steps and culminates in a pyramid. The central section is reminiscent of a Greek temple.

The Arch of Septirnius Severus (193-211 AD) was built in this emperor's honour in 205 AD after Thugga was made a municipium at his command, giving the community at Thugga partial rights of Roman citizenship. The arch marked the eastern entrance to the city, sitting astride the main road to Carthage.

Theatre to the Temple of Caelestis
Moving away from the theatre, there are views on your right towards Teboursouk and the ground drops away in a steep cliff. You will come to the Sanctuary of Neptune, a small rectangular sanctuary down off the plateau built near the now non-existent road that led to the Temple of Saturn.

Further on is the Temple of Saturn (195 AD), its dominant position overlooking the valley, signaling the importance of the cult. Apparently it was built over the site of an earlier Baal- Hammon-Saturn sanctuary. It is aligned almost east-west. The outer vestibule leads into the rectangular central courtyard, which originally had a gallery on three sides. At the west end are three equal-sized chapels. The central chapel once contained a marble statue of Saturn and that to the left a statue of a man dressed in a toga, the benefactor. Approaching the Sanctuary of Neptune from the Theatre, there is a small Christian cemetery in which stands the Christian basilica (fourth-fifth century AD).

The Cisterns of Ain Mizeb were made up of seven long reservoirs (each 35 metres by five metres) set one metre apart, which stored water from the spring to the west. The method of construction and the lining to prevent leakage can still be examined where these cisterns are exposed. Having separate compartments prevented total loss if one part was damaged and permitted cleaning and repairs without cutting off the supply. The Cisterns of Am el Hammam are five parallel reservoirs (each 34 metres by three metres) and one short one across the end all fed from a spring a distance to the southwest.
After the cisterns, the Arch of Severus Alexander is clearly visible. The Temple of Caelestis is on your right, and turning left, you head back towards the central part of the city.


Kerkouane is listed as a UNESCO World Heritagesite and dates from Punic times. In Kerkouane, the outlay of an entire city can be viewed and gives an amazing insight into the town planning of the times. It is thought to have been built in the sixth century BC and probably abandoned after the Romans conquered Carthage in 146 BC. The ruins of Kerkouane were discovered in 1952 by Charles Saumagne and Pierre Cintas, and it has been excavated ever since

Arg el Ghazouani
500 metres northwest of the ancient town lies a burial area with vaults carved into a hill side looking out over the sea. This necropolis was discovered by chance by a local teacher, in 1929. The tombs contained scarabs, jewellery, and black-figure ceramics, which the teacher took full advantage of by ransacking the tombs and selling most of the treasure. More cumbersome items and were broken up to fill in already ransacked tombs.

After the finds at Arg el Ghazouani became common knowledge, archaeologist Cintas began to research tombs elsewhere in the region. Some tombs survived the pillaging and remained unopened into the 1960s and later. In July 1970, a tomb at Arg el Ghazouani was found to contain a wooden sarcophagus, its lid carved with the bas-relief image of a woman. This piece can be viewed today in the site museum.

The site museum
The vast majority of exhibits were discovered in the burial grounds near Kerkouane. Many of the finest tomb finds, discovered before Punic archaeology took off in the 1950s, found their way abroad. The Fragonard museum at Grasse, for example, has a fine collection of perfume flasks.

Last Updated on Monday 23rd November 2009