Historic Sites

Tunisia has a wide variety of historical settlements – Punic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic – many of which are in excellent condition.

Holidaymakers staying in the main beach resorts will find organised excursions are available to the most important sites.

It is usually possible to reach lesser-known ruins by public transport but hiring a car may be a more practical option.

CARTHAGE: Founded by the Phoenicians in 814 BC, Carthage thrived as a maritime centre and later became the third largest city in the Roman Empire before being destroyed by the Arabs in AD 692. Although it is Tunisia’s best-known archaeological site, it is not particularly easy to navigate. The ruins are scattered over quite a large area in what is now an upmarket commuter suburb of Tunis.

Since a complete tour requires a whole day, it is probably more rewarding to make two shorter trips.

The best view of the whole site is from Byrsa Hill which was the heart of the city in Punic times.

Carthage’s key attractions include the Antonine Baths which – outside of Rome – were once the largest baths in the Roman Empire. Visitors are not allowed to enter the Baths but can study them from a viewing platform. Heat was provided by an underground system of furnaces and – very much like a modern day spa – there were a series of hot rooms, a cold plunge pool and the Roman equivalent of a Jacuzzi.

The Punic Ports, now little more than ponds, once provided berths for more than 200 naval vessels. Similarly, little is left of the Theatre of Hadrian which was built in the second century.

Tophet was used for child sacrifices. Urns have been unearthed containing the ashes of more than 20,000 boys aged between two and 12 sacrificed by the Carthaginians in the eighth century BC.

EL JEM: This small town 80km (city map) south of Sousse would be like dozens of others in Tunisia were it not for its giant amphitheatre – one of the country’s truly remarkable sights.

Only slightly smaller than the Colosseum in Rome, it is better preserved and seems much more imposing, partly because it is situated at the end of a street of modern houses.

Built between 230 and 238 in what was then the busy market town of Thysdrus, the amphitheatre could seat crowds of more than 30,000. Even if being built today it would be considered an impressive achievement but without modern construction equipment, the task must have been gargantuan. Blocks of sandstone were transported from quarries 32km (20 miles) away while water was carried 16km (10 miles) through an underground aqueduct.

The amphitheatre was used both for festivals and for dawn to dusk gladiatorial contests when petty criminals were pitted against wild animals in fights to the death.

DOUGGA: Tunisia’s best-preserved Roman ruins enjoy a lofty setting 96km (60 miles) southwest of Tunis. Formerly known as Thugga under the Numidian king Massinissa in the second century BC, under Roman rule Dougga had a population of up to 10,000. The site’s main attraction is its well-preserved Capitol built in 166 BC which is dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Its theatre, which could seat up to 3500, is still used by a summer touring company. Visitors with an earthy sense of humour may be amused by the rather cosy, horseshoe-shaped arrangement of 12 latrines in the Baths of Cyclops while the House of Trifolium is thought to have been the town’s brothel.

BULLA REGIA: Situated 72km (45 miles) south of Tabarka, Bulla Regia is another impressive Roman site. Its most notable feature is its underground dwellings which were used by wealthy residents to escape the summer heat. The villas were paved with beautiful mosaic floors, some of which remain exactly where they were created, undisturbed for centuries.

THUBURBO MAJUS: Although it was first settled in the fifth century BC, most of the ruins at Thuburbo Majus are from Roman times when the town was an important regional trading centre with a population of around 8000. A sprawling site within an easy day trip of both Tunis and Hammamet, the best-preserved structures include the Forum, Capitol and Winter Baths.

KERKOUANE: Some 8km (5 miles) north of Kelibia are the remarkable remains of a Punic town. Destroyed in 236 BC, it was unearthed in 1952 and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. There is an adjoining museum housing pottery, jewellery, wooden carvings and funerary statues.

SBEITLA: The most southerly of Tunisia’s major Roman sites, Sbeitla is noted for its massive triumphal arch just before the entrance and for its Forum built in 139 BC. A more modern structure on the site is the sixth-century Basilica of St Vitalis with its attractive baptismal font decorated with mosaics.

UTICA: Close to Tunis, Utica was once an important Roman port but now lies 11km (7 miles) inland. Its ruins include part of a once-massive public baths complex and the House of the Waterfall which belonged to a wealthy private citizen.