"Remeeeember me!" she sings with resounding echo. Yes, Dido, I will remember you. She is the Queen of Carthage, and she is featured in the world's first opera: Dido and Aeneas. Today, I head to what is left of Carthage to see what people there remember now.
There are a lot of different stories about Carthage. One version might go a little bit like this: Elissa was Phoenicia's queen. One day, her jealous brother kills the king, so Elissa has to flee. The Berbers of North Africa grant her refuge, not minding when she starts building a new Empire there. (Elissa is said to be quite charming and full of love for her new country and people.) Along the way Elissa somehow becomes Dido.
Along the way as well, Dido's Empire becomes quite powerful and beautiful and glorious. At some point the renown Hannibal descends from Dido's people, and he Clearly, the Romans do not like that much, and eventually destroy it (around 200 BC). Then, the funny Romans realized that Carthage might be useful and rebuilt it. The mightiness and wonder of the town remains until the Muslim Conquests once again make ruins of the city.
And Dido? I first got to know her under the pitched roof of our Music Department back in high school, where we listened to her notorious lament and the chattered laughs of witches. The love story of Dido and Aeneas -- a warrior that escaped Troy -- has long warmed the hearts of music lovers. Henry Purcell famously melodized the impossible romance: Aeneas has to leave for Rome, which prompts Dido to kill herself. I'm curious to see the stage of all this spectacle.
It is a hot day, totally unsuited for visiting ruins that are all outside. Carthage today lies just outside of Tunis. It is a sleepy, pretty town by the water, and as the Rough Guides writes quite fittingly: The remnants of historic Carthage "consist of a series of widely spaced sites, with only little standing above around level, lurking among the plush villas of Tunis's wealthier commuters" (121). I decide to do the utterly unusual and visit everything by foot.
After a museum, cisterns, theaters, an aqueduct and Roman villas, I decide that the mix of modern town with ancient ruins here and there is charming. Yet, the new-made roads are quite unfitting for a wanderer. Of course that's 100% related to Tunisian tourism. Carthage is said to once have been the main competitor of Rome; today, it stands no chance. A lack of signage, transport and only partly finished excavation make the UNESCO World Heritage beautiful but less interesting than it could be. Americans could easily make this place into Disneyland, and Europeans would be barging on the profits of this huge outdoor museum
And the tourists? "There are good tourists and bad ones," explains one guide. "We only get the bad ones. They do not care about the history and culture. Many do not even enter the museum; they take a picture from the entry over there to say they've been to Carthage and that's it!" As if to underscore her point, a white woman in her 50s with a sunhat, dressed in beige, just took position by the open spaces next to the entry, tiptoeing to catch a shot of some before-Christ dated columns in front of a spectacular view of mountains, sea and Tunis.
I'm torn. At once, I feel most sympathy for the complaints I've heard form many employees here, and I truly feel their yearning for tourists that want more than checking off their bucket list and maybe taking home a souvenir. Most tourists here arrive by boat. They come on cruise-ships that chug from Italy to Malta, and also stop in Tunis for one afternoon. At the port, tour buses and taxis wait for their arrival to then take visitors to ruins, and make a stop in the medina markets.
Nonetheless, I hate that I must admit, that the photo-raker in beige may have been justified in her decision not to enter the museum, for example.
At the same time, I got to wonder certain times if the white dressed woman with her camera was justified. Maybe the museum that she could have seen, with its arbitrary mix of broken pottery, jewelry and coins, and signs in only Arabic and French, wasn't that attractive.
The patron of Carthage's cathedral said to me that culture isn't just for tourists. He said his own goal was to promote Carthage among Carthaginians today (next week he does so with a breakdance show in his time-honored pillars -- he likes the modern-ancient mix). Once locals in Tunisia discover and explore their taste for the historic, a new infrastructure can evolve, and down the road, tourists will benefit as well. Another guide confirms this elsewhere: "Sometimes someone from the town stops by here by chance and ends up marveled. They are surprised to see this old stuff right next to where they live. But most of the people just don't care."
So this is my prescription: Build paths from site to site. Put up signs that explain what one is standing on, and maybe add some images of what these ruins looked like in their prime. Make this a place for learning, maybe add interactive things for children. Hold more events and maybe even dress-up festivals. The Ministry of Tourism could even promote Tunisia as the week long class trip for European high schoolers: education paired with beaches = perfect.
Personally, though, I must say I did enjoy the quiet of the place. I do not mind the walk and heat, and love how open eyes through me from adventure to adventure, or rather conversation to conversation. The benefit of little tourists all around is that locals love talking to one when they ever spot one! And looking for the Queen of Carthage, I even find my modern one. I meet a journalist to talk about the state of tourism, and then I leave with an attractive job offer. Her certainty and knowledge and her attitude are not unlike a Queen. I guess the little bit of Dido that is still around inspires.
And the real Dido and her Aeneas? Well, let's just ignore the fact for now that when the two lovers ostensibly had met, real Carthage had been long destroyed. But the romantic tale that warmed the hearts of music lovers and introduced the world to opera doesn't loose for it. In fact, I think that somebody should (inszenieren) that very opera right here.
Today, Carthage is a beautiful suburb of Tunisia. Judging from the view and flora here, I am not surprised that Dido would have liked it at her time.
Ruins pop up everywhere in between houses of the modern village. The ruins are extremely easy to access and explore.
There are gorgeous details here and there. Unfortunately little signage leads the way, so the tourists must do exploring and guessing work herself.
Where else do you find mosaics that are so well kept... and that you can simply walk on? No ballustrades or guards that keep you away. In fact, there also aren't other tourists. And if you want, you take little mosaic pieces as souvenirs.
At the amphitheater, I was all alone until 5 Italians arrived; they did not even walk up to the site -- where I discovered secret tunnels one could walk through, and marveled at the mix of needle beams and palm trees all around -- but they did attempt to get their 50 Euro bill changed (Tunisia has dinars, and the biggest bill here is the equivalent of 10 euros) to buy a little plate and a little figurine.
The vendor is proud to show me statues of Dido (third from left), Hannibal, Antoine and others. He is also selling coins with Dido's face that he found all over the sites.
Overall, it's worth the visit. And let me tell you: little birds sing songs of Italian archeologists and UNESCO experts that may want to improve the site. But even now, I am happy after a full day of exploration and meeting many people that work at different sites. Private tours and gifts from souvenir salesmen round up the day, and in the end, I rest a little bit on ruins that are hundred times as old as I am, and watch the sun set behind the nearby Presidential Palace.