‘Carthago delenda est’; Carthage must be destroyed.
These were the words of Roman statesman Cato the Elder, who was said to have repeated this statement after every one of his speeches urging the Romans to strike the ancient civilisation.
Carthage’s close proximity to Rome meant confrontation between the two western Mediterranean powers was inevitable.
The ancient city-state in present-day Tunisia, founded by Phoenicians who came from southern Lebanon in the first millennium BC, established itself as a trading and economic centre. It was the birthplace of Hannibal Barca, Rome’s nemesis who recognised its appetite for conquest and dominion and almost toppled the great empire. The general made history as one of the world’s greatest military commanders when he crossed the snow-covered Alps with his war elephants to strike the Romans.
It was after the third Punic (latin for Pheneocian) war and nearly 100 years of conflict with Rome that Carthage was defeated and burned down, never to rise again. Most traces of the thriving Carthaginian civilisation were wiped out by the Romans and the ancient city was rebuilt by Julius Caesar of Rome and turned it into a prosperous Roman province in north Africa.
Today, Carthage is a wealthy suburb of the Tunisian capital Tunis where the ruins of the once-mighty ancient city have attracted tourists for decades.
Tunisia’s modern colonial history, however, is often overshadowed by the remnants of Carthage which narrate tales of Tunisia’s ancient history, against the captivating views of the Mediterranean coast.
Situated on the Byrsa Hill near the Carthage museum and the ruins of the ancient city – recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – lies a building which lives on as a symbol of French colonisation of Tunisia: The Acropolium.
Hussein Bey II, a ruler of Tunisia during the French Protectorate, authorised the French consul-general in 1830 to build a cathedral on the site of ancient Carthage as a tribute to King Louis IX, who died of the plague in Carthage on his way to Jerusalem in 1270 during the eighth crusade.
Saint Louis Cathedral was then built between 1884 and 1890 atop the ruins of an old temple dedicated to the Punic god of healing Eshmun.
Designed by French architect Abbot Joseph Pougnet, the construction boasts Byzantine and gothic influences featuring stunning stained glass, marble columns, decorated wooden beams and sculpted arabesques. The artistic interiors and architecture of the building blend gestures of French and Tunisian designs.
Saint Louis became the home church of Cardinal Lavigerie, the head of the archdioceses of Algiers and Carthage, giving the cathedral primacy in Africa. Known as ‘The Acropolium’ since 1993, the Roman catholic church is no longer used for Worship. The Acropolium today forms part of the contemporary Tunisian cultural scene and serves as a venue for public events and classical music concerts, as Carthage draws artists from around the world every year for one of most renowned Arab and African cultural events; the International Festival of Carthage.
The decision to grant French colonial rulers the permission to erect the now-redundant Cathedral has been a subject of criticism by some.
Further excavations and preservation of the site may have indeed been a valuable investment and more in harmony with the surrounding archeological gems of Carthage. But besides its beautiful interiors, there is definitely something to take away about the history of Tunisia during French colonial times.