Fermé à cause de la grève: closed because of the strike. This phrase has become all too familiar during this visit to Tunisia. I tried to go to Kerkouane, right at the very end of Cap Bon. Two and a half hours by bus from Tunis to Kelibia, then striking a deal with a taxi driver for the rest of the way to this right-out-of-the-way site, only to be met with “fermé à cause de la grève”. Ho hum.
I don’t like to be put off so, despite the high probability that I’d end up staring through the bars of a locked gate, I decided that I’d at least attempt the visit that I’d planned, to Utica.
Utica is situated about 35km north of Tunis. Originally on the coast at the mouth of Medjerda River, the gradual silting up of the estuary means that it is now some 20km inland. Older than Carthage, Utica was founded in around 1100BCE (this date is uncertain and there is some disagreement over its accuracy).
Although the city was originally an ally of Carthage, the relationship began to sour during the First Punic War, and the two cities found themselves on opposing sides. Again in the Third Punic War, Utica sided with Rome, against its now more powerful ex-friend Carthage, and was rewarded when Carthage was defeated. During the Roman Civil War, between the generals Caesar and Pompey (and their supporters), it acted as the focus for Pompey’s supporters after his defeat, but it gradually began to decline during the early Empire, after Augustus moved the seat of provincial government to Carthage. It became a full Roman colony under Septimius Severus, but fell to the Vandals in 439CE.
It was a little bit of a schlep; bus from Tunis to Zama, then walk the 2 miles-ish to the site. The walking route is completely flat, but it was very hot. Still, it was all perfectly do-able.
As expected the site was indeed fermé à cause de la grève, but the Guardian, who was pottering about the garden, very kindly let me in to the museum gardens, and even showed me round😀 . This was a real stroke of luck, as it meant that I got to see this beautiful mosaic-lined pool.
The mosaic-work echoes the maritime nature of the city; the bounty of the sea; and the importance of trade to the wealth on display here.
There was originally a fountain in the pool, as indicated by the hole for the pipe, just at the mouth of the god.
There were also two statues of particular interest. First, this over-life-sized Hercules (or perhaps life-sized. I mean, Hercules was a demi-god after all).
And this hero.
This statue was clearly designed to stand in a niche, probably leaning against the back wall, as not only is the rear unmodelled, it has actually been flattened off, even the back of the head (although not, interestingly, those pert buttocks!).
The Guardian confirmed that the main site was also closed, but he did say that if I walked about 1km down the road to where the fence ends, I’d be able to go onto the site, and if anyone said anything, to say that he’d said it was ok. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so off I went.
Ooh, There’s something in there.
Honestly, I felt like I was going to be arrested any minute. I just ran round the site, wildly snapping as many pictures as I could before I got caught. And I did get caught, eventually. They were very nice about it. A freshen up, a five minute sit down, a drink and a chat, and then I was frog-marched out. They even thought that it was hilarious that the Guardian at the museum had not only told me that I could come in, but also how to get in surreptitiously😀
Here are a few of my very disorganized snaps.
Opus sectile floor in the excavated Insula.
Fountain and sundial in the courtyard of the House of the Cascades.
Decorated basin in the Insula
View across to the second entrance of the Waterfall House.
Opus sectile floor of the Waterfall House.
It’s a great site and I’ll certainly visit again. Perhaps at a more leisurely pace.