Tophet

800px-karthago_tophet_2


When I moved to Tunisia, I stayed for a few weeks with an American couple who lived out on the Bay of Tunis, in Carthage.

 

 

You know I’m a history/folklore nerd. So of course my eyes were spinning in my head. I had an old National Geographic image in my head of a Roman soldier and a Carthaginian soldier fighting sword to sword, with the city burning in the background, and Cato screaming Carthago delenda est!

 

 

Nowadays Carthage is a gentle archipelago of suburbs curving north and west of Tunis. A commuter train, the TGM, runs up and down among the communities on the way. I remember riding the train and seeing the Bay of Tunis littered with dirty-pink flamingoes, beautiful from a distance but filthy-looking close up.

 

 

I ended up living in the Tunis medina, which is a story in itself. But I had a copy of the Guide Bleu, the French travel guide, which listed every ruin in Carthage. And I had time on my hands.

 

 

So, over a period of months, I visited every single ruin in Carthage.

 

 

There are the remains of third-century Christian churches. There is the Altar of Saint Monica – just some stones in a cow-pasture, it took me forever to find them – where Monica prayed for her son Augustine before his departure for Rome. There are the spectacular (and largely restored) Baths of Antoninus. There is the Byrsa, where Queen Dido/Elissa measured out her kingdom with an oxhide. There is the nineteenth-century Cathedral of Saint Louis, on a hilltop, with a lovely view, perfect for a picnic.

 

 

And there is the Tophet.

 

 

I first encountered the word in a Kipling poem, and didn’t know what it meant, although the context was grim. The Tophet in Carthage is a small field behind a gas-station, or it was in the mid-1980s. It is full of small stones, and a flat dark foundation.

 

 

This (according to history and legend) was where the Carthaginian god Moloch demanded that children be thrown into the sacrificial fire.

 

 

We are on debatable territory here. According to the Romans, the Carthaginians flung their infant children into the flames here, to satisfy Moloch. To make it worse (how can this be worse?), rich families bought children from poor families and sacrificed them, to avoid sacrificing their own.

 

 

Well, the winners always portray the losers as nastily as they can.

 

 

But the caretaker at the Tophet (after we gave him a small tip) showed us his collection of dozens of small clay jars, with the skeleton of an infant in each one.

 

 

Horrible, horrible.

 

 

Please tell me we’ve changed, and that human beings would never ever do such a vile thing again.

 

 

Although, frankly, I don’t believe it. We’re just as vile and stupid as they were. We’d do it again, if the situation arose, and we believed it fervently enough.

 

 

As Seinfeld said: “I hate people. They’re the worst.”

 


 

 

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About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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