During the past 28 centuries, the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Ottomans and French have all come to Tunisia to trade, conquer, or explore. Now it was our turn.
From October 22 to November 4, 2010, Jeanne and I made our way along a great circuit - from the cool breezes of the Mediterranean in the north, to the warm sands of the Sahara in the south, then back through the olive tree groves of the eastern coast.
Our trip began where much of North Africa's history began - in the legendary city of Carthage.
For 1500 years the city of Carthage dominated the Northern Africa region. Founded by the Phoenicians perhaps in 814 BC, destroyed then rebuilt by the Romans around 146 BC, briefly the capital of the Vandals, Carthage finally succumbed to the Muslims in 698 AD.
"Carthage must be destroyed!" So ended every speech made by the great Roman orator Cato. And in 146 BC, the Romans carried out the task, defeating their great rival and systematically burning Carthage to the ground.
But a century later, Julius Caesar proposed resurrecting Carthage. By 29 BC, at the direction of his successor Augustus, new temples, libraries, and hundreds of housing complexes were rising from the ashes of the old Punic city.
Today almost all that is left of Carthage is of Roman origin. Our guide (Akram Khélifa) points out some of the ancient Roman remnants, indecorously positioned on their sides.
As we walked through the massive ruins of the Baths of Antoninus Pius, it was astonishing to realize that this was just the basement of an immense bath house, once the largest in the entire Roman empire.
The main floor of the Antonine Baths would have begun on top of the foundation pillar beside me, and its ceiling would have been supported by massive Corinthian columns, only one of which (behind me) remains intact.
Carthage's heyday as the second largest city in the western Roman empire would last until the 5th century AD. In 429 it would be overrun by the Germanic Vandals, then a century later briefly retaken by the Romans only to be leveled -- this time permanently -- in 698 AD by the Arabs.
Looking at the remnants of this once great power center, we shared the sentiments of the 19th century traveler Edward Blaquière who wrote "Any man who could survey the ruins of Carthage with indifference or not call to mind the scenes of its past glories and misfortunes must, indeed, by devoid of sensibility."
Overlooking the Baths of Antoninius Pius, we posed for our first "We Were There" self-portraits. (Note: the white wall in the background marks the perimeter of the Prime Minister's compound.)
The Dark Side of Carthage? - During our visits to Carthage we visited the only ruins remaining from the pre-Roman Punic era -- a small cemetary called the Tophet. Here hundreds of graves have been found, all of small children. Could this be evidence of Carthage's rumored "dark side" -- the ritual sacrifice of children? Historians are unsure.
The headstone of a child grave. Some scholars believe that the Romans concocted the story of child sacrifice to justify their total destruction of the "evil" city.
The original Phoenicians built Carthage on a hill. Legend has it that a Phoenician princess escaping from Tyre (in today's Lebanon) conned a local Berber king into granting her all the land she could cover with an ox hide. She cut the strips of hide so thin as to encircle the entire hill now called Byrsa Hill -- Byrsa being the Greek word for "ox hide."
Today at the crest of Byrsa Hill is the former St. Louis Cathedral. Built by the French in 1884 in tribute to the French king Louis IX (or "Saint Louis") who died in Carthage in 1270 leading the last Crusade, the cathedral has now been "deconsecrated" by the Catholic church and renamed the Acropolium.
There is also a museum at the crest of Byrsa Hill which displays mosaics, sculptures, and artifacts from the pre-Roman and Roman eras.
The exquisite artistry of the ancient stone carvers always amazes us.
Today the ancient ruins of Carthage are a suburb of Tunis, scattered among an affluent neighborhood overlooking the Gulf of Tunis.
"On this land, I am your guest." These were the words of our guide as we approached the gate to the North Africa American Cemetary located adjacent to the ancient ruins of Carthage. The 27-acre site is the property of the United States.
In a green oasis-like setting, 2,841 American soldiers are buried. Most lost their lives in 1942 and 1943 as Allied forces fought their way across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia on their way to driving the Nazis out of North Africa.
In an open air portico, a map of ceramic tiles depicts American military operations in North Africa. Coincidentally – or perhaps not – the Allies followed almost exactly the same path across North Africa as the Vandals had 1500 years earlier.
Given the current state of world affairs, it was poignant to see this tribute to America's soldiers inscribed in both English and Arabic.
As Carthage faded into history, Tunis emerged. By the 12th century, it would grow into one of the wealthiest cities in the Islamic world -- the southern provincial capital of the great Ottoman Empire.
And from its earliest beginnings, this was its heart – the medina, the “old city.”
Here in the market – called the souk – people have bartered and traded, bought and sold, or just milled around for more than a thousand years. They still do today.
When you enter the souk, centuries seem to slip away.
Until the 19th century, the medina was Tunis, a walled city little changed from its days as a Mediterranean trading center.
Here in cramped corridors you can find virtually anything and everything, including freshly baked bread.