|Chapel of St Perpetua|
No trip to Tunis, however brief, should exclude a visit to Carthage. Once the greatest rival to Rome, and later a Roman province in its own right, the collection of ruins, museums and artifacts is difficult to surpass. Often glossed-over in tours and guidebooks, however, is the rich early-Christian heritage that can be found in and around Carthage. This heritage tells its own story about the life and politics of one of the cradles of civilization in the Mediterranean.
Carthage played an important role in the development of Christianity in antiquity. The new religion gained a foothold in the Jewish communities that had settled in the big cities of the diaspora and developed amongst the Roman colony. Relatively little is known about the early days of the Christian community in Carthage but it is clear that the first Christians were oppressed and many of them were killed in the city’s amphitheater.
Tertulian, the first Christian apologist, who translated the holy scripture from Greek into Latin, gives an account of the Scilitain, who were amongst the first martyrs to be executed for their faith. Twelve Numidians, seven men and five women were beheaded in the amphitheater of Carthage in the year 180. Other Christians were persecuted in the amphitheater, among them Saint Perpetua and Felicity who were killed on the 8th of March 203.
After several centuries of oppression, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313. The Roman province of Africa (current-day Tunisia) was profoundly affected by this new faith, but followers quickly split into two churches: Catholics and Donatists. The Donatistic sect emerged in the fourth century when the Numidian bishops accused the bishop of Carthage of being a traitor and rejected his consecration. For more than a century the church was divided, until 411 when Saint Augustine organized a council in Carthage, ending the division.
The Vandal invasion of 533 caused new waves of persecution and oppression to Catholics in Carthage. The Vandals were a Germanic people that followed the Aryan Church and forced the captured North Africans to follow it as well. The Vandal occupation ended in 533 when the Byzantine empire conquered the territory and established the Catholic church again. It remained until the fall of Carthage in 698 and the beginning of Arab control of Africa.
The role of Carthage as an important site of Christian culture has been appreciated by the European Catholics since the middle ages. The expedition of Louis IX in 1270, known as the Eighth Crusade, is classified among the most important expeditions with a specific mission: to convert the Tunisians to Christianity and make Carthage its new capital. However Louis IX died on the beach at Carthage and the expedition was a failure.
French missionaries did not return for six centuries and it was not until the late 19th century that France again sent missionaries. An organization known as the White Fathers was founded by the archbishop of Alger, Charles Lavigerie, in order to spread Christianity in North Africa. The missionary group started excavations on the site of Carthage to find items that belong to the Christian era. They also built a cathedral at the top of Byrsa hill where Louis IX died during his expedition. This cathedral, known as Saint Louis cathedral, is no longer used for worship but is a cultural center. Nevertheless, the layout of the building is a reminder of the sacred mission of the White Fathers.
Visiting the Early Christian Sites of Tunis
To visit the ruins of Carthage in general, and Christian Carthage in particular, it is possible to visit the major sites on foot. However in warm weather or for those with reduced mobility, it is best to hire a car or taxi. The main Christian sites are scattered throughout the historical site of Carthage, as well as in unprotected residential areas of the northern suburb of Tunis. A ticket to visit the historical sites costs 9 dinars per person for a day-pass to all sites.
Inside the amphitheater in Carthage, you can visit a chapel the White Fathers built in honor of Saint Perpetua and Felicity. Recognizing their strong will and faith, Pope John Paul II spent around two hours on his knees in .
The Early-Christian museum lies on the edge of the main street that crosses the north suburbs of Tunis, running from La Goulette to Sidi Bou Said. It is close to the TGM station Carthage Dermech and the supermarket Monoprix. The museum was built on the ruins of a major building raised in the sixth century when Carthage was recaptured by Byzantine troops. The museum was built with the collaboration of UNESCO to protect the site of Carthage. It exhibits oil lamps, mosaics depicting birds, chalices and pottery.
The basilica of Damous Karita “domus caritas” or the house of charity, is a church built in the third or fourth century. It has been described by some scholars the cradle of the division between the Christians; the Donatism that deeply divided the African Christians. The basilica follows the classic layout of the Christian churches with nine naves and a semi-circular atrium. The most significant part is the underground rotunda with its 9m diameter. The rotunda is topped by a dome and reached by two symmetric staircases. The Damous Karita is near the large mosque in Carthage on La Goulette Road.
The original function of the building with columns that can be found at the back of Byrsa hill, also on La Goulette road, is unclear. Some say it was the gymnasium of baths. It is believed to be the place where the conference was organized by Saint Augustine to unify the African church after the division between the Donatist and Catholic churches in the 5th century.