The Acropolium of Carthage: At the crossroads of culture and history
CARTHAGE - Going up the hill in Carthage, the road diverges into the woods to the dome of the Acropolium of Carthage, also known as the Saint Louis Cathedral, topping the hill. From afar, the domes of the cathedral beckon onlookers to explore the fine architecture, rich history and cultural events the cathedral hosts.
Situated on the Byrsa Hill in Carthage, the Acropolium of Carthage is not only an architectural gem of the colonial era but an important addition to Tunisia’s contemporary cultural scene.
“This monument is of a great cultural and historical value,” said Acropolium Director Mustapha Okbi. “Since it was abandoned for years, restoring the cathedral as a cultural centre sheds light on the architectural and historical significance of the place. Today, the cultural events in the cathedral add another layer of beauty for its historical significance.”
“It has also beautiful Gothic and Byzantine architecture that places it as a unique gem of colonial architecture,” he added.
Saint Louis Cathedral, built during the rule of the Beys, is of deep historical and religious significance. In 1830, Hussein Bey II granted permission to the general council of France to build a church on the site of ancient Carthage.
His words were: “We cede in perpetuity to His Majesty the King of France a location in the Malka, sufficient to raise a religious monument in honour of King Louis IX at the place where this prince died. We commit ourselves to respect and to make respected this monument consecrated by the King of France to the memory of one of his most illustrious ancestors.”
The cathedral pays tribute to King Louis IX, who died in Carthage on the way to Jerusalem in 1270 during the eighth crusade. Built during the French protectorate from 1884-90, the cathedral became the home church of Cardinal Lavigerie, head of the archdioceses of Algiers and of Carthage, giving the cathedral primacy in Africa.
“In the 1980s and ‘90s, the government was focused on promoting the culture and history of the Roman and Punic epochs of Carthage but little interest was given to the colonial period of Carthage,” Okbi said. “This monument that dates to the end of 19th century, a part of a heritage that was beginning to disappear from the scene.”
He added: “The place has its own identity, which is engraved by history and events that characterise the colonial period that makes up a part of the history of Tunisia. It bears part of the heritage of Christianity that Tunisia hosted throughout its history.
“Unfortunately, many Catholic monuments that marked that period were abandoned and eventually degraded and almost disappeared, which is why it was important to make of the cathedral a cultural centre to preserve its fascinating architecture and history.”
Constructed by French architect Abbot Pougnet, the building boasts Byzantine and Gothic influences that characterised the architectural style of the era. Two square towers front the building that takes the shape of a Latin cross, 65 metres long and 30 metres wide.
Once inside, one can only marvel at the refined, intricate ornaments decorating the walls and the ceilings. The 174 marble columns with golden capitals draw attention to the ceiling, which is adorned with engravings on the sculpted wood. Cardinal Lavigerie called for artisans from Venice and Aleppo to decorate the wood beams, which came from forests in Hungary and Holland.
Light entering through the cathedral’s 284 windows showers the inner walls with blues, greens and yellows. While the glass of the windows display ornaments of plants and animals, the two centre windows depict Saint Louis and Saint Augustine as if they were guarding the cathedral.
The cathedral is full of gems to explore. In the centre, a monument in onyx is erect holding the reliquary of Saint Louis. Other marvels of the cathedral include mosaics of Saint Cyprien on the wall left to the transept.
In addition to its architectural wonder and historical artefacts, the cathedral hosts classical music concerts. It has been a cultural centre since 1992.
“It was vital to keep the monument alive by hosting cultural events that would bring attention and recognition to the place,” Okbi said. “The architecture of the place is to be highlighted, which is why we launched the Musical October. The project was ambitious as it was not meant only to promote the beauty of this monument but also to create a cultural pole in addition to the touristic zone in Carthage.”
“The sacredness and holiness of the place inspired us to dedicate the festival for classical music and we started to have international groups with our European partners during the month of October, which was the best month for its mild climate and lively breeze,” he added. “Since its creation in 1992, the number of the concerts increased from three concerts to 20 concerts. It became a musical rendezvous that treats visitors to fascinating architecture and history as well as enchanting music.”
The Acropolium, with its historical and cultural significance and breathtaking view from the top of the hill, is an inspiring place to see for devotees of culture and heritage.