Battle of Carthage: Tunisia demolishes homes to protect ancient site

All building projects and repair work within the boundaries of Carthage must first be approved by the municipality and the National Heritage Institute (INP).
Thursday 22/08/2019
Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (R) walks with former Tunisian culture minister Sonia Mbarek at the Antonine Baths, in the archaeological site of Carthage in the capital Tunis on March 29, 2016. (AFP)
Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (R) walks with former Tunisian culture minister Sonia Mbarek at the Antonine Baths, in the archaeological site of Carthage in the capital Tunis on March 29, 2016. (AFP)

Saber Sassi was working the night shift at a municipality vehicle depot in Carthage, Tunisia, when he signed off on five bulldozers in the early hours of July 9. Unbeknown to him, the intended target for those bulldozers was his home.

"I opened the gate, I handed (the keys) over and then I saw them drive around to my house," said Sassi, 50, who lived beside the depot in the working-class neighbourhood of Mohamed Ali, in the northern suburbs of Tunis.

Sassi's house and nine other buildings were razed that night in a government operation to clear illegal structures from the area that was once a battleground for gladiators in the Roman Empire -- the Circus of Carthage.

Two-thirds of Carthage -- about 430 sq.km -- is archaeological land, Mayor Hayet Bayoudh said. The area earned a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979 but Carthage's place on the list is threatened because of what the United Nations’ cultural body called "uncontrolled urban sprawl."

All building projects and repair work within the boundaries of Carthage must first be approved by the municipality and the National Heritage Institute (INP), Bayoudh explained. However, over the years, many buildings have gone up without permission.

"We need to clear and clean two zones, the Punic Port (in the area's south) and the Roman Circus -- the two black points for UNESCO," Bayoudh said. "These demolitions are an urgent measure."

The only obvious trace of ancient grandeur on the site of the Circus is the inspiration for the name of a popular cafe on Mohamed Ali's main high street: Amphitheatre. The cafe and the cluster of homes behind it sit on land that archaeologists consider to be of immense historical value.

UNESCO expressed concern about the conservation of Carthage in 2012, prompting a "monitoring mission," said Mustapha Khanoussi, a consultant with the INP.

UNESCO procedures say sites risk being removed from the World Heritage list if they are not sufficiently protected. However, "it is extremely rare that a site loses its status. It has only happened twice," said Laetitia Kaci, a UNESCO spokeswoman.

UNESCO's website states that Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was deleted from the list in 2007 after the country pursued hydrocarbon exploration on the site.

Tunisia has been given until February to act. So far, 90 demolitions have been carried out in the area since 2013, with another 30 planned by the February deadline, Bayoudh said.

The cluster of houses on the Circus are mainly half-built structures lining un-tarmacked roads but there are also streetlights, running water and authorised electricity connections.

Hayet and Nacer Jerbi, a couple in their 60s, said they bought land on the Circus in 2016. Two months after they built their house and finalised the deed for their property, Hayet Jerbi said they were informed by authorities their land was to be confiscated as heritage.

"The municipality has running water," she noted, showing an INP-stamped document granting the previous owner permission to install electricity in 2010.

"I said, 'If you want to crush the house, crush me with it.'"

The Jerbis and others in the neighbourhood are battling in court over their homes but "permission to install electricity doesn't mean permission to build," noted Moez Achour, a conservationist with the INP.

Residents and civil society activists say the demolitions in the Mohamed Ali neighbourhood are because of discrimination. "The demolitions only happen in this zone, where the poor are," said Hechmi Mohamed Salah, a 59-year-old Mohamed Ali resident.

Bayoudh denied that the clearing operation focuses only on poorer areas. "We target the sites, not the people. Unfortunately, the Roman Circus is in a poor neighbourhood," she said.

The status of land in Carthage has been in flux for decades. Before the country's revolution in 2011, some parts of the area were declassified to benefit those close to former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali so they could sell the land and build luxury properties, said Khanoussi.

After Ben Ali's ousting, many of the sites were reclassified. Some building projects were halted but others continued illegally. Most of the building on the Circus site, which was never declassified under Ben Ali, took place in the chaotic period following the revolution, said Achour

"We are now paying the price for the actions (of previous administrations)," he added.

Illegal construction was allowed to "appease people," Achour said.

Permission was often obtained through corruption and nepotism, he added, using the example of the upmarket Phoenix restaurant, which was built over the Roman Cisterns of La Malga after the site was listed.

The families of some Mohamed Ali residents used to live on those cisterns, a collection of more than 20 huge stone containers forming one of the biggest water reservoirs in the ancient world, until the government moved them in the 1960s.

They were told to move "for archaeological reasons," said Achour and offered new houses in Mohamed Ali. Out of more than 90 households, only three remain on the site of the cistern. These original houses in the Mohamed Ali neighbourhood are legal, Achour explained.

The issue is with the people living on and around the Circus who, like Sassi, legally own their land but are not allowed to build on it because of its historical value, said Bayoudh and Achour.

For now, local authorities and residents are waiting for the government to draw up a Plan for Protection and Valorisation of Carthage, which will redefine the site's boundaries.

"The question is how to share this land between the archaeological and the urban," the mayor said.

Walking through the rubble of Sassi's house, his sister Najet fumed.

Her home a few metres away is legal but located in a "control zone," meaning she needs permission from the INP for necessary repairs. Documents issued to her from the INP show those requests have repeatedly been rejected.

"Where is Carthage? Is this Carthage?" Najet said, pointing to the debris and illegal rubbish dumps surrounding her house.

"The municipality says it is archaeological but they don't even clean it. They chase people off and then do nothing for the site."

(Thomson Reuters Foundation)