Carthage International Festival continues to shine from Roman amphitheatre
Tunis - Staged in the Roman Amphitheatre of Carthage, the International Festival of Carthage is an annual event that graces Tunisia with a variety of concerts and artistic shows extending over the months of July and August.
The glorious monument of the Carthage amphitheatre, which dates back to the second century AD, withstands the test of time. Its complex architectural system of stairs and caves provides protection against earthquakes. In ancient times, it was primarily used for theatre presentations and other cultural events, such as poetry readings and philosophical debates. Vandalised in the fifth century, the amphitheatre was put back to use at the end of the 19th century.
Starting in 1964, and following renovations, the theatre became the site of the International Festival of Carthage, a culture and entertainment venue showcasing talents every summer.
The festival was established in the early 1960s as an initiative of intellectuals and artists. It started mainly as a two-day jazz music festival and included a presentation of a Jean-Paul Sartre play in 1961.
Sonia Mbarek, renowned Tunisian singer and current director of the festival, emphasises the historical and cultural importance of this annual event.
“It was Tunisian intellectuals who lived in Carthage who started a jazz festival in the amphitheatre,” she said. “In 1964, the festival was taken over by the Ministry of Culture and, consequently, took on a different scope.
“With time, theatre became a tradition in the festival along with music shows. Other disciplines, including ballet and dance shows, were also included. The festival soon acquired the unique status of being a multidisciplinary cultural event. It organises all sorts of musical shows and also popular art. The festival expands over successive five weeks for the past 50 years, which is another rare quality in festivals.”
She added: “This festival also aims at creating a space of fusion where artists of different backgrounds can meet and exchange experiences. The festival is also a space where the audience of different tastes can find shows only hosted by the theatre.”
The 2015 edition takes shows outside the boundaries of the amphitheatre to other historic sites.
“The festival includes on-and-off shows. We tried to take the festival outside the theatre to explore new places,” Mbarek said. “Last year, some shows were held at the Carthage Museum. This year we included another space, which is the Basilica of St Cyprian, so both the audience and the artists explore a new venue. The Carthage festival invites everyone. It is not restricted to the city of Carthage.”
As part of an initiative called “Carthage for All”, major festival events were video-streamed and displayed on large screens in towns in Tunisia’s interior.
“We try to promote a culture of proximity,” Mbarek said. “Last year, we worked on street shows in popular neighbourhoods. This year, Carthage has to be about culture being for all. We chose four or five different shows that appeal to different tastes and we used big screens in public spaces at Jendouba, Siliana and Sidi Bouzid and invited people for a free live streaming of the main shows of the festival.
“We aspire to having the festival leave the confinement of the theatre site and work on fusions between different artists.”
The festival continues to celebrate the country’s national holidays unaffected by the June terrorist attack that shook the country. On July 25th, the Carthage festival marked Republic Day, the anniversary of the demise of the monarchy in 1957. For the celebration, the festival put on stage a show of Sufi music entitled al- Hadhra. There were fireworks at the end of the evening.
“The Hadhra spectacle was not to be missed. It is an amazing opportunity to travel musically in Tunisia. It was an ancestral call, cathartic and purifying at once,” said Ines Athimni, an attendee.
The 2015 festival features Arab singers such as Wael Koufry, Mohamed Assef as well as international stars such as Lauryn Hill, Charlie Winston, Akon and Oumou Sangaré. The opening act paid homage to one of Tunisia’s famous female singers, the late Oulaya, in a musical comedy portraying her life and highlights of career.
“The aim was to focus on the importance of a variety of musical genres as opposed to names. We even had a show for urban art, namely Tunisian rap,” said Mbarek.
The 2015 festival comes at a time where terrorist attacks on the Bardo National Museum in March and a beach in Sousse in June sparked fears that security concerns might hinder the continuation of the festival.
Natalie Imbruglia, for instance, cancelled an appearance after the attack in Sousse. However, for the organisers, backed by security institutions, it was a point of honour that the festival continues.
“We had cancellations before and during the preparation because of the attack of Bardo, then after the attack of Sousse. Yet, other artists like Charlie Winston enjoyed their stay in Tunisia and explored other places. We need these artists to discover for themselves how safe the country is. We assured them we will provide all possible security. The festival is crucial for the image of the country,” Mbarek said.
She added: “After all, terrorism is a phenomenon that exists in all countries, including in the West. Terrorism is everywhere and we need to fight it together. We need an alliance of good versus evil. This can be achieved through art and cultural strategies.
“The artist is the true, messenger of peace, tolerance and love. Today, we find ourselves facing a culture of death and violence. We need to find the real values and essence of humanity which can only be achieved through art.”
The International Festival of Carthage runs through August 18th.