Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Carthage in Literature

Literature about Carthage focuses mainly on the Punic Wars and Hannibal. All original sources were written by the enemies of this incredible civilisation. The actual founding of the city is the stuff of legends and when Aeneas was injected into the tale, it made the legends even more unlikely. It is difficult to find good historical fiction that deals with ordinary life in Carthage but upon my return from my brief visit to La Goulette, I was fired with the need to immerse myself in the atmosphere of that ancient civilisation.

I wrote about two good factual studies of Roman civilisation in North Africa in an earlier post. Since then, I discovered two excellent contemporary novels about Carthage. 'Fire and Bronze' by Robert Raymond is a compelling account of the founding of Carthage by Dido. 'Carthage' by Peter Huby deals with the ultimate horrific destruction of the city by the Romans. Both attempt to decipher the reality that underlies the legends and ancient political propaganda to create a plausible realistic sequence of events and both succeed admirably.

Furthermore, I was astounded by the beauty of the prose, especially in view of the fact that 'Fire and Bronze' is a first novel. The two writers are very different but both demonstrate a love of words and images and an expert ability to alternate extraordinary lyricism with graphic realism. In fact, having finished the two novels, I was hungry for more. I found Peter Huby's first novel, 'Pasiphae' and devoured that as well.

I recommend all three of these novels. I read all the 'Classics' as a child but I have to admit that there are many contemporary writers who may supercede some of the Victorian 'Masters'. If I were to teach a class in ancient History, I would be inclined to include these novels in any discussion of Carthage.

I have one negative criticsm of 'Carthage' and I am not alone in this. Many readers remarked upon the writer's use of anachronisms in this book. Some of them were more irritating than others. I found the writer's inaccurate correlation of Phoenicians with Jews to be unjustifiable and infuriating as well, essentially writing the ancestors of the Arab Nation out of the equation. The Phoenicians were NOT Jews. At the time when Qart Hadasht was founded, the Hebrews were well-known as a separate ethnic group.

Qart Hadasht or 'New Town' is the real name of Carthage. As is often the case, however, the victorious Romans ultimately triumphed in history as well as in life, leaving us with their name for the civilisation that may have been Rome's greated rival. So determined was Rome to destroy Kart Hadasht that it sowed the land with salt, preventing any crops from growing there for a hundred years.

One of the few details about ancient Carthage familiar to the general public even when nothing else is known is the practice of infant sacrifice. The entire civilisation has been demonised because of a religious tradition poorly, if at all, comprehended. 'Fire and Bronze' tackles this subject well. In a period of history when mystery religions often demanded the sacrifice of a man's genitals, the sacrifice of the first-born would be an example of true devotion and a very profound faith in the gods and in a world beyond this one.

Religions such as Christianity and Islam stress the principle that this life is transient. If one accepts the premise that the world beyond this is far more substantial in spiritual terms and is the only one that endures, human sacrifice will be perceived not as a cruel and barbaric act but one that sets the 'victim' above and beyond ordinary humans. The child that is sacrificed in essence becomes one with the gods, entering an existence that is free from pain and suffering.

Comprehending a ritual or tradition is not tantamount to agreement with it. Recoiling from horror from the practice of infant sacrifice prohibits any true exploration of a civilisation that was extremely sophisticated and one that based itself on a code of law that was far from barbaric. Religion in any civilisation is a tree that has deep roots in another world, with a distinct logic that is divorced from ordinary existence. If one were to view the principles of 'Holy Communion' and 'Transubstantiation' without reference to the underlying philosophy of Christianity, one might find them horrific as well. An actual need for a god to die in human form in extreme torment upon a wooden cross is the foundation of Christian religion. How one perceives the ultimate sacrifice depends upon comprehension of the system of philosophy that underlies the act rather than the act itself. Infant sacrifice is no different in this respect.

Neither novels are centred upon the religion of ancient Carthage but they touch upon it en passant. In this particular aspect, Robert Raymond's spiritual comprehension of ancient cultures was far more convincing. Peter Huby's insistence on equating the Carthaginians with the Jews severely marred his account of ancient religion. The appearance of Orthodox Jews on the streets of Kart Hadasht was bizarre, to say the least. Even though he included some of the ancient Canaanite tales in his account, his attempt to address Carthaginian beliefs was unsuccessful in my view. He did far better with 'Pasiphae'.

'Pasiphae' incidentally is a tale of ancient Crete and the central character, despite the title, is Daedalus. Sadly, although it is very high on my list of places I long to visit, I have not been to Crete yet. Peter Huby's work deals with the passion of the Queen for the Sacred Bull in the context of Daedalus' own passion to create and explore the limits of human possibilities. Although he missed the point here as well in terms of ancient mystery religions, in my opinion, it is an incredible book and his exploration of human passions is very fine.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Glory that was Rome ... in Africa

Spending half a day in Tarquinia, half a day in Pompeii and half a day on the site of ancient Carthage inspired me to study history again. I came home and read Susan Raven's 'Rome in Africa' and Paul Lachlan's 'The North African Stones Speak'. I would recommend both even to casual readers. Paul Lachlan's cultural prejudices are exposed in a comment here and there, but on the whole, style and content are wonderful. Both books are older studies that have been brought up to date and republished.

History of Carthage

What is amazing to me is how much ancient history I do not know, despite an avid interest in the subject throughout my life. For every site I have visited, moreover, there are a hundred I have not seen. There is no substitute for actual experience, although actual experience is magnified enormously by knowledge. I wish I had read those books BEFORE I visited Carthage, but if I had, I suspect that my frustration at being allowed only a few hours in Tunisia would have overwhelmed me.

I spent almost a month in Roma once, and yet it seems as though North Africa has far more of ancient Roma to show the world now than any site in Italia. The Roman Empire, whether you hate it or admire it, was rather amazing. To think of the thousands of miles that it covered, from England to Libya! All the roads and aquaducts, amphitheatres and temples... but beyond that, the fact that they laid grids everywhere. Surveyors tirelessly working on plans, whether or not the plans ever came to fruition.

It is difficult sometimes to visualise the past. The topography of the countries have changed. What once was a port may be miles inland now. That certainly is the case where Etruscan ports are concerned.

I do not know why the distant past holds such fascination for me. I never wanted to travel to the future, but I still long to go back in time, to see the England of Charles the First, and even further back, to live among the earliest Neolithic settlers of Europe. The Roman Empire is fairly modern in terms of civilisations. It is no wonder really that we see resemblances to our own 'civilisation' in all the works of Rome.

Perhaps my longing to visit Libya is partly based on the fact that it wouldn't be thronging with tourists. The negative part of visiting Pompeii was the fact that one could not look down any path without seeing veritable hordes of 21st century tourists. Carthage wasn't much different actually. Coachloads of tourists swarming over the ruins...

And yet, who knows? Perhaps Libya would be the same. One of my greatest contacts with the ancient world occurred in the Long Barrow near Silbury Hill one rainy afternoon. Not a tourist in sight, enabling me to commune silently with the past. I went over a little gate on a path that was made for sheep rather than humans and walked up a muddy hill to Long Kennet.

West Kennet Long Barrow

I visited Avebury the same day. Avebury is very different from Stonehenge because very little remains of its original configuration. The standing stones have been moved, removed, or otherwise realigned. A major highway cuts through the original grounds. Nonetheless, something magical remains.

That was an odd experience as my own visit at twilight coincided with a professional photography shoot. I can't recall what they were shooting, but it was some sort of advertisement with the stones of Avebury in the background.

Where on earth can one go now, though, and truly expect to be 'off the beaten track'? There are shows like 'Globe Trekker', visiting every corner of the globe and televising the journey to the masses.

In my own case, however, it is not as if I would like to deprive others of the journey but merely to have a few moments by myself in these places. If only...

In that sense, Montserrat was the antithesis of a spiritual pilgrimage. It was more like queueing for a ride at an entertainment park than any religious experience. In fact, the pushing and shoving and queue-jumping was horrific and one wondered at times what spiritual benefit possibly could be gained by such behaviour. The fact that the shrine was due to shut in less than half an hour may have offered some excuse for the indecent attitudes that prevailed in certain quarters. In the same crowd, however, were others who went out of their way to help the infirm and disabled.

Perhaps part of the true nature of a spiritual pilgrimage is to test the soul. Grace is earned through patience and selflessness in these situations rather than a brief glimpse of an icon or statue. I am an animist and I do believe in the efficacy of certain objects or locations to some extent. I do think that these powers are partly dependent on the state of mind and will of the 'pilgrim' rather than independent in nature. In that sense, we do create our own gods.

Despite the negative circumstances of the visit, I did have some magical if fleeting moments at Montserrat. The mountain range rather than the statue was the source of the energy I felt. No wonder the ancients thought of mountains as the ladders to heaven! There is a sense of entering a borderland that stands between our earthly state and the realm of the gods. I expect centuries of reverence and wonder play a part in this as well. In any event, despite the fact that the buildings and pilgrims were modern, one sensed ghostly footsteps, becoming part of an endless chain of humanity that sought to touch the sky.

On the other hand, travel to historic sites of any kind is a pilgrimage of sorts. Whether it is an ancient Bath or a Temple, the passage of time as well as the attention of the masses for hundreds or thousands of years creates a peculiar power that resides in the stones as well as their silhouettes. Places become icons. Witness the 'leaning tower of Pisa' and the 'Eiffel Tower', possibly more visited than any phallic representation of an ancient Power. These buildings are recognised by people throughout the globe, despite the fact that they actually are devoid of any significant content or historical event. Any place, object or structure can become imbued with special significance by virtue only of its long popularity.

I am including two photographs of pillars here. One is the site of a famous martyrdom. The other is nothing more than the site of an ancient bathhouse, yet both possess a special aura of power and mystery now. The blood shed on one site may make it a place of religious pilgrimage but one could argue that ancient Baths are dedicated to the elemental power of Water and when situated by the sea, have tremendous spiritual potency that overrides the simple functional nature of the place. After all, ablutions are a fundamental spiritual rite in almost every religion.

In any case, I would have liked nothing better than to have had the time to wade into the sea on the site of the Baths of Antoninus in Tunis. To watch the sun set framed by the silhouettes of ancient pillars and arches, in the midst of all that ruined splendour would have been a very spiritual experience. Instead, I was forced to adhere to a tour schedule, to be bundled back to the ship with the rest of the tourists...

I should not be ungrateful. At least I saw these places. I breathed the air. My feet trod the ancient stones. It is far, far better than nothing but, like an incipient addict, I long for more.