6 MARCH 1953, Page 10


"To Carthage Then I Came. • • • "

ByANTHONY THWAITE (Christ Church, Oxford) IFIRST saw the name on a tram in 'Tunis, a wild and giddy tram which lurched down the rue de Jules Ferry, carrying gum-chewing urchins, studehts in berets, Arabs whose eyes dripped with cataract, garlic-stinking old men smoking stubs of Surfines. Carthage : " It was at Megara, a suburb of Carthage, in the gardens of Hamilcar. . . ." All I knew of it, apart from stray inaccuracies picked up in bad archaeological books, was this great Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer world of Salammbo, with its banquets and massacres and crucified lions. Yet here it was, in a Tunisian December, a tram-ride fora a few francs distant. I caught the rail of the mad thing as it jerked by, and I was on my way. The tram took me across the bay of La Goulette, by little stations with strange names—Marsa and Marsa Plage, and even Salammbo itself. All along the route flamingoes stood in the bay, picking in the mud and then straightening their long pink necks. I looked back towards Tunis and saw the cranes and loading-machinery at the docks; then forward to the small white cottages on the shore, the great sweep of the bay and the hills of Cap Bon. Somewhere behind all that was the incredible city of Dido and Hannibal. I was Aeneas by the sea-shore waiting for the fleet to set sail; I was Scipio entering in a flame of revenge and destruction; I was a Barbary pirate—but with a guide-book. By the time we reached the station at Carthage, I was in a literary-historical fever of names and associations. I came out of the tram into a cold wind- from the sea, which chilled my fever, making me want merely coffee and the hotel-fire; but on the threshold of a mythology this was not right, so, slapping my arms round me, I started to climb the slight rise towards the monastery of the Peres Blancs and Carthage. I had almost reached the top, and was about to turn round and look back over the station and the bay, when I heard behind me the hurried footsteps and panting breath of someone following me. He was a young, unshaven, cigarette-drooping Arab, perhaps eighteen or so, dressed in a British battledress-jacket and baggy matelot's trousers. In a queer half-American whine he began to speak to me. Did I want to see the ruins ? Yes, but alone. Ah, but I could not see them alone. Why not ? " Because they belong to the Peres Blancs on the hill." No. No. No. " Ah, but I can show you the Puni&tombs, the basilica, the colonnades."

It was no use telling him that I knew them all through the burning eyes of Numidians and Getulians and the men of Zeugitana. I could only acquiesce shamefully, while he chat- tered blithely about les tombectux Puniques, les peintures des murs, les tombeaux des enfants—for„ as his enthusiasm grew, he lapsed from Anglo-American intii guttural- French, which descended yet further down his throat and eventually became Arabic. I understood about half of what he said, and gave a dull "Mais oui" to the rest. What I saw was quite as dull; none of the tremendous dis- tances of my imagination, the shining marble, the statues among the thorn-bushes. The sky was grey; the wind grew fiercer, and then dropped to a still, muggy calm. The drizzle began, and we sludged among the messy trenches which had been left by archaeologists working on the site during the summer; now they had become shallow through oozing mud, and between them lay rolls of barbed-wire, so that the whole place looked like an infantry battle-school, the man by my side not an Arab but an enthusiastic instructor urging me over obstacles to an obscure and indefinite goal. The goal, I suppose, was Hannibal; and pat on the thought came the guide's answer : "Voila maison d'Anbal." A' rough- cast wall, a few tiles, something which may have been an altar and something which certainly was an empty Woodbine packet —that was Hannibal's house. I looked back again, down tho slope and over-the scraps of Roman mosaic, the little children's sepulchres like dolls'-houses, wells, cisterns and on further still, until even the ruins merged into holiday-chalets, boarding- houses, cafés, Dubonnet advertisements, the tramway—a Tunisian Llandudno. Only the sea was original, and it was grey and pimply. Not until I got into the museum of the Peres Blancs did I begin to find something which was the imagined Carthage; but here it was all behind glass, dusty on shelves, labelled, catalogued. Egg-shells painted in red and black with enormous long-lashed eyes, the sparest slit-eyed sculpture, like masks, and littlefigures hand in hand on tombs, hog-backed sarcophagi, jewellery in gold, silver and bronze, cunningly twisted into little secret faces, figurines- of bullsand -tiny wOmen, both bulls and women refined into austere, -hieratic shapes. All this, behind walls and away from its setting, was the real Carthage, or the real Carthage which I had come to see. Yet the hushed, processional students standing silently among the cases or writing in their notebooks—these destroyed any illusion. I went out into the museum-gardens.

There the guide was waiting for me. In his hand was a small terra-cotta lamp in the shape of a man's helmeted head; the lips were drawn back with the cruelty and barbarism of any of those remembered figures in Salwnmbo. " Only 300 francs, m'sieur. Good -lamp, Punique." I hesitated at the grotesque price for only a moment, and then urged myself into a loud, protesting bargaining whose end I already knew. I bought it for 250 francs, and walked down the hill humiliated. My guide followed me with an obsequious attention until we reached the station. The only money I had left was a thousand-franc note; the guide shrugged his shoulders at the very idea of change, and only after an obstinate argument, in which he insisted on speaking Arabic, did he condescend, with an exaggerated swagger, to haggle with the conductor for ten smaller notes. As the tram rattled into the station, I thrust a wad of these into his out- stretched palms. My last view of Carthage was his waving hand and smirking face framed by a Roman column and a travel- poster. Then he and Carthage were gone.