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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 20 January 2018
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 20 JANUARY 2018 19 HERITAGE Famous ruins of ancient Sbeitla, Tunisia. Billy Cotsis in Carthage. communicate with his Greek-speaking girlfriend! It appears that this is not a one-off. There are many ‘mixed’ marriages in Tunisia and through a Tunisian forum I communicated with Roula. She is Greek, lives in London, is married to a Tunisian and travels there whenever she can. I was keen to find out if Tunisians knew much about the Byzantine history of the country. I was pleasantly surprised by the knowledge exhibited by two friendly locals I met who were employed by Tunisia.com and who live in the picturesque seaside town of Bizerte, once a fortified Byzantine town. Sipping my coffee and talking to Ramzi and Sana, I fixed my eyes on the old walls of the Medina in the background. These walls, known as the Double Kasbah, contain traces of the original Byzantine fortifications. Ramzi and Sana told me how they learnt about the Byzantine presence at school and it was they who told me about Nabuel. However, not everyone I met was aware of the Byzantine presence in Tunisia, as I usually received puzzled looks whenever I asked about Byzantine ruins. Though this can also be attributed to the fact that few people speak English (one of the charms of a visit to Tunisia). As a student of history, Carthage was always a favourite subject of mine; sitting in the classroom of school debating my teacher about the superpower status of ancient Carthage, I never thought I would actually visit. Whilst Carthage has an amazing array of archaeological sites, it was the Byzantine ruins that I had come to see. At the Antoinine Baths, facing the Mediterranean, I found many Byzantine ruins. This includes the sixth century Basilica, Baptistery, and Christian era statues and mosaics. I also located the ruins of the Byzantine Basilica on the road to Carthage. The Basilica is known as Damous el Karita. However, I struggled to find the excavations of a Byzantine site, Bir Ftouha, on the edge of the archaeological zone. I asked locals: a police officer on horseback, a shepherd, a friendly German jogger, and anyone else who I came across. I must have spent two hours walking in the middle of nowhere, to no avail. However, after several kilometres and with the advent of night skies, I came across an impressive Roman forum, which apparently contained Byzantine ruins but not those I had come to photograph. On another trek in the countryside I visited Oudna. This is a site I won’t forget in a hurry. After flagging down a taxi to take me the 25 km outside the capital, the driver had to make a stop, for a call of nature as he put it in a bottle on the highway! On the return journey, another excitable taxi driver wanted to show me his collection of pictures and tell me everything about Tunisia... in French. Despite language barriers, I found the taxi drivers in Tunisia to be fantastic, generally honest and entertaining, and my passport to Byzantine sites. Over the years I have become accustomed to being the only foreigner stuck in the middle of nowhere looking for sites. At Oudna, I was on my own with archaeologists, workers, a security guard, and dozens of sheep. Unlike Carthage, there appeared to be a decided ignorance of Byzantine ruins. Most aspects of the site appeared to be labelled as Roman, even though some of the buildings were built or upgraded during Byzantine times. After pointing this out, I was given access to maps and information in an office. Thankfully my Arabic is rusty, and I could make out…. well, actually I couldn’t understand a word! At Oudna, used by Byzantine commanders as a base almost 1,500 years ago, I found key ancient sites, all impressive and well-preserved. The Capitol (the Forum) was upgraded during Byzantine times and turned into a fortress. Interestingly, a modern farmhouse is located inside the fortress. The best way to identify Byzantine aspects of the site are by the large blocks of stones used on the exterior of some of the buildings; the Romans used smaller bricks. Other Byzantine sites in Tunisia include Ain Tounga, a fortress located in Tebersouk, ruins at the inland Musti, a fortress and church at Haidra which are located near the border with Algeria, ruins at Sbeitla located near the Sahara and an intact oil press at Thuburbo Majus. Djerba is another site, an island off Tunisia, that has Byzantine ruins and it is believed that Odysseus visited. During my teenage years I turned my back on my Hellenic identity. However, I have spent the last decade restoring my sense of what it means to be a Hellene, and the more I travel to places in the diaspora with Greek speakers and/or a connection to our Byzantine past, the more I am glad to have embraced and restored my own sense of heritage. In Tunisia, there is a small group of dedicated people who are working on the restoration of the Hellenic customs and tradition to an area that was once thriving with Greek speakers. I know that they will succeed, and should I ever return I am sure the fruits of their labour will continue to be evident. *Billy Cotsis is the author of ‘From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities and a Fiefdom’.
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