Battle of Carthage: Tunisia demolishes homes to protect ancient site

A view of the archaeological site of Carthage, Tunisia. (Courtesy of UNESCO)
Updated 14 August 2019

Battle of Carthage: Tunisia demolishes homes to protect ancient site

  • Site used to be a battleground for gladiators in the Roman Empire — the Circus of Carthage
  • Today, two-thirds of Carthage is archaeological land, according to the municipality’s mayor

CARTHAGE, Tunisia: Saber Sessi 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.
Unbeknownst 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 Sessi, 50, who lived beside the depot in the working-class neighborhood of Mohamed Ali, in the northern surburbs of the Tunisian capital.
Sessi’s house and nine other buildings were razed to the ground that night in a government operation to clear illegal homes from the area that used to be a battleground for gladiators in the Roman Empire — the Circus of Carthage.
Today, two-thirds of Carthage — about 430 square km (165 square miles) — is archaeological land, according to Hayet Bayoudh, the municipality’s mayor.
The area earned a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. Now Carthage’s place on that list is under threat, due to what the UN’s cultural body calls “uncontrolled urban sprawl.”
All building projects and repair works within the boundaries of Carthage must first be approved by the municipality and the National Heritage Institute (INP), Bayoudh explained.
But over the years, a number of homes and 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 told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“These demolitions are an urgent measure.”

Off the list
Today, 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: Amphitheater.
But the cafe and the cluster of homes behind it sit on land that archaeologists consider to be of immense historical value.
UNESCO first expressed concern about the conservation of Carthage in 2012, prompting a “monitoring mission,” explained Mustapha Khanoussi, a consultant with the INP.
So far, 90 demolitions have been carried out in the area since 2013, with another 30 planned by February 2020, according to mayor Bayoudh.
UNESCO procedures say all 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 spokeswoman for the organization.
According to UNESCO’s website, it deleted Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary from the list in 2007, after the country decided to pursue hydrocarbon exploration on the site.
Tunisia has been given until February 2020 to take action on UNESCO’s recommendations.

Local discontent
The cluster of houses on the Circus is mainly made up of half-built structures lining un-tarmacked roads, but there are also street lights, running water and authorized electricity connections.
Hayet and Nacer Gerbi, a couple in their 60s, bought a plot of land on the Circus in 2016.
Two months after they built their house and finalized the deed for their property, Hayet Gerbi said they were informed by the authorities that their land was to be confiscated as heritage.
“The municipality had installed electricity here, we have 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 Gerbis and others in the neighborhood are battling court cases over their homes, but “permission to install electricity doesn’t mean permission to build,” noted Achour, the INP conservationist.
As for Sessi and his wife, they are now renting a studio in Mohamed Ali.
Residents and civil society activists see the demolitions in the Mohamed Ali neighborhood as discrimination.
“The demolitions only happen in this zone, where the poor are,” said Hechmi Mohamed Salah, a 59-year-old Mohamed Ali resident.
Bayoudh, the mayor, 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 neighborhood,” she said.

Land in flux
The status of land in Carthage has been in flux over the past few 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, explained Khanoussi of the INP.
After Ben Ali’s ousting, many of these sites were reclassified; some building projects were halted, while others continued illegally.
Most of the building on the Circus site — which was never declassified under Ben Ali — took place after 2011, in the chaotic period following the revolution, said Moez Achour, a Carthage conservationist with the INP.
“We are now paying the price for the actions (of previous administrations),” he added.
Illegal constructions were allowed in order to “appease people,” Achour said of the houses on the Circus.
Permission was also obtained through corruption and nepotism, he added, using the example of the upmarket Phoenix restaurant, which was built on top of 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 antique 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 3 remain on the cisterns site.
These original houses in the Mohamed Ali neighborhood are legal, Achour explained.
The issue is with the people living on and around the Circus who, like Sessi, 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 Valorization 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 added.
Walking through the rubble of Sessi’s house, his sister Najet fumed.
Her home a few meters 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 say it is archaeological, but they don’t even clean it. They chase people off and then do nothing for the site.”


Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

Updated 10 December 2019

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

  • Former US vice president sounds warning during panel discussion on ‘The global order 2030’
  • Remarks seen as indirect criticism of President Trump’s pledge to pull forces out of Syria

DUBAI: Dick Cheney, one of the most influential vice presidents in US history, has warned that “American disengagement” from the Middle East would only benefit Iran and Russia.

The 78-year-old politician’s warning came during a speech at the Arab Strategy Forum (ASF) in Dubai, an annual event in which the world’s leading decision-makers address global challenges and opportunities in “a precise, balanced and politically scientific manner.”

Cheney’s remarks could be seen as indirect criticism of US President Donald Trump’s pledges to pull forces out of northern Syria.

Addressing conference delegates, he cited the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the 2015 lifting of sanctions against Iran during Barack Obama’s presidency, as events that amplified instability in the region.

“Our allies were left abandoned, and no one wants to feel that way again,” said Cheney, who was chief executive of Halliburton between 1995 and 2000 and held high posts in several Republican administrations.

The former VP’s remarks came during the forum’s concluding session titled, “The global order 2030: The Unites States and China,” which was attended by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

Joined by Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese foreign minister, in a candid panel discussion, Cheney offered his views on the world order in the next decade within the context of Iran’s regional ascendancy, China’s rise and Russian ambitions in the Middle East.

“I am not here to speak on behalf of the US government, or to speak to it,” Cheney said, adding that his talking points reflected concerns he suspected everyone shared.

“For decades, there’s been a consensus of America’s influence in the world and how to use it,” he said, citing instances where US disengagement had caused the political situation in the Middle East to implode.

“Humanity has benefited from America’s protectionism of the world and its relationship with its allies in the region.”

According to him, the upcoming decade would be bleak should the US adopt a disengagement policy, with the pressures most felt by supporters and partners in the Middle East.

Turning to the role that the US and China would play in the global status quo by 2030, Cheney said there were still concerns over China’s reputation.

“We had hoped that there would be a political evolution in China, but that hasn’t happened yet,” he added.

Li said: “China will never learn from a world superpower and will never try to be hegemonic,” citing as examples China’s strong relations with the UAE and the wider Arab world, and the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (a global development strategy) on Chinese foreign policy.

“History is the best teacher, but the US has forgotten its own history. You don’t keep your promises,” added Li, directing his statement at Cheney.

Cheney said that since the end of the Cold War, the US had expected that its policy toward China would have had a beneficial effect on its behavior and helped to deepen bilateral relations.

“It was disappointing to see that these expectations were not borne out – China has only grown richer, the regime has become more oppressive, and instead of evolving, it became more assertive,” he said.

In a separate ASF meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Center, Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, discussed Iran’s policies in a session titled, “The race for relevance and influence in the region: GCC, Iran, Turkey and Russia.”

Sadjadpour said he expected in the next 10 years to see the arrival of “an Iranian Putin” with a military background as the country’s next leader.

“After 40 years of a clerical regime and a military autocracy, there is now a rise of Persian nationalism. This is a shift from the sheer revolution ideology,” he said.

Sadjadpour said there had been an evolution of “Shiite Arab” identity during the past two decades, with the focus more on religion than nationality.

Under the circumstances, he noted that Sunni Arab powers had an important role to play in welcoming Shiite Arabs into their fold “and luring them away from Iran.”

The analyst added that the future of the Arab world could not be explored and forecast without considering a growing mental health crisis. “Today, hundreds of millions of people in the region suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and the effects of this will be with us for decades to come, resulting in issues like radicalism.”

He said there was a need for training thousands of counselors in the field of mental health in order to reach out to those whose lives had been robbed by extreme violence and conflicts.