Carthage tries to live down image as site of infanticide
Thursday, May 26, 2005
By Andrew Higgins, The Wall Street Journal [reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette)
CARTHAGE, Tunisia -- Mhamed Hassine Fantar has a bone to pick with the Roman Empire, French writer Gustave Flaubert and a group of Americans who specialize in digging up old graves.
An expert on ancient Carthage -- a city obliterated by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago -- Mr. Fantar is campaigning to clear his forefathers of a nasty stigma: a reputation for infanticide.
"We didn't do it," says the 69-year-old archaeologist, rejecting accusations that the ancient citizens of this North African land sacrificed babies to appease their gods.
At a time of roiling debate across the Arab world about the future, rewriting the distant past can also be an urgent matter. Modern Carthage, dotted with ancient ruins and the luxury villas of the nation's current elite, looms large in Tunisia today. The country's president, an admirer of Mr. Fantar's work, lives here in a waterfront palace. Tunisia's national identity, forged by a secular regime fearful of political Islam, rests on the celebration of Carthage's pre-Islamic glories.
A major excavator of Carthage disagrees:
Lawrence Stager, a Harvard University archaeology professor and expert on the subject, calls the revisionism a whitewash. He's now editing a book that will include the results of long forensic analysis of charred bones he helped dig up in Carthage in the 1970s. This, says Mr. Stager, will prove beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Fantar and his followers are wrong. Still, he isn't expecting to win them over. "No one really relishes having ancestors who committed such heinous acts," he says.
Human sacrifice was common in many ancient cultures. But Carthage was particularly notorious, branded as a serial killer of children for at least 600 years in a site now known as the Tophet, a Hebrew word meaning "roaster" or "place of burning." Most Western scholars believe the practice was organized around the worship of two deities. Mr. Stager says it may also have been a primitive mechanism of population control. Others suggest a more sporadic activity connected to spring fertility rights.
I'm pretty suspicious of this sort of revisionism that comes an obvious political agenda. But it's not my area of expertise. For the debate between Professor Stager and Mr. Fantar see here. (Full disclosure: Larry Stager is one of my teachers.)
UPDATE (29 May): More here.