“Carthage is situated at the inmost point of a gulf into which it protrudes on a strip of land, almost entirely surrounded on one side by the sea and on the other by a lake,” observed the Greek historian Polybius in the second century BC. He pointed out some of the features that made Carthage attractive for human occupation for centuries. Today, Carthage is a suburb of Tunis, the capital city of northern Africa’s Tunisia. Although cityscape covers most of the ancient port city, the area’s attractions to ancient mariners remain apparent.
The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) captured this natural-color image of Carthage on June 24, 2004. In the east, Carthage narrows to a point that stretches into the Gulf of Tunis. From that point, skinny strips of land extend toward the northwest and southwest, both strips enclosing water bodies. North of Carthage is Sebkhet Arina, a shallow evaporative lake. Rocky outcrops connected by sand separate this shallow lake from the Gulf of Tunis. South of Carthage is Lake Tunis, a water body actively modified and maintained by humans over thousands of years.
Skilled merchants and mariners, the ancient Phoenicians founded Carthage probably sometime between 817 and 748 BC. Romans destroyed the city in the Punic Wars around 146 BC, but eventually rebuilt in the same area.
A 2009 paper in African Archaeological Review laid out the likely reasons for the Phoenicians to settle on this site (and for their rivals to covet it), remarking that Carthage was carefully chosen based on centuries of sea travel through the Mediterranean. Carthage enjoyed a central location along the Mediterranean Sea, and close proximity to Sicily, which probably served as a foothold for trade with the rest of Europe. Winds and ocean currents followed fairly predictable cycles in the region of Carthage. Even better, ocean currents carried ships eastward from Carthage to Sicily with ease in the best sailing months.
The local land- and seascape of Carthage offered multiple advantages for settlement and trade. The Gulf of Tunis provided natural protection for Phoenician ships from bad weather, and by occupying its “inmost point,” Carthage took advantage of the gulf’s protection. At the same time, the city lay on a small peninsula surrounded by water on most sides, as this image shows. This configuration offered Carthage protection if attacked by land. And the nearby fertile plain offered proximity to good croplands.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (2010). Phoenicia. Accessed August 13, 2010.
- Hunt, P. (2009). The locus of Carthage: Compounding geographical logic. African Archaeological Review, 26(2), 137–154.
- United Nations Environment Programme. (2008). Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment. Division of Early Warning and Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya.
- Wikipedia. (2010, August 11). Carthage. Accessed August 13, 2010.
- Wikipedia. (2010, July 25). History of Carthage. Accessed August 13, 2010.
NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Caption by Michon Scott.
- EO-1 - ALI