Friday, May 27, 2005

Carthago delenda est

The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating piece Thursday on a bit of attempted archaeological revisionism centered on Carthage, the ancient Semitic city-state in modern-day Tunesia that was a deadly rival of the Roman Republic. There's a version of the story online, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Carthage was a daughter of Phoenicia. The crux of the conflict is the alleged Carthaginian (and Phoenician) custom of sacrificing children by immolation in religious ceremonies. The Romans charged the Carthaginians with this, and the Bible charges the Phoenicians with it. Furthermore, grave artifacts in Carthage allude to sacrifice and have inscriptions expressing vows to Phoenician deities. And urns buried on these sites contain remains of children (and sometimes of animals) who were cremated.

Tunisian scholars, led by M'hamed Hassine Fantar, have begun to vigorously dispute this story. I have some sympathy for this. After all, if all we knew of Christians was what the Romans wrote about them, we'd believe they were cannibals.

Personally, I'd be delighted if what's alleged in the case of Carthage were not true. There is much to admire in the ancient Carthaginians, and their parent-state, Phoenicia. They were brilliant navigators -- the first to sail around Africa -- and crafty strategists; the Phoenicians taught the Greeks the alphabet, and taught the world commerce. Further, these states could stand as a pre-Islamic model for a great Middle Eastern/North African civilization. In the Islamic view, all was darkness and evil before the Prophet.

But I am not so eager for it that I'd twist the truth, and corrupt the humanities disciplines that teach me about the past. Ironicaly, it was a reaction against Islamism, in highly secular Tunesia, that brought this current situation about.

Following an upsurge in Islamic activism in the late 1980s, leaders worried that the country's education system was falling under the sway of Islamists, who mostly ignored pre-Islamic history. They stressed ancient Carthage's gory side as proof of the ignorance and immorality that supposedly prevailed before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century.

"We taught students that everything that was not Islamic had no real value," says Omrane Boukhari, a former teacher who now heads the education ministry's curriculum department. "It was amusing at first, but then we realized it was dangerous."

In the early 1990s, authorities began to purge teachers suspected of Islamist militancy. Textbooks were then revised to highlight the glories of Tunisia's pre-Islamic past. Students, says Mr. Boukhari, need to learn about "the most positive and most enlightened aspects" of Tunisia's history. "You find the identity of a people in the way it teaches history to its children."

And, by the way, that last quote is a chiller if you've seen the way American history is taught in American colleges and universities these days.

To be fair, the originator of the iconoclastic attack was an Italian scholar, Sabatino Moscati. But then Sicily had its own "tophet" site, so it was a question of national honor there, too.

The curator of a Cincinnati museum that ran into a diplomatic headache when it exhibited Carthaginian artifacts along with a film about Phoenician infanticide called it "a political thing. They don't like to think of such unsavory things going on in their territory."

And there does seem to be a high degree of political wishful thinking in Fantar's quotes, as recorded by the WSJ. And a large dollop of that familiar quality of Arabic touchiness about their place in history and their failure to become a great power in modern times, and to emerge from the shadow of Europe and the West. Call it the Bernard Lewis thing.

"History always gets written by the victors" ... the Romans twisted history to "show us as barbarians" and to "justify their own barbarity." ... "We must stop looking at our past through the eyes of foreigners" ... "When Arabs read and understand our own history, we will be at the dawn of a real revolution. This is what we are trying to do in Tunisia."

It may be an open topic among archaeologists, but in Tunisia, it's case-closed.

A new high-school history text published late last year celebrates Carthage as "the pole of Mediterranean civilization" and makes only a vague reference to sacrifices. The tourism ministry meanwhile has revised a training course for tour guides. As part of the new program, they get a handout instructing them what to tell visitors. It ... accuses Roman and Greek authors of fabricating mass infanticide "as a propaganda theme."

Aicha Ben Abed, director of research at Tunisia's National Heritage Institute, tries to draw up moral equivalence with Carthage's enemies. "Let's talk about pedophilia among the Romans and Greeks."

OK, "bad," but not really the same thing as burning them alive.

Fantar said the burial urns are a children's cemetery, full of remains of babies who died of natural causes. Researchers are going back to the bones and putting them to the test. "Preliminary results," according to the WSJ article, "seem to support the infanticide camp."

The analysis is being done at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Why do I get the feeling this story is going to get uglier?

A debate between Fantar and an opposing archaeologist is printed here. [Hat tip to the excellent Rogue Classicism]

I would be more pleased with my history if it were more pure. If the Athenians had not worked their slaves to death in the silver mines and the Carthaginians had not sacrificed children and the Americans had never lynched innocent men. But to become fully adult, a man must accept the darkness in one's culture and one's self.

Labels: ,