At first glance, the russet-brown ruins on a hill beside the Gulf of Tunis do not look like remarkable monuments to human resilience. Until you study them closely, they seem to lack any pattern or form. But look carefully and the remains gradually take shape before your eyes: those walls are the vestiges of houses arranged on a neat grid, with inner courtyards hidden from narrow streets.
The more you look, the more the columns and ramparts of Carthage come together and assemble themselves. Then remember that more than two millennia ago the world’s greatest empire tried its utmost to ensure that you would never see this sight.
When the Romans captured Carthage at the culmination of the Third Punic War in 146BC, they levelled the city, massacred its inhabitants, sold the survivors into slavery and then ploughed over what remained before sowing the earth with salt to ensure that nothing would grow in its place. In the words of Tacitus, the Roman historian, they “created a wasteland and called it peace”.
So the walls and columns that somehow survive, thanks to recent excavations, amount to astonishing gestures of defiance. Imagine how Scipio, the Roman general who masterminded the obliteration, would feel if he knew that people in 2012 were able to admire the remains of the city he sought to pound into scorched earth.
For Najib Ben Lazreg, the Tunisian archaeologist who showed me around the site, Carthage lives and breathes. “Surely Hannibal strolled in these streets ,” he said, sweeping an arm over the ruins. “They are from his time.”
As a man brimming with passion for the classical world, Najib finds it easier than most to infuse life into relics. It required some effort of the imagination, but at that moment, inspired by his example, I could also summon a faint sense of connection with the memory of Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general whose tactics are still studied in military academies, and who was born in this Mediterranean setting in 247BC.
Carthage is found outside Tunis, the modern capital of Tunisia, and more recent convulsions weigh on Najib’s mind. The Arab Spring began here with the popular revolution that forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee into exile in January last year. He built a palace beside the remains of the Roman baths at Carthage. Tourists who innocently turned their cameras in the direction of the whitewashed, floodlit perimeter wall around that palace would once be threatened by the president’s bodyguards. That no longer happens, which amounts to one solid gain from the revolution. But today there are few visitors to make use of their new freedom to take pictures from any angle. I had the ruins of Carthage pretty much to myself. The handful of tourists I saw during my stay were all from France or Italy: I did not hear an English voice anywhere.
Admittedly, I was in Tunisia during the winter – and a cold wind blew over the far from placid waters of the Mediterranean every day. And I concentrated on the sights of antiquity around Tunis itself, not the beach resorts of Djerba or Hammamet. The latter shares the weather of the capital, but Djerba, located in the far south, is a haven of winter sun.
Last year, Djerba was deserted by tourists, scared off by Tunisia’s revolution and the war in nearby Libya. Today, French sunseekers have returned, albeit in smaller numbers than usual.
Every Tunisian I met was worried by the precipitous decline in tourism. Visitor numbers fell by half in the year after the revolution, according to government figures. Mehdi Houas, the tourism and commerce minister, disclosed that national revenues from tourism dropped by about 50 per cent in 2011 to about £800m.
“It’s terrible for the economy as a whole because it’s 50 per cent of our foreign exchange,” he said in a recent interview. “We lost a lot, especially compared with what we should have had. Next year  I want us to make a strong comeback.”
From what I saw, the comeback has yet to begin – and Tunisians are grimly realistic about their country’s prospects. “I think we have to wait another year before we start to improve,” shrugged Najib. “But the prices are low, the sights are empty and we are happy to see you coming. After a crisis, people are happy to see you.”
And the crisis does seem to be over, at least for now. Tunisia’s revolution ended 13 months ago and there has been little trouble since. No one can tell how the country’s politics will be reshaped, but there are two reasonable predictions. One is that Islamist sentiment will have more influence over the new Tunisia: Ennahda, the fundamentalist party, won the first free elections last October. Tunisians will quietly tell you that more and more women are wearing the veil. The second is that no one has an interest in wrecking the tourist industry and the country prizes its reputation as a safe destination. And that was how Tunisia seemed to me during my brief stay.
After Carthage, Najib took me on a day trip to the Roman city of Dougga, a two-hour drive south-west of Tunis. Once you leave the sprawling capital, you enter a Mediterranean landscape of rolling hills, scattered with olive groves and crisscrossed by stone walls. Soon, you reach a wilder area of wooded valleys, where shepherds tend flocks of goats. Here, on a hilltop, is one of the finest Roman sites outside Italy. Dougga is one of those rare places where it takes little imagination to connect with the world of two millennia ago. You can walk the streets, wander around houses, visit the baths, marvel at the Capitol and climb the terraces of the theatre.
The latter is particularly striking. Not only does it have the symmetry and precision of the finest Roman architecture, but the theatre also commands a magnificent view over a green valley crowned with hills. When I sat on one of the higher rows, I reflected that the biggest challenge facing the local impresario would have been to come up with a show that could compete with the natural backdrop.
A hilltop location also means a strong wind, and it was chilly on the day I visited. Near the theatre is the Capitol, where a row of columns, looking as pristine as the day it was raised in the second century AD, stands in honour of Rome’s triad of gods: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. So slender and graceful are the columns that they seemed about to tumble in the wind.
All around, covering an area of about 160 acres, lie the remains of Roman life. Down the hill are the baths, which seem considerably bigger than the Temple, revealing the priorities of the empire’s citizens. Outside is a more surprising find: a stone slab bears 12 perfectly sculpted communal loos, carefully positioned side by side. The Romans clearly made a social occasion out of everything.
As with Carthage, Najib and I had Dougga more or less to ourselves. Three visitors from France were just leaving when I turned up; no one else was there except for the man at the entrance. As we wandered the ruins, a shepherd boy appeared from nowhere, letting his flock clamber over ancient walls and streets. The United Nations, which made this a World Heritage Site, probably would not approve, but I found this charming: how many shepherds must have done exactly the same over the centuries?
Near Dougga, we stopped for lunch in the town of Teboursouk. This was my one glimpse of normal life outside the capital. A simple offering of chicken, chips and pitta bread in a tiny, crowded restaurant cost a couple of pounds. All around, Tunisian men – there was not a woman to be seen – smoked hookah pipes and watched football on TV.
Back in Tunis, I stayed at the Residence Hotel, found in its own gardens beside the sea. It’s designed like a giant Mediterranean villa, with spotless, cool whitewashed rooms. As with the Roman homes in Dougga, rooms are arranged around an inner courtyard. But if this sounds like a pleasant touch, be warned: it also creates a giant funnel for noise rising from the restaurant on the ground floor. As I discovered, the clamour starts at about 6am and continues until midnight. If you want peace, ask for a room well away from this otherwise lovely feature of Roman architecture.
As with the sights of northern Tunisia, the Residence was largely empty. When I headed into central Tunis one night, I shared a taxi with one of the hotel’s workers. Tired and careworn, he was candid about his worries. “It’s very human that people should stay away from Tunisia after our revolution,” he said. “But we hope it will not last for ever.”