“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.
Astronauts onboard the International Space Station have photographed both Carthage and the nearby metropolis of Tunis.
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.
The city-state of Carthage in North Africa was founded by Phoenician settlers in 814 BC, and it subsequently became the seat of a trade empire that controlled much of the western Mediterranean region (including most of the former Phoenician lands). Carthage was completely destroyed by the Roman Republic during the Third (and final) Punic War (149-146 BC). The end of Carthage has been made notorious by the story that the Romans allegedly sowed the city with salt to ensure that no further rivals to their power would arise there. However, given the great value of salt at the time and the strategic importance of the city’s location, scholars dispute whether the event actually occurred. Following the destruction of Carthage, Roman dominance of the Mediterranean continued until the fall of the Western Empire in 476 AD.