Travel Essay: The ruins of Carthage are empty and green.
Once the capital of an empire that stretched across the Middle East and North Africa, founded by the legendary Queen Dido, Carthage was sacked by the Romans at the end of the Third Punic War, and became perhaps one of the best-known uses of the term “salt the earth.” Carthage was never meant to flourish again.
I think of the irony of that phrase as I stand on a block of crumbling marble, patches of rain-wetted grass all around me. There is one other tourist here on the hillside behind the Carthage Museum, snapping photos of the sweeping views of Tunis, while a single tour guide, a middle-aged man, chainsmokes beneath an umbrella. Perhaps it’s because of the rain, but on the day I visited Carthage, there were more people trying to sell me tchotchkes from parking lot stalls than tourists exploring the ruins.
During my visit to Tunisia, a United Kingdom tour operator reinstated direct flights to the country for the first time since a 2015 terrorist attack killed 38 people, mostly British tourists, on a beach in the city of Sousse. Two years later, the number of British tourists to Tunisia had dropped by more than 400,000.
As I packed a day bag in my hotel room that morning, I considered Sousse, as well as the ISIS-claimed attack on Tunis’s Bardo National Museum that same year, where 22 people were shot to death. Yet since then, there has been no attack even approximating the level of destruction that those two attacks caused.
Why did it take so long to restart tourist travel after the attacks? Three years later, I walk through my hotel lobby, past the metal detectors and X-ray machine that have become standard in nearly every public building in Tunis. My colleague, who is driving our rental car, gets stopped at a checkpoint by armed police who ask for identification papers. The officer takes one look at me in the passenger seat, with my blonde hair and European features, and grins. “Welcome to Tunisia,” he says in accented English, and waves us on.
In Carthage as the rain pelts down, I head into the museum, which has attracted the dozen or more other visitors from the grounds seeking shelter. This, I think, feels more normal: threading through families milling before huge wall-mounted mosaics, waiting your turn as someone finishes gazing at pieces of pottery behind glass. I look around at my fellow tourists, wondering if they, too, spared a brief moment for Sousse and Bardo before deciding that those moments were far enough in the past, and their lives could not be put on hold, to not matter on this rainy, midwinter day.
Walking into Tunis, into this museum, does not feel like an act of courage or defiance. It is not a statement. Metal detectors, X-ray machines, police checkpoints with barbed wire barricades and armed guards—those are statements. And I do not think they are the statements we want to be making.
BIO: Kelsey Allagood is a writer by night and a policy wonk by day (and vice versa). Her work has appeared in Menacing Hedge and in several school publications. She has a forthcoming essay in Barrelhouse. She lives in Washington, DC.