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Necropolis: I visit the Punic Necropolis in Carthage, and make a horrifying discovery
Posted by Douglas, Jun 16, 2008. 3362 views. ID = 1390


Posted by Douglas, Jun 16, 2008. 3362 views. ID = 1390
This post was written in 12 minutes.
I don't want to be accused of being like Dan Brown (who writes non-historical fiction and passes it off as historical fiction), so I'll tell you right up front that I've taken some liberties with this Carthaginian landmark.

When I've finished writing the story I'll add a post-script explaining what I've done to the Necropolis, and why. :)
This post has been awarded 30 stars by 7 readers.
This post is Part 7 of a writing series titled The Bovine Man.

"Carthage was one of those rare cities so conveniently located along well traveled land and sea routes that not even the ravages of war and time could fully destroy it. Carthage has been inhabited by Muslims, by Germanic tribes, by Christians, and by Romans. But before any of that it was, under the Phoenicians, a grand empire that stretched across North Africa and even reached out across the Mediterranean to the southern parts of ancient Iberia. Carthage has never been so powerful as it was under those ancient Punics."

As the bovine man spoke, he walked confidently down a hillside toward a valley filled with oddly shaped hillocks and rocky promontories. The ground beneath us was disrupted by a myriad of holes, some as small as gopher homes, others large enough for a child to crawl into with little difficulty. Cut slabs of crumbling rock stood at unpredictable and improbable angles, like gravestones in a cemetery that had been shaken by an earthquake.

I followed behind him, carefully avoiding the holes that were scattered along the path. I didn't know what to make of this valley - it wasn't like the dusty dryness of Israel's ancient ruins, nor like the grass and vine covered ruins we had just left. It was as though the entire area had been through many cycles of growth and decay, piling layer upon layer of debris into the valley, and then had been excavated, leaving ancient stones, layered embankments and untouched sod in unlikely proximity.

"What is this place?" I demanded.

The bovine man ignored my question and continued his lecture. The lassitude I had seen in him at the amphitheater was clearly gone; he was animated, almost spastic in his eagerness to continue his instruction in ancient history. "One of the most terrible times for Phoenician Carthage came in the third century before your Christ. The Carthaginian Empire extended at that time into western Sicily, which made conflict with the Greek city state of Syracuse almost inevitable. For a hundred years that conflict remained entirely on the island of Sicily, and eventually there came an uncomfortable and uneasy peace.

"The peace didn't last, however; King Agathocles ignored the fragile peace treaties his predecessors had formed and reopened hostilities with Carthage. Now, for the first time, the war moved from the Mediterranean islands to African soil, and the city of Carthage found itself at the center of great battles. It was a terrible time." He paused in his speech to climb nimbly over a rock outcropping that looked like it might have been - long ago - a wide, low wall.

Once again, as at Masada, I sensed that this strange man was speaking from memory, and not from history books. Such a thing was impossible, of course, but sometimes our minds persuade us of things we know cannot be true. "What is this place?" I repeated.

"What does it look like?" he countered.

Looking around me, I noticed again the oddly skewed standing stones that reminded me of gravestones. "Looks like a cemetery," I said.

"See now? You're a bright boy, able to figure things out for yourself. A cemetery it is. Necropolis is the official term. Not the Roman one, but the much older Punic Necropolis." He said the word Roman with the same disdain he had once used when speaking the word American to me.

Remembering what he had said back at the amphitheater about going home, I said with a smirk, "Your home is in a cemetery?"

He ignored the jab and continued his lecture, "Most people have at least heard of the Punic wars - the wars between the Phoenicians and the Roman Empire - but not so many know how close to annihilation the Phoenicians were in 310 B.C. when the armies of Syracuse marched on Carthage. Ah. Here we are."

I saw that we were approaching a small rectangular area which had been roped off from public traffic, and was populated by men and women who were scraping at the ground with picks, trowels, and scoops, or sifting soil that had been lifted from beneath the ground's surface with hand-operated augers. I looked at the bovine man. "Your home is in an archaeological dig?"

Again he ignored me and said, "Stay close to me."

"I don't think we're allowed in there," I warned as he continued toward the barricaded area.

Sounding irritated, he repeated, "Stay close to me."

Up until this point I had managed to persuade myself that the strange vortex of repulsion around the bovine man was a figment of my imagination. Now I was forced to reconsider, as I watched him approach the ropes. One by one, workers in that area paused from their work, looked about curiously, and then with expressions ranging from mild confusion to outright puzzlement, wandered off to take a break, or complete some inexplicable and unassigned task. The departure of the confused archaeologists left a wide swath of unguarded ground through the barricade. The bovine man turned and smirked at me.

I stayed close to him.

I saw that the dig was uncovering a wide variety of clay pots and pitchers, some in excellent condition, some cracked, and some nearly dissolved to dust after their centuries under the layers of earth. I surmised that these urns contained the centuries-old remains of pre-Roman Punics.

The bovine man picked up one of the urns, and held it out for me to see. A picture had once been etched and painted into the side of the container, but time had eroded the sharp edges of the lines, and the pigment had long ago leeched out into the ground. Without specialized imaging tools, I had no way of knowing what scene was depicted on the rounded surface.

"Archeology," my companion said with a smile. "The art of stealing the last remnants of dignity from the long dead."

"But in studying these sites," I argued, "we gain insight into their culture. Don't we, in a sense, honor them by keeping them in memory? If the archaeologists can make sense of the story that was once etched into that clay pot, that will lead to a greater understanding of a magnificent culture that would otherwise be forgotten."

He laughed. "You misunderstood me," he said. "I have no problem with dishonoring the dead." Then, quicker than I could blink, he held the urn high over his head and hurled it onto the hard, dry ground. I let out a cry of dismay as the pot shattered into fragments too small to ever reconstruct. A small puff of gray dust rose into the air and slowly dissipated, blowing away and resettling in other parts of the valley. What remained was a handful of clay shards and a few tiny bone fragments which had survived the cremation of this long-dead corpse.

My companion poked at the debris with his foot, churning through the clay and bone until a recognizable fragment, an intact jawbone, rose to the surface. I felt sickened by his careless prodding of the remains, but couldn't help staring at the ancient bones. "That's not a human jawbone," I said.

"No?" he said. "What's the matter? Too small to be human?"

"Unless it's an infant," I said.

He nodded. "This is the infant necropolis. Hundreds and hundreds of child corpses. Most just a few months old when they died, back in the days of the Syracuse war. Follow me." He pressed forward across the dig, and I followed him. He barely glanced at the ground beneath him, yet somehow his feet seemed to find the most well preserved of urns, which were each crushed to dust as he trod on them with careless indifference. I felt a burning in my throat and abdomen, and waves of nausea passed through me as I watched cloud after cloud of ash swirling around his legs, and heard the repeated crunch of clay and bone under his feet.

"Was there an epidemic?" I asked, studiously avoiding his footsteps while trying to remain within his repulsive circle.

"I told you," he replied. "There was a war."

My nausea turned to horror as I imagined invading soldiers from Syracuse marching on the city of Carthage, like those Roman soldiers in ancient Bethlehem, going from door to door seeking out innocent children to destroy. That was what I imagined; I had no way of knowing that the truth was far, far worse.

"While those Hebrew people you admire so much were busy being dragged into captivity again and again, begging and pleading for deliverance from a god who proved himself incapable of keeping his people out of trouble for more than a decade at a time, everyone else - from Mesopotamia to Ammon and Moab, and from Egypt to Carthage - was busy discovering gods with real power. The power to take the adoration and sacrifice of their worshipers and use it to turn and twist and shape the world around him. The power to change the course of an entire war." He pointed at one of the stele, a stone slab rising out of the ground before us with a carved image on its surface. "See."

The image, like everything else around us, was worn and chipped, but the carving was well enough preserved to understand. It was a robed man - a priest, perhaps - carrying a small baby in his arms, stretching out, reaching toward...

Now, as I understood at last what I was looking at, the bile rose in my throat. Only my determination not to desecrate these infants' resting place any further kept me from dropping to the ground and vomiting. "The Phoenicians," I said after I found the strength to speak. "The Phoenicians. They slaughtered their own babies, then cremated them and buried them here."

"Not quite," the bovine man said, far too cheerfully. "The slaughtering and the cremating were all one step." I shuddered, and tried - to no avail - not to imagine that horrifying scene of fiery death.

Now we stood in the remains of what must have once been a building, though there was nothing left but a foundation and - in the center of the structure - a carefully carved statue which had tipped over - or had been pushed over - on its side, and was partially covered with rubble. One arm and part of a leg were missing. I approached the prostrate statue and saw that it was not entirely human; from the neck down it was an armored and strongly muscled male body, but from the neck up it was a fierce and angry bull staring off into the heavens with unblinking eyes.

To this shrine, to this cruel and detestable god, priests had long ago brought the infants of Carthage, hoping that the terrible sacrifice would bring peace, victory and prosperity to their war-torn land. As I looked at that horrid carved face, there was a sense of eerie recognition. I felt as though I knew this strange idol with its elongated, bestial face and wide set brooding eyes...

In that moment, caught between the image and the reality, between the mirror and the monster, I felt as though every muscle in my body had turned to soup, and everything spun dizzily around me. With an equal mix of horror and sickening curiosity, I whispered a name, the name that belonged to both the man behind me and the bovine statue before me. "Molech."

From behind me I heard the beginnings of a slow, cruel laugh, and I felt a burst of hot, dry breath on the back of my neck.

Copyright 2008 Douglas. All rights reserved. has been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work. For permission to reprint this item, please contact the author.

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This post has been awarded 30 stars by 7 readers.
This post is Part 7 of a writing series titled The Bovine Man. The next part of this series can be found here: The Economy of the Soul.
This is a revised version of a post. Click here to view the original version


Josiah T.
Jun 16, 2008
Wow... I never would have guessed... :-|
   ~Posted by Josiah T., Jun 16, 2008

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