In Tabarka on the northern coast of
one might easily forget that this place is located in a North-African country,
which are normally lacking of water. Here we see many green overgrown places
with mimosa and Tunisia bougainville. When you see
also the houses with red roofs, relics from the French protectorate, you think
you are in
instead of an Arabic town. Tabarka is a small town, which was called in
antiquity Thabarca. It is located on a bay and possesses a beautiful beach,
where the external waves with white crests break up. The separation between the
beach and the hinterland is made by low overgrown dunes. The old harbour lies
on the lee-side and is partly blocked by a wall founded on rocks. At the
beginning of this wall rises a group ochre coloured monoliths of 20-25 metres
high. They are called the ‘Aiguilles’. The bay is controlled by a little island
‘Tabarque’. On the top of it lies a Portuguese fort from 1542 AC. This island
is now in connection with the mainland by a dam of 400 metres. Toulouse
The surroundings are formed by rough mountains with cork oaks, pines, aspens, alders, birches and willows. The mountains are a finding place for coral and amber. Big game is now extinct. The rocky coast is suitable for skin-diving and snorkelling.
In the sea some 30 kilometres away there is archipelago of 6 islands. The largest is called La Galite. The area is known as a natural spot for seals. La Galite was in the past a safe-shelter for ships. There they have found relics of Punic graves, Carthaginian coins and some Roman buildings.
Thabraca of the antiquity is however more difficult to describe. Despite the fact, that there are regularly some excavations, the results are nevertheless poor. In the Bulletin Archéologique du Comité des Travaux Historiques et scientifiques, Paris, those excavations are mentioned :
BCTH 1892 : J.Toutain, Fouilles et explorations à Tabarka et aux environs, p.175 ;
BCTH 1903 : Gouvet, Tombe chrétienne en mosaïque trouvée à Tabarka, p.CLXIV
BCTH 1905 : Benet, Les fouilles de Tabarka en 1904 et 1905. p.378-394
BCTH 1911 : A,Merlin, Fouilles effectuées à Tabarka. P.CLXXXI-CLXXXIV
BCTH 1941-2 : A.Truillot, Une mosaïque de Sousse signée Macari avec mention d’un sarcophage de Tabarka portant le mot Macari, p.155
BCTH 1961-2 : A.Merlin, Inscription de Tabarka. p.82-3
And: M.Longerstay, Nouvelles fouilles à Tabarka, Africa 10 (1988) p.220-253.
Most of the findings come out of the Roman period. It looks like this town is in the Punic period not an important place. Nevertheless it existed already in the 5th century BC as a real town.
In Phoenician the name was tbrk‘n. In Latin it became Thabraca or even Thabracenorum. We know the name because there were some coins with that name. See: L.Müller, Numismatique de l’ancienne Afrique, Copenhague 1860-1 and K.Jongeling, Names in Neo-Punic Inscriptions,
The name of Tabarka is libyco-Berber as shown by the initial t and the final n of the original toponym Tabrakan written tbrk‘n or tbrkn in the Neo-Punic legend of the local coinage. The meaning of the name could be ‘rough place’.
Some classical authors mention the town. Stephen of Byzantium in
1849 by A.Meineke, p.598). Polybius (XII 1,4) is also aware of the existence.
More important is an almost a contemporary figure: Pseudo-Scylax (par.110-111)
located the harbour Euboea of Pithekoussai (Apes) in front of an island and of
a city. It was suggested to identify this “Bay of the Monkeys” either with a
bay close to Ethnica, Berlin Cape Serrat, dominated by hills and fit to be used as
anchorage, or with the , protected by an
islet and surrounded by wooded sandstone mountains of the Khmir or Kroumirie
The first site is distant from Bizerta about 70 km by sea, the second one, about 120 km. Juvenal (Sat
iris X 194-195) alludes
to the monkeys living in the forests around Tabarka and thus seems to favour
the second identification, already proposed by St.Gsell (HAAN II p.148-9), who
locates Euboea on the islet of Tabarka. M.Longerstay (Nouvelles fouilles)
thinks however, that this hypothesis is too easily.
Diodoros (XX 57-58) seems to come with some kind of confirmation. He describes a campaign of Eumachos in 307 BC in the interior of
“Departing thence, he marched through a high mountain range that extended for about two hundred stades and was full of wild cats……
Crossing this range he came out into a country containing a large number of Apes and to three cities called from these beasts Pithecusae, if the name is translated into the Greek language.”
You could easily think now, that Eumachos arrived in the region of Tabarka, but is that the case? Because Diodoros ends his story here with the sentence:
“When, however, he heard that the neighbouring barbarians were collecting great forces against him, he pushed on more vigorously, having decided to go back to the regions by the sea.” Apparently Eumachos is still somewhere in the interior and not in the vicinity of Tabarka. The solution could be that
and Pithekoussai should be separated. Euboea
is the harbour and Pithekoussai is the area in the interior.
Judging by the Greek names it can’t be excluded, that the Greeks (Naxian) some centuries earlier have tried to make a settlement in this region Muxsi, but that they were chased away by the Carthaginians and the Maxitani, just as was done with Dorieus and the Spartans at Kinyps in
in 520 BC. Only the Greek names survived in the head of Ps.Scylax.
For Tabarka the following sequence of occupation is possible:
- semi-permanent shelter by the Phoenicians in the 7th century BC
- permanent harbour by the Punic population in the 6th century BC
- full town development in the Carthaginian period 5th-2nd century BC
- Roman period after 146 BC
In the Roman period Tabarka becomes more important as an export harbour from marble out of Chemtou and grain from the fields of Beja. We finally now encounter a Punic name, but it was put in Latin: Imilcho Mythumbalis (CIL III,5206). In Punic this would have been: Himilk Matanbaal.
After the Roman period Tabarka comes a few times again in the picture. The Vandal people entered the town on their way to Hippo Regius in 430 AD and almost three centuries later during the Arabic invasion Kahena has fled with her Berber army into Tabarka in 702 AD.
Tabarka has always been a boundary post except for the most early times, where it was the centre of the land of the Maxitani. After that it became the boundary post between Carthaginian Africa en the Numidian area of Massylia. This hinge-joint of the Carthaginian united empire can be seen in the charts in the book La politica amministrativa di Cartagine in
(Lorenza/Ilja Manfredi, 2003, Roma).
After that between Roman Africa en Numidia
and now again between Tunisia
and . Algeria