Sanctuary of Tophet - History and Facts | History Hit

Sanctuary of Tophet

Tunis, Tunis, Tunisia

The Sanctuary of Tophet is an ancient Cartheginian burial site containing a vast number of children’s graves.

Peta Stamper

01 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Sanctuary of Tophet

The Sanctuary of Tophet in Tunisia constitutes the remains of a vast number of children’s graves dating back to the Punic period of Carthage. Historians have hotly disputed whether the Carthaginians practised child-sacrifice during times of serious hardship, and if so, how many of the graves at Tophet belong to sacrificed children.

Sanctuary of Tophet history

The Tophet of Salammbo dates to the city’s founding by Queen Alyssa or Dido in the 19th century BC and continuing until 146 BC, when the city was destroyed by the Roman Republic in the Third Punic War. Carthage was the capital city of the civilisation that had developed from a Phoenician colony and into a Punic empire. The term ‘tophet’ comes from the Hebrew Bible, meaning ‘place of burning’, and relates to tales of child sacrifice which the Bible condemns.

Instances of child sacrifice by the Carthaginians, however, were also recorded in Greco-Roman sources such as Sophocles and Plutarch. Carthaginian inscriptions instead refer to the sites not as tophets but temples, sanctuaries or shrines. No surviving Carthagininan texts describe what rituals were performed at the tophet. However, between 1921 and the 1970s, archaeological excavations found remains from both human infants and lambs, often mixed with other animal remains.

The bones showed they were exposed to different temperatures, suggesting that the sacrifice was burnt over an open-air pyre. These remains were collected and placed in an urn and buried, sometimes with a stone monument to mark the site, including a stele (a tall wooden or stone slab), cippus (a low pedestal or marker used by the Romans) or a throne. The Sanctuary contains over 20,000 urns.

After the Romans conquered Carthage, their horror at human sacrifice did not prevent them from building over the sanctuary, constructing workshops, warehouses and a temple over the site.

Sanctuary of Tophet today

Today this eerie site can be found near the Punic Port in Tunis, covering about an acre of land. You can walk among the stelae, viewing the inscriptions and carvings of the ancient grave markers under the shade of palm trees, sheltering from Tunisia’s hot summer weather.

Getting to the Sanctuary of Tophet

Carthage is 10 miles from Tunis and can be reached by car in 20 minutes. The easiest way to get to Carthage from Tunis city centre is via local transport: the TMG light railway Carthage-Byrsa station reaches the Sanctuary of Tophet. There is a daily service running from the early morning until midnight.

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