Utica, also known as Utique, is one of the oldest and well-known Phoenician settlements. The name Utica means “old town” in the Punic language.
Today, it is an impressive archaeological site with ruins from the Punic, Roman, and Byzantine Empires. The Utica site is located about 30 kilometres northwest of Carthage in Tunis in the governorate of Bizerte, and it is the largest archeological site in the region. If you’re staying in Tunis, it makes a great day trip excursion to explore Utica which is one of the last remaining remnants of Tunisia’s past.
A Brief History of Utica
Utica was founded by the Phoenician sailors of Tar in 1101 B.C., and is known as one of the oldest cities of the western Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Sea actually reached to the city in ancient times, but the city is now located further inland due to many years of deforestation and agriculture upriver. This ancient city was strategically located in close proximity with other cities of historical importance, and it was one of the key trading posts between ancient cities of Tyre and Cadiz.
Utica often changed sides during the course of time. The city remained faithful allies to Carthage during the first Punic war (264-241 B.C.) and the second Punic war (218-202 B.C.). During the third Punic War (149-146 B.C.), Utica surrendered to the Romans and allied with the Romans against Carthage leading to its destruction in 146 B.C. As a token of their alliance, Roman granted them the status of a “free city” in 111 B.C. and the capital city of the newfound province of Africa.
Visit the Museum Before the Archaeological Site
Like many archaeological sites in Tunisia, one single admission ticket grants you access to both the archaeological site as well as a museum showcasing numerous artifacts excavated from the site. One ticket costs 8 Tunisian Dinars. Tunisian residents and visitors from the Arab Maghreb can purchase a discounted ticket at 5 Tunisian Dinars. Some museums such as those in Sbeitla and Makthar are within walking distance from the archaeological site. Other museums such as those in Utica and El Jem are located some minutes away by vehicle from the actual archaeological site. When visiting Utica, we would highly recommend you visit the museum first to learn about the history of this ancient city before stepping foot to the city ruins to imagine it in its former glory.
What to See at the Museum
A tour of this ancient city cannot be complete without a visit to the National Museum that was established in 1990. The museum houses collections from Punic and Roman periods including:
- Mosaics – 316 mosaics were found at the site which characterizes great typological and chronological diversity
- Punic Commercial Amphorae – these are small ceramic containers that were once used for commercial transport by land or sea
- Cinerary urns in the form of a casket
- Potteries which confirm the city was once actively trading with Phoenicia, Egypt, and Greece
- Other artifacts such as lamps, jewelry, and statue bases
What to See at the Archaeological Site
Once you are finished with the museum, you can drive for a few minutes to the archaeological site. The admission ticket you purchased at the museum will also grant you access to explore the archaeological remains at this site.
Archaeological Remains from Roman Utica
You will notice that the town was designed in a grid pattern with fairly wide streets. Many private buildings excavated from this site, and many are decorated with mosaic or opus sextile floors. As you walk throughout the site, you will see various houses such as House of the Hunt, House of the Treasure, etc. The House of the Cascade (Maison de la Cascade) at Utica is typical of most Roman houses excavated in North Africa. Most of the rooms are arranged and built around a central courtyard.
The city has two theatres – one built in the open and another built into the side of the hill. Direction to the latter theatre is not very clear so you may need to walk further out to see it.
Other Roman remains include a large forum, several temples, amphitheatre, extensive Roman baths, and a circus.
Archaeological Remains from Punic Utica
There are two Punic cemeteries, known as Ile and La Berge, that have been excavated at Utica. Both of these cemeteries include monumental tombs resembling Phoenician architecture. Although Utica is close in proximity to Carthage, it is interesting to note that the city does not have a tophet, a sacred precinct used for sacrifices and burials. This may be evidence that Utica was closer in culture to the Phoenician colonies of southern Spain than it was to Carthage.
Plan a Visit to Utica
Utica is conveniently located almost exactly half-way between Tunis and Bizerte – about 30 km away from either of these cities. Whether you’re staying in Tunis or in Bizerte, it would make for a wonderful day trip to visit the Utica museum and archaeological site.
If you’re interested in a guided tour of Utica, our team of Tunisia travel experts can help customize a tour itinerary for your holiday vacation to Tunisia.