In Tunisia, one of the highlights of the year is the Festival de Carthage. It is a festival that brings together all the people of Tunis, whether nationals or foreigners through the power of music. The musical acts invited to participate vary from classic jazz to hip-hop and the lineup has gotten increasingly eclectic year on year. The festival takes place from July to August in the capital city, with additional events in surrounding smaller towns. The timing of the event during the oppression of the summer heat can seem dissuasive at times, but in my experience because the concerts are held in the evenings, attendees always benefit from the cool desert breeze.
Outside of the celebrities and amazing music the festival is rightly associated with, the best part of these musical concerts in Tunisia is where they take place. The Festival de Carthage in my first two years in Tunisia took place indoors at hotels on the beaches of Gammarth, which is a neighborhood located in the northernmost tip of the capital city. However, the last festival in 2015 took place at the ancient amphitheater of Carthage. That location made the concert all the more special. Hearing Lauryn Hill’s voice cascade and bounce off stone architecture that has stood since the second century is an indescribable moment.
Tunisia uses its amphitheaters as cultural centers for spoken word, significant speeches and theatrical performances. After its partial destruction in the 5th century, it took many years to restore the Carthage amphitheater but in 1964, the government took the initiative to rebuild it entirely to the state that it is in today.
When Lauryn Hill came to sing as part of the Festival de Carthage, I had to be there. Although the start time was around 8pm, on the day of the event many of us arrived 2 hours earlier to find strategic seats. Of course, I showed up with all the necessary accoutrements for a makeshift bed much to my friends’ embarrassment. Alas, after the first hour of them sitting with no back support on the hard cement steps, they quickly changed their tune. After 3 hours of waiting, poor Ms. Hill was welcomed to the stage by a wave of booing from the crowd. She quickly apologized for her tardiness and slowly serenaded away our initial annoyance. Her voice is so powerful and sounds the same as we all remember it from the days of Oh La La La.
Tunisia also hosts a number of classical concerts at El Djem the site of the set of the Gladiator movie. El Djem, located on the eastern seaboard of the country, was part of the Roman city of Thydrus. It also has an amphitheater, named as a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, seeing it with the added set design for a concert, the lighting and the crowds makes visiting it another experience altogether. The Festival International de Musique Symphonique that takes place at El Djem also every year during the summer months as well. A scenic 3-hour drive from Tunis makes attending it the perfect excuse for a road trip.
Unfortunately, both Festival de Carthage and Festival International de Musique Symphonique began to struggle following the negative press that Tunisia received in the media. Many musical acts refused to come to the country and many foreigners were on the fence about whether or not it would be safe. Yet, we ventured out and had the time of our lives amidst the ruins of Tunisia. Rest assured, the government reinforced security during the events and made their presence and purpose known. This country continually rises to the occasion. I am glad to experience it firsthand.
If you want to visit the Tunisian amphitheaters in their entire splendor, I encourage you to book your flight to discover Africa around July or August to partake in one of these amazing musical festivals. You will not regret it!