Ryan E and I recently returned from a weeklong trip to Rome and Tunis. Revisiting one of my favorite cities and then jetting off to a post-revolutionary society was exhilarating and exciting, and offered some interesting insights that can relate to economics as well as peace and conflict.
This January I visited Rome and other Italian cities as part of the J-term course “Investigating Environmental and Economic Change in Italy” with Dr. Travis and Dr. Reiman from the econ department. A major theme for this program was studying conservation. This took the form of studying sustainable fishing in the Venice lagoon, responsible forestry in the Italian Alps, but also the question of “cultural tourism,” and how countries should handle this phenomenon.
It’s certainly worth preserving
So having previously studied cultural tourism, I was somewhat equipped to compare and contrast how it’s handled in Italy versus how Tunisia chooses to preserve their heritage, and the difference could not be more stark.
After arriving at the ruins of Carthage, just outside of Tunis (our taxi driver had taken great pleasure in calling his friends and telling them he had Americans in the car, we must be a rarity these days), we were struck at just how carelessly it was looked after. While it was certainly fun to enter these dangerous old structures, and literally climb on top of the ancient baths buildings, the only guards visible were the military men with guns that we found at the edge of the site (scary at first, but they were friendly), and they were actually guarding the adjacent Presidential Palace, not the ruins themselves. There was no care given to preservation. The same thing happened at the Bardo Museum (their National Museum), which is full of ancient Roman mosaics that you literally get to walk on.
I’m not even kidding, you literally walk on them. That definitely didn’t happen to priceless mosaics in Italy.
I think there are a few reasons for the difference. The most obvious, of course, is that Tunisia is a developing country, while Italy is a major global economy, and has resources to dedicate to preserving cultural heritage, while Tunisia might not. A corollary to this is that Tunisia has exponentially fewer visitors interested in cultural tourism, and less people equals less damage, so the incentive to protect the sites from hordes of tourists isn’t as strong.
Another area that the Bardo museum covered extensively were the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage, a classic example of competition between regional powers. A plaque at the museum described how Rome was threatened by Carthage’s domination of trade in the Western Mediterranean basin, and control of the Straits of Messina – the route between the Eastern and Western basins. Long story short, Rome saw Carthage as antithetical to them, and destroyed it over the course of three wars spanning over a century – the tour guide at the site described Carthage as the “Hiroshima of Antiquity,” because the Romans destroyed it brick-by-brick and salted the earth around it, rendering it completely uninhabitable for decades.
Less people = less damage, more people would necessitate better preservation, trade offs!