This post is based on a trip to Tunisia which I took before the onset of Covid-19 – but which the pestilence rather pushed to one side. However, it’s time to continue (the new) normal service and return to some aspects of wine and culture that go beyond plague. This post also (coincidentally) follows the one I wrote before Christmas, as it is also about religion, although in a very different context.
Most people probably wouldn’t associate Tunisia with wine but – both historically and in contemporary society – that would be a mistake. Even today, despite having a majority Muslim population, Tunisia makes wine and has it widely available, including in many restaurants. The capital, Tunis, is just to the south-west of the site of Carthage, the major ancient settlement in the region. Carthage was founded in about 814 CE by the Phoenicians – the seafaring peoples from what is modern Lebanon, who were the first great traders of wine across the Mediterranean (a large wine press dating from this period has just been discovered in Lebanon which may have fuelled this trade). This turned into an autonomous state, Carthage, which at its peak challenged the growing power of Rome, so that there were a series of wars between them eventually won by the Romans. They destroyed Carthage – although the city was later rebuilt within their empire. The destruction included a great library and the Romans left all the books in their wake. All, that is, except the works of Mago, which the destroyers retrieved because of their fame and took back to Italy.
Why these books? Mago – known now in Tunisia as Magon (who some claim was one of the earliest settlers although others think he lived around 500 BCE) wrote a treatise on Agriculture, probably the first such book. He was very influential on later Greek and Roman authors. So why does this interest us? Because viticulture is one branch of agriculture, and Magon wrote on planting and pruning vines and making wine. He even had a section on why the most productive vineyards face north – which is, of course, not what we would normally claim in the Northern Hemisphere but makes sense in a hot climate like that of North Africa.
Magon is still revered in Tunisia; so much so that there is now the ‘Magon Project’; this is a transnational partnership between Tunisia and Italy – specifically Sicily, only about 125 kilometres away over the sea – to underscore their culinary and cultural links; it is part financed by the EU. One of its major foci is on the links relating to wine (another would be couscous, the staple food of Tunisia – and which has a European history only in Sicily as the island was ruled by Arabs for over 100 years). It seeks to ‘trace the footsteps of Magon’ by using the archaeology of the two countries; it is also part of an international network of wine routes – and even has its own Facebook page. The project focuses on the ruins of Carthage and Cap Bon, a peninsula to the east of Tunis where most of the vineyards are based. One of the key archaeological sites, Kerkouane, was conquered briefly by a Sicilian tyrant, Agathocles of Syracuse, during his fight with Carthage, so I was told. Relations between the two regions were not always as harmonious as they seem to be now. The Magon Project is explicit about the vinous link with Sicily and Italy – but of course, as a Muslim country it has to be careful not to play it up too much. One of the interpretative panels at Kerkouane talks about moscato, and the famous wines made from it on the Italian island of Pantelleria. This latter, just 60 kilometres away, is visible in the hazy distance from Cap Bon. It also forms a link to the only wine I tried in Tunisia which I really enjoyed.
The key beneficiaries of this (at least while international tourism was operating) were tour companies who could take you on wine and/or history tours outside the capital, Tunis. The country needs this industry; its infrastructure is woefully underfunded, and it urgently needs more capital. As an aside, my own view was that the tourist attractions were far too cheap to enter and international visitors could contribute a lot more for the privilege of exploring a great archaeological heritage; Carthage – where you can spend hours exploring – costs less than 4€ to enter. There is also a national museum with the greatest collection of mosaics in the world which is well worth visiting.
So, 2800 years on, Magon still has an influence – even if it is no longer on viticulture or the better production of wine. He has been co-opted as an icon for the heritage and agricultural dynamism of the country’s ancestors.