Ousted Tunisian Dictator Accused of Looting and Despoiling Carthage

Ousted Tunisian Dictator Accused of Looting and Despoiling Carthage

Much international concern has focused on acts of looting of cultural artifacts during the current revolutionary unrest in Egypt. However, in Tunisia, a far more spectacular cultural crime is making news, this one carried out by the agents of the state themselves. Recently ousted dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family stand accused of illegal appropriation and plundering of the site of the ancient city of Carthage. A pair of activists are publicizing the crimes in a petition they have launched demanding that they be rectified by the new government.

The ruins of Carthage and the village of Sidi Bou Saïd are located next to the modern city of Tunis, and were designated UNESCO heritage sites in 1979. At the time, the Tunisian government classified them as "non-construction" zones because of their archeological and historic interest. Now, Abdelmajid Ennabli, an archeologist who was head of the Carthage site during excavations from 1972 to 1992, and Jellal Abdelkafi, an urban planner who has studied urbanization and land use, are accusing Ben Ali and his family of removing large swaths of these zones from this protective category so that they could build a luxury apartment complex.

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The pair also say that Ben Ali's family is guilty of "the appropriation of historical palaces and residences as well as of pieces from our heritage." They have called on the minister of culture to stop all illegal construction on the ancient site and to seize misappropriated property. Their petition, launched on February 4, has as of this writing collected over 3,500 signatures.

The profiteering attitude of Ben Ali toward the ruins was confirmed by Richard Miles's recent piece in the Guardian describing his experience working on archeological excavations in Tunisia in the 1990s. Researchers who wanted to protect Carthage "were fighting a losing battle against a cabal of influential businessmen and politicians who all enjoyed presidential patronage," he wrote. "The legislation that protected the ancient city was a mere inconvenience that could be ignored and brushed aside." Describing a brochure for the luxury apartments called "Residences of Carthage," Miles wrote that "one can marvel at the chutzpah of the developers's boast of its proximity to Roman ruins when there is little doubt that they were probably built on top of Roman ruins." (That particular claim does not currently appear on the development's Web site, though it does tout its "architecture drawn from Mediterranean and Carthage heritage.")

According to the Tunisian newspaper La Presse, the Trabelsi clan around Ben Ali trafficked in antiquities for years, using private jets to transport pieces of the country's heritage abroad. In a Machiavellian scheme, the family is said to have broken up smaller rings of Iraqi smugglers and then tap into their network of contacts, frequently based in London, in order to mount their own trafficking operation. They are said to have sold thousands of items including Roman and Byzantine coins, mosaics, and sculptures.

While this pillaging of Tunisian heritage is shocking, it's certainly in keeping with the proliferating accusations that Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi and her family have pocketed vast amounts of wealth from the country. Tunisia's central bank chief said on Wednesday that the country's banks had made €1.3 billion ($1.75 billion) in loans to businesses linked to the ruling family, with 30 percent of them having no guarantees of repayment, AFP reports.

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On a more positive note, Tunisia's culture minister reported recovering 130 artifacts from historic residences that the Ben Ali clan had taken over for their personal use, according to La Presse. Since they're less portable than cash, there's still hope that Tunisia's ancient artifacts and Roman ruins can be salvaged.

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