07 April 2012 5:29 pm | | 0


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From the first century AD, Christians were considered a threat to the unity of Rome and were oppressed and persecuted by Roman authorities for more than four hundred years across the empire. In fact, they were not even allowed to bury their dead in ordinary cemeteries. Thus, they resorted to “catacombs,” which were underground passageways for burial and religious purposes.

Africa, the early Roman name given to the province of modern-day Tunisia, was no exception. Christians here were oppressed and killed in several amphitheaters scattered throughout the ancient province.

The catacombs of Sousse, discovered by the French army in the 19th century, are the only in Tunisia that are open to visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of these underground vestiges of Christianity in ancient Tunisia. They are comprised of galleries stretching over five kilometers and contain at least 15,000 graves, dating back to the end of the first century AD. Either two or three levels of tombs are dug into the galleries’ walls as well as niches holding lamps to light the depths of the labyrinth.

One gallery, known as the catacombs of the Good Pastor, is the only section open to visitors and extends over 1.6 km. Its ancient walls house approximately 6,000 graves.

The burial practices employed in Sousse’s catacombs often involved dipping the corpse in calcium-rich lime and shrouding it with cloth. Once the body was interred, the grave was then covered over with tiles or marble slabs on which the names of the dead were frequently written. Some objects that were buried with the dead can be found in the museum of Sousse.

Many sections of the catacombs have not been excavated due to urbanization encroaching on top of the archaeological site. Nejib Ben Lazreg, a Tunisian archaeologist, said that many Tunisians are not aware of the importance of the ruins. So far, only two hundred meters of the catacombs have been restored.

“The excavation of any site needs to be funded,” he said. Ben Lazreg pointed out that there are other catacombs in the coastal cities of Lamta and Salakta. Nevertheless, their excavations have been on hold since the end of the 1990s due to the lack of funding as well as the construction of new buildings above them.

The catacombs of Sousse are open to visitors at an entrance fee of 4 Tunisian dinars.

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