View of the Roman Circus of Carthage to the east (2010) (photo by Rais67 via Wikimedia Commons)

At the historic site of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, the municipality is bulldozing modern homes built on parts of the ancient city.

In mid-August this year, Layli Foroudi reported for the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the demolition of houses at the site of ancient Carthage, now a suburb of the Tunisian capital Tunis. In the past six years, 90 buildings have been demolished by the municipality — 10 of them in one day this past July. These demolitions have been concentrated in the Roman Circus, once a stadium for chariot races, now part of the poor neighborhood of Mohamed Ali.

The demolished homes were mostly built, it seems, in the chaos following the Tunisian Revolution of 2010–11. While the municipality considers the constructions illegal, the residents purchased their plots of land legally and in recent years the municipality has even approved electrical connections and provided running water.

According to Foroudi’s report, the municipal government is feeling pressure from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, which could remove the site of Carthage from the World Heritage List if various issues (such as houses built illegally on the site) aren’t addressed. The deliberations of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee during its most recent meeting this June-July don’t mention removal from the list, but the committee does clearly ask the local authorities “to enforce the outstanding demolition orders and issue new ones as required.” Compare this to how the committee addresses the residents themselves and their poverty: it requests that the government “address to the degree possible any socio-economic issues that may underlie the recent expansion” (emphasis added). The committee’s decision hides behind euphemisms and conditional language, but this language actually refers to the poverty of the residents and their ongoing eviction.

Carthage is far from the first famous ancient city where preservation of the past has come into conflict with people’s needs in the present. In modern times, from Palmyra in Syria to Delphi in Greece, from Petra in Jordan to Thebes in Egypt, local communities — typically consisting of poor and otherwise marginalized groups — have been evicted from their homes, to allow for excavation and development of heritage tourism. Since the World Heritage List was first started in 1978, there has been a persistent link between inclusion on the list and forced relocation of residents. While many observers have warned that inclusion has had the unintended effect of turning historic cities and heritage sites into soulless tourist traps, what really matters is how this is accomplished — namely by forcing residents out to the margins of these cities and sites. As so often happens, governments look to hide the poor from the eyes of tourists.

Unlike many of these cases, the houses in the Circus were recent constructions. But, as Foroudi reports, the residents of Mohamed Ali had previously been moved, in the 1960s, from the village of La Malga, which was built on a series of ancient cisterns. In fact, the village of La Malga was quite old: For hundreds of years, travelers to the cisterns reported the presence of a Bedouin community there. Residents lived in houses built on top of the cisterns, or in some of the cisterns themselves, while other cisterns served as animal pens.

Postcard with photograph of the village of La Malga (c. 1900) (photo by Profburp via Wikimedia Commons)

What is most striking is that the recent World Heritage Committee decision was made at its meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan. As Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman reported for Hyperallergic in February, Azerbaijan has systematically obliterated Armenian heritage in recent years, destroying thousands of Armenian monuments in the exclave of Nakhichevan. The committee ignored Azerbaijan’s demolition of Armenian heritage — at the same time that it called for Tunisia to enforce demolition in Carthage to protect the “authenticity and integrity” of the site.

In 2018, anthropologist Lynn Meskell published A Future in Ruins, a study of UNESCO and its World Heritage program, arguing that UNESCO has strayed from its original, idealistic goals of world peace. Of course, as Meskell notes, those goals were envisioned through the lens of colonialism. But there is still a remarkable contrast between that past dream of peace and urging on the bulldozing of poor people’s homes in the present.

Michael Press is an archaeologist who writes on Middle Eastern archaeology, biblical studies, and how these fields are presented to the public. He received a PhD from Harvard University in Near Eastern...