Although many ancient cities have been destroyed by time, the ruins of ancient Carthage are still visible. The city was dominated by a large necropolis or burial ground. One area of this necropolis is known as the Tophet, a massive child cemetery where the remains of approximately 20,000 urns have been unearthed. The remains inside were charred and often belonged to newborn babies although remains belonging to children as old as two.
A number of theories have arisen about how the children came to be buried in the Tophet. Worship of the god Ba’al Hammon and the goddess Tanit called for child sacrifice and it is the remains of those sacrifices that are found buried in the Tophet. Other theories are that the infants had died naturally of causes such as disease.
But if the babies in the Tophet had been sacrificed to Tanit and Ba’al Hammon, where did they come from? Were the Carthaginians sacrificing their own children? And how many children were sacrificed at one time?
If historical accounts are to be believed, the babies that were sacrificed were often the children of servants or were purchased by affluent Carthaginians rather than offering their own children to the flames. Some circumstances called for special sacrifices, however, and in cases such as famine, war or other disasters, Carthaginians may have been forced by the priests to offer their own children up in sacrifice. One story states that in 310 BCE, up to 500 children were killed and their bodies were then placed into a sacrificial fire pit. The urns were used to store the remains which were gathered up after the ceremony was complete.
A number of historians wrote about the child sacrifice that was practiced in Carthage. Noted historians and philosophers such as Orosious, Philo and Plutarch mentioned that child sacrifice was performed at the Tophet (a name which actually means “roasting place”).
However, some individuals believe that since the authors of these reports were Roman for the most part that it may have been an attempt to slander the Carthaginians and turn public opinion against them. The Carthaginian military commander Hannibal vowed to destroy Rome and travelled across the Alps accompanied by his army and a number of elephants in an attempt to take the city itself. He occupied much of Italy for approximately fifteen years before being defeated by the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. Rome and Carthage fought in a series of Punic Wars which ultimately led to the fall of Carthage in 146 BCE.
Whether you believe that the Tophet was a scene of numerous child sacrifices or you believe that the area was a graveyard for children the facts remain the same. The area, which was estimated to be as large as an acre and a half by the fourth century BCE, was home to the remains of more than twenty thousand infants and children. It is no wonder, then, that visitors to the area still find the Tophet to be a spooky and unnerving tourism destination.