Tophets are at the center of one of the most contentious archaeological debates surrounding the region of northern Africa that was once part of the ancient Carthaginian Empire. The enigmatic ancient cemeteries are believed to have been used for the ritual sacrifice of children and animals.
The burial site at Carthage in Tunisia, as well as others in the region, was discovered in the 20th century. It, along with the others, contained funerary urns stuffed with the cremated ashes and bone fragments of young children. Over 20,000 urns buried under stelae (stone slabs with inscriptions) were found at the tophet in Carthage, which is one of the largest cemeteries from the Phoenician period.
These findings and subsequent research, which included referencing accounts in ancient texts, propelled the theory that infants were sacrificed and cremated as part of a ritual to give thanks for favors from deities, mainly the goddess Tanit and the god Baal.
For many years, the rumors that the ancient Carthaginians had sacrificed their own young was considered to be propaganda spread by the Greeks and Romans, who disliked them and the wider Phoenician civilization.
Over the decades, several groups of historians have debated the subject, but they have yet to reach a concrete answer. Most recently, a team led by an Oxford historian ruled there was strong evidence that ritual sacrifices did, in fact, take place. It wasn’t an isolated incident either—it happened over several centuries.
Today, the tombstones and ritual altars form part of a historical site outside the capital city of Tunis, which was granted World Heritage status in 1979. The cemetery, a hybrid of a sanctuary and a necropolis, forms a striking picture. When it was at its largest, it was over 64,000 square feet and spanned nine different levels.
The word “tophet” comes from a place described in Hebrew scripture, where people who were influenced by an ancient Canaanite religion burned and sacrificed children to their gods. It’s also another term for hell.
Know Before You Go
The Archeological site of Carthage is 1,600 feet (500 meters) from Carthage Salammbo Station.