Mhamed Hassine Fantar has a bone to pick with the Roman Empire, French writer Gustave Flaubert and a group of Americans who specialize in digging up old graves.
An expert on ancient Carthage -- a city obliterated by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago -- Mr. Fantar is campaigning to clear his forefathers of a nasty stigma: a reputation for infanticide.
"We didn't do it," says the 69-year-old archaeologist, rejecting accusations that the ancient citizens of this North African land sacrificed babies to appease their gods.
At a time of roiling debate across the Arab world about the future, rewriting the distant past can also be an urgent matter. Modern Carthage, dotted with ancient ruins and the luxury villas of the nation's current elite, looms large in Tunisia today. The country's president, an admirer of Mr. Fantar's work, lives here in a waterfront palace. Tunisia's national identity, forged by a secular regime fearful of political Islam, rests on the celebration of Carthage's pre-Islamic glories.
Tunisia's first private television station began broadcasting this spring under the name "Hannibal TV," a tribute to the military genius of ancient Carthage who led elephants across the Alps to fight the Romans. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali praised the station for paying homage to a symbol of Tunisia's "authentic civilization."
Less welcome to the national consciousness are reminders of Carthage's darker side. The supposed sacrifice of children in macabre religious rituals, says Mr. Fantar, is a stain that must be removed. "This is all propaganda," he says.
Seeking to debunk Carthage's reputed homicidal tendencies, he has written articles, organized seminars and appeared on TV and radio. He is also grooming a new generation of local scholars, including his own son, who similarly deny that the practice of human sacrifices ever occurred. Guides in Carthage are now instructed by the tourism ministry to tell visitors that the sacrifices didn't happen.
Lawrence Stager, a Harvard University archaeology professor and expert on the subject, calls the revisionism a whitewash. He's now editing a book that will include the results of long forensic analysis of charred bones he helped dig up in Carthage in the 1970s. This, says Mr. Stager, will prove beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Fantar and his followers are wrong. Still, he isn't expecting to win them over. "No one really relishes having ancestors who committed such heinous acts," he says.
Human sacrifice was common in many ancient cultures. But Carthage was particularly notorious, branded as a serial killer of children for at least 600 years in a site now known as the Tophet, a Hebrew word meaning "roaster" or "place of burning." Most Western scholars believe the practice was organized around the worship of two deities. Mr. Stager says it may also have been a primitive mechanism of population control. Others suggest a more sporadic activity connected to spring fertility rights.
The first to accuse Carthage of incinerating its young were the Romans, who destroyed the city in--6 B.C., ending the world's first great superpower clash. Passed down over the centuries, tales of infant sacrifices inspired the 19th-century novelist Flaubert to visit Carthage in 1858 in search of material for "Salammbo," which detailed horrible sacrificial rituals. Foreign archaeologists then fleshed out fiction with hard evidence.
"This is a dreadful period of human degeneracy that we are now unearthing," wrote Count Byron Khun de Prorok, a Frenchman who took part in the first excavations of Carthage's Tophet in the 1920s. After his own digging decades later, Mr. Stager wrote with a colleague in the Biblical Archaeology Review: "It is repulsive ... Perhaps the Carthaginians would have gotten a better press in the West had they concealed their practices more subtly."
But what many scholars consider an open-and-shut case, Mr. Fantar and his followers view as a frame-up. "History always gets written by the victors," says the Tunisian scholar, surrounded by books and scrolls in an ornate villa now housing Tunisia's National Heritage Institute. Carthage not only lost, he says, but "got wiped from the map" by the Romans, who leveled the city and, according to legend, plowed salt into farmland to make it barren. They twisted history, he says, to "show us as barbarians" and to "justify their own barbarity."
Mr. Fantar says he, too, used to believe in the sacrifice theory but began to have doubts after an Italian scholar, Sabatino Moscati, wrote an article in 1987 entitled: "Infant Sacrifices: Reality or Invention?" The late Mr. Moscati suggested that Carthage had been the victim of a politically motivated smear campaign by ancient rivals in Rome and Greece. The argument won few converts in the U.S. but gradually took hold among scholars in Tunisia and also Italy, which has its own Tophet or "roaster" in Sicily.
Meanwhile, politicians in Tunisia also began to rethink the past. Following an upsurge in Islamic activism in the late 1980s, leaders worried that the country's education system was falling under the sway of Islamists, who mostly ignored pre-Islamic history. They stressed ancient Carthage's gory side as proof of the ignorance and immorality that supposedly prevailed before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century.
"We taught students that everything that was not Islamic had no real value," says Omrane Boukhari, a former teacher who now heads the education ministry's curriculum department. "It was amusing at first, but then we realized it was dangerous."
In the early 1990s, authorities began to purge teachers suspected of Islamist militancy. Textbooks were then revised to highlight the glories of Tunisia's pre-Islamic past. Students, says Mr. Boukhari, need to learn about "the most positive and most enlightened aspects" of Tunisia's history. "You find the identity of a people in the way it teaches history to its children."
There is much to boast about in ancient Carthage. For centuries, it rivaled Rome in commerce and military prowess. Its people, the Phoenicians, who originally came from what is today Lebanon, invented alphabetic script. Hannibal, the city's most famous soldier, is regarded by some as the world's greatest military strategist.
Child sacrifices, though, presented a problem. When Tunisia sent a collection of ancient artifacts to the U.S. in the late 1980s, officials were aghast to find that infanticide attracted the most attention. "Everyone was obsessed with this," says Aicha Ben Abed, director of research at Tunisia's National Heritage Institute. Carthage's enemies, she says, had lots of nasty habits, too, but these barely ever get mentioned: "Let's talk about pedophilia among the Romans and Greeks."
Glenn Markoe, curator of classical and Near Eastern art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, says that when the Carthage exhibition came to Cincinnati in 1990, Tunisian officials pleaded with him not to show a short American-made film about Phoenician infanticide. "I then realized how touchy this subject is for them," says Mr. Markoe, who has just published a book on the Phoenicians, "It's a political thing. They don't like to think of such unsavory things going on in their territory ... Most people find it very uncomfortable to discuss this subject."
Mr. Fantar says his aim is to correct history, not cover it up. In 2000, he took part in debate with Mr. Stager, the Harvard professor, in the pages of Archaeology Odyssey, an American magazine. The area of Carthage that Mr. Stager and others believe was used to incinerate infants was, according to Mr. Fantar, merely a children's cemetery. Burial urns stuffed with burnt bones, he says, contain the remains of children who died of natural causes, not foul play.
His case, however, now faces a new challenge from a researcher at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has been analyzing remains found by Mr. Stager's team in the 1970s. Preliminary results seem to support the infanticide camp.
For many in Tunisia, though, the debate is already closed. A new high-school history text published late last year celebrates Carthage as "the pole of Mediterranean civilization" and makes only a vague reference to sacrifices. The tourism ministry meanwhile has revised a training course for tour guides. As part of the new program, they get a handout instructing them what to tell visitors. It denounces the "hallucinatory horror" of Flaubert's account of Carthage and accuses Roman and Greek authors of fabricating mass infanticide "as a propaganda theme."
"We must stop looking at our past through the eyes of foreigners," says Mr. Fantar, "When Arabs read and understand our own history, we will be at the dawn of a real revolution. This is what we are trying to do in Tunisia."
UPDATE: Jim Davila of Paleojudaica fame points us to an online 'debate' between Fantar and Stager on the subject ...