The Tophet

The existence of a particular open-air sanctuary where a ritual sacrifice of children took place, also described as the sacrifice of the first-born to the god Baal-Hammon, has often been associated with the Phoenician and Punic presence in the western Mediterranean 1. The first discovery of the sanctuary near Carthage in 1921, at Salammbò, was interpreted by historians and archaeologists as the place where sacrifices took place which was called tophet, known from several passages from the bible. The excavation revealed a large number of urns with the ashes of cremated children 2. The famous writer Gustave Flaubert described in his book Salammbò how the children of important Carthaginian citizens were placed on a large bronze statue, the Moloch, and how they rolled from his arms into the fire to be burned alive. These sacrifices were meant to get the favour of the gods in times of great crisis. This shocking tale from his book was immediately associated with the open-air sanctuary at Carthage 3. Until the eighties of the previous century this influenced the interpretation of the sanctuary. In the meantime similar sanctuaries had been uncovered in Sardinia and in Sicily, proof that the find at Carthage was not isolated. However scientists started to examine the remains in the urns with post-war forensic methods and their conclusions undermined the arguments of the established theories on the tophet and it's rituals. A new interpretation was needed 4. Did the ritual really consist of the burning of children alive?

Almost twenty years ago Sabatino Moscati wrote his book on the sanctuary and it's rituals, Gli Adoratori di Moloch 5. He summed up the theories and the different interpretations that had been given to the sanctuary in the course of the decennia. Not all questions have found an answer because of the lack of archaeological evidence. In this article a description of the tophet will be given, which rituals took place and what function the sanctuary might have had, making use of the archaeological evidence and the historical interpretations.

How the open-air sanctuary received it's name

The excavation of the open-air sanctuary at Carthage in 1921 coincided with a heated scientific debate on human sacrifice which was mentioned in the Old Testament. Scientists were convinced that these human or child sacrifices were part of rituals of non-hebrew people living in the Middle East 6. In one or two passages of the bible, in the book of Jeremiah (7,31), the word tophet is mentioned describing it as cult places where sons and daughters were burned or passed through the fire. The profet Jeremiah would have lived around 600 BC, exactly the same time as the major growth of population in the Phoenician colonies in the west. The scientific world adopted the word tophet to designate the open-air sanctuary and assumed that it was connected to the ritual of child sacrifice 7.
Flaubert based his description of the great statue on two different sources. The first source concerned the name Moloch that was derived from the term MLK which appeared in the bible texts and on phoenician inscriptions describing sacrifices. It was believed to indicate the name of the god himself. Only much later it was discovered that MLK meant molk or molek, the term for offer or sacrifice itself and not the deity 8. Secondly the scene that Flaubert described was taken from the book of Diodorus Siculus, the Greek historian who described the war of the Greeks against the Carthaginians on Sicily. In the book Diodorus tells how the Carthaginians sacrificed their children to obtain the favour of Baal because the war was not going very well for Carthage 9.
In the course of the twentieth century the ritual of child sacrifice was seen by historians, theologists and archaeologists as the main ritual connected to the open-air sanctuaries of the Phoenicians and the Punics. It is however questionable whether the rituals described in the written sources can really be identified as belonging to this specific open-air sanctuary and whether any of these rituals were actually practised in these sanctuaries. A closer look at the archaeological record may shed more light on this.

The archaeological record of the open-air sanctuaries

After the discovery near Carthage in 1921 of the open-air sanctuary similar sanctuaries were uncovered in Sardinia: Tharros, Nora, Sulcis (Sant'Antioco), Monte Sirai (Carbonia), Cagliari, Bithia (Chia), in Sicily: Motya and Lilibaeum (both near Marsala), and in Tunis at Hadrumetum (Sousse). A comparison of the sites showed that these sanctuaries were located to the north of the settlement or town. Apart from countless urns a large number of stelae were found with carved images and some had inscriptions. The oldest remains were estimated to be of the eighth century BC. The open-air sanctuaries would have been established around that time for the first time. The use of stelae is of a much later date, in general during the punic period that commenced at the end of the sixth century BC 10.

Tophets in Sardinia
Tophets in Sardinia

The stelae, carved mostly in sandstone, are the main source of images that give insight in the symbols used. In the course of the centuries the style of the images changed from Egyptian symbols and motifs to more Hellenistic motifs which makes dating of the stelae possible based on these stylistic differences. The representations varied from human figures to aniconic betils (bet-el means the house of god). The figures are mostly female and the aniconic symbols resemble a stylistic figure, also known as the bottle shaped figure because of the association with this form (see also the photographs). The figure is placed at the center of the image, standing in a niche composed of style elements like columns and friezes which is riminiscent of the temple architecture. Each open-air sanctuary had it's own style of stelae, for example only at Tharros monumental stelae have been found that measured up to two metres in height, and in addition sandstone altars of 50 cm height were found only there and in no other tophet 11.
From the ashes that were found in the urns scientists could prove that these belonged to newborn children, fetuses and small animals, the latter sometimes in combination with the first two. Not all urns contained remains of children, many only ashes of cremated animals 12.

Tophets on Sicily
Tophets on Sicily

The inscriptions that could be translated revealed that these contained texts of thanksgiving for the god Baal-Hammon and at a later date also combined with Tanit, the punic goddess who was also known as the Face of Baal (Pene-Baal). The name of the person offering his thank was often mentioned in the inscription but without any mention of a public office this person could have held 13. In the Punic and Phoenician world the number of inscriptions with personal names is very widespread, so much that in fact even separate research has been done on this phenomenon. Ofcourse it is very well possible that indigenous people adopted Phoenician or Punic names once they moved to the towns.
Whether the open-air sanctuary had any kind of temple structure is not clear from all sites. Archaeologists believe that at Tharros there must have been a small temple based on the finds of stones that had been reutilized in later buildings. At Monte Sirai there was a small temple on the north side of the tophet where the cremations could have been performed 14.

An interpretation of the archaeological finds

The date of the foundation of the tophet in the eighth century BC can be related to the arrival of the first Phoenician settlers in the western Mediterranean. The creation of the open-air sanctuary denotes permanent settlement but although the tophet is seen as a sign of colonization and urbanization by the Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean it is not demonstrated that this settlement coincided with the actual foundation of a city or town. It can be safely assumed that the consacration of the open-air sanctuary is an indicator of permanent settlement and that this was the initial drive for the later process of urbanization 15.
Until today similar open-air sanctuaries have not been uncovered in other parts of the Mediterranean. Although there is a clear reference in the bible to the tophet there have been found no traces of sanctuaries in the Siro-Palestine area that can be compared to the sanctuary at Carthage. Even in other settlements in the western Mediterranean where the Phoenician presence has been established there are no traces of these open-air sanctuaries, like in Spain (Gades, Huelva), on the island of Ebusus (Ibiza) or Malta. When the Carthaginians extended their rule to Spain and founded the town of New-Carthage they did not create an open-air sanctuary like the tophet. The only tophet of later date is that of Monte Sirai. This settlement had been secondary to Sulcis until it was refounded by the Carthaginians after the sixth century. The lack of new archaeological discoveries of tophets does not preclude that there might have been other sanctuaries, and new discoveries could shed another light on the interpretation of the archaeological evidence. That the tophet would have been an exclusive Carthaginian sanctuary and introduced by them in Sardinia and Sicily does not seem very likely, the sanctuaries existed long before Carthage rose to it's dominant position in the western Mediterranean 16.
Based on the typology of the urns, the representations of the images on the stelae and the inscriptions it can be safely assumed that the tophet is a typical western Phoenician-Punic sanctuary. The open space that was used lay within the perimeter of the town, marked by a wall (temenos). That it was not a common burial place can be deduced from the votive inscriptions and the fact that there were other burial places outside the settlement area. The Phoenician cremated their dead and only with the Punics this ritual changed to predominantly inhumation. In the tophet the ritual did not change in that urns with ashes were deposited throughout it's existence. In the necropoleis almost no child burials have been found, only adult male and female burials 17. It is known that in antiquity Romans and Greeks also had different rituals for the burial of deceased children, for example it is known that the Greek buried the children in amphorae 18

The archaeological evidence for the rituals practices in the tophet

Stelae of the tophet of Mothia with aniconic figures
Stelae of the tophet of Mothia
with aniconic figures

In the open-air sanctuary the urns with the ashes were placed on the ground. Interpreting the votive stelae these deposits invariably concerned votive sacrifices in gratitude for received blessings or to ask the god Baal-Hammon for a future blessing. Archaeologists assume that these blessings refer to the birth of a child, but it could also refer to some other kind of blessing. It is known that in antiquity child mortality rates were very high. A healthy child, in particular an heir, was perceived as important. It is very likely that this sanctuary was a place meant to honour the most important of the gods and ask or thank him for the blessing of a child. Still born children or children that had died too soon after their birth were ritually cremated and sacrificed to the god in the hope to receive the blessing of a new child. It could well be that while giving birth the mother remained unfertile or that she could even die. Sacrificing a small animal, sometimes in combination with the cremated remains of the child, would have the same significance in this case. It seems that most sacrifices were done in spring time as could be deduced from the carbonized seeds of plants 19.
The inscriptions contain dedications made by mainly Phoenician-Punic males, possibly the pater-familias. In some inscriptions the names of several generations are mentioned, in some cases this went back sixteen generations to emphasize the importance of the family and social status 20. Was the ritual that was performed in the tophet then a family ritual or a ritual of the community as a whole? If it would have been a ritual of the community for the blessing of the town then that should be made apparent from the inscriptions, and that is not the case 21. What the relation was between the person that made the offer and the child that was cremated is not known. In some cases the remains of two or even three children were present in the urns. It is therefore difficult to draw any clear conclusions about the ritual based on the archaeological remains.

The rituals as described in the ancient sources

Can there be a connection with the ritual described in the bible that children were passed through the fire? In three of the books that are part of the bible, those of the prophets Jesajah, Jeremiah and Ezechiel, the ritual sacrifice of children is mentioned, only in Jesajah we read the word tophet, a place in the valley of Ben Hinnom 22. The prophets condemned the offering of sons and daughters to the gods, because God had never asked that of his people. The three prophets would have lived at about the same time of the existence of the open-air sanctuaries in the west, in a time that Assyria and Babylon became a threat to the independence of Israël and the Phoenician citystates on the Mediterranean coast, Tyrus and Sidon, and about the same period that Carthage was founded, according to the legend under the guidance of Dido and several of the main families from Tyrus. It was in about the same time frame in which a wave of westward migrations took place under the threat of the Assyrians and Babylonians 23. Still it is not possible to simply connect the rituals described in the bible that took place mainly in the eastern Mediterranean with the open-air sanctuaries that could be found only in the west. There is no archaeological evidence to confirm that and, more important, the books of the bible have been written much later, in a time when the antagonism between Greeks and Romans on the one side and Carthage and Tyrus under the Persians on the other may have influenced the writers. It is very well possible that the stories of the past have been coloured by then contemporary political and religious contrasts.
In the ancient sources of Greek and Roman origin the ritual sacrifice of children by the Carthaginians is mentioned, but always in relation to traumatic events and without any reference to an open-air sanctuary where these sacrifices would have taken place. A link between the tophet and the written sources can therefore not be made. 24.

This does not mean that ritual child sacrifice was not practised at all. It may well have been practised in the tophet, but a reason as to why this took place would remain speculative because there is no archaeological evidence to sustain this. There could have been cultural or religious reasons that are not known to us by way of the inscriptions. The presence of animal remains and the votive stelae however seem to preclude regular ritual offerings and would in that case point to a more irregular practise. In the case of cremated fetuses it could signify that voluntary abortion was practised, but that too remains speculation.


Stele with inscription at Mothia (Museo Whitaker)
Stele with inscription at Mothia
(Museo Whitaker)

The sanctuaries called tophet have been created in the eighth century BC near settlements on Sardinia, Sicily and in North-Africa. An open terrain on the north side of the settlement, but still within the perimeter of the town, was marked by a wall (temenos) to define the area of the sanctuary. The tophet met the need of the population to thank the god Baal-Hammon for a blessing received, or to beg the god for a blessing, supposedly the birth of a healthy child. It is very probable that the sanctuary was created when Phoenician families established themselves permanently in the area, or in a more broad sense Siro-Palestinese or Cypriot families.
The ritual consisted of the cremation of unborn or still born children, or children that died in their first years of life, but often it was limited to the offering of small animals, or a combination of the two. In later punic times a stelae was erected, in some cases with an inscription. In Roman times the tophet ceased to be used and eventually the sanctuaries were dismantled.
The ritual did not foresee the killing and burning of children while still alive, although it cannot be excluded completely. It was most likely a family ritual or a personal ritual maybe in the presence of priests. The cultural origin must lie in the arrival of Phoenician, sirio-palestinese or Cypriotic families in the eighth century BC that migrated under the pressure of the agressive Assyrian and Babylonian politics in the Near-East aimed at dominating the whole area including the citystates of Phoenicia.
A clear connection between the rituals described in the ancient sources or the bible and the open-air sanctuary in the western Mediterranean cannot be laid on the basis of the archaeological evidence.
A few questions remain unanswered though. Why was the tophet only discovered on Sardinia, Sicily and in North-Africa? Were children actually sacrificed ritually? Was the tophet a distinct Phoenician sanctuary? Was the person that made the offer and dedication the father? Who was the mother of the children? Definite answers cannot be given, and probably new arcaheological evidence may not even provide answers to these questions. Therefore the tophet will always remain an enigmatic sanctuary.


1 Aubet 1993, p 196, 205, 215; Markoe 2000, p 69; Moscati 1999, p 49; Barreca 1974, p 31,41; Gras 2000, p 236
2 Markoe 2000, p 133; Moscati 1991, p 71; Gras 2000, p 207; Ribichini 1997, p 47
3 G. Flaubert, Salammbò, dutch translation by Hans van Pinxteren and published by Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep; Gras 2000, p 207-209
4 Aubet 1993, p 214; Markoe 2000, p 133; Moscati 1991, p 25,63-69
5 Moscati 1991, Gli Adoratori di Moloch published by Jaca Books, Milan (see bibliography)
6 Moscati 1991, p 11-33
7 Jeremiah 7,31; Aubet 1993, p 208; Moscati 1991, p 50; Barreca 1974, p 134-135
8 Moscati 1991, p 45-53
9 Moscati 1991 mentions Diodorus (p 58), Markoe 2000 mentions Cleitarchus (p 132)
10 Moscati 1991, p 71-111; Acquaro 1999, p 31,42 (on Tharros); Gras 2000, p 224
11 Moscati 1991, p 108, 113-142; Acquaro 1996, p 54-58
12 Moscati 1991, p 63-69; Aubet 1993, p 214; Markoe 2000, p 133; Gras 2000, p 230; Ribichini 1997, p 56; The research mentioned is by J Richard uit 1961
13 Moscati 1991, p 143-151; Aubet 1993, p 214-215; Tronchetti 1989, p 43-52; Tronchetti 1995
14 Acquaro 1999, p 58-59; Bartoloni 1989, p 59-60
15 Aubet 1993, p 215; van Dommelen 2005, p 149,162
16 Aubet 1993, p 216-217; Bartoloni 1989, p 18-19 (Monte Sirai); Moscati 1991, p 111
17 Aubet 1993, p 207; Markoe 2000, p 134; Moscati 1991, p 25; Gras 2000, p 234-235
18 Ribichini 1997, p 57
19 Markoe 2000, p 136; Moscati 1991, p 178; Ribichini 1997, p 53,58
20 Aubet 1993, p 216
21 Moscati 1991, p 168
22 Jesajah 57,5; Jeremiah 7,31; Ezechiel 16,21; The references are to the dutch translation of the Catholic Bible: De Bijbel, Willibrord vertaling uitgegeven 1981 door de Katholieke Bijbelstichting, Boxtel
23 Aubet 1993, p 215-17, the legend of Dido is told by Vergilius in the Aeneis, translated in dutch by M. A. Schwartz and published by Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep
24 Gras 2000, p 215-221; Aubet 1993, p 211-212; Markoe 2000, p 132; Moscati 1991, p 55-62; Ribichini 1997, p 48-49


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Barreca F., 1974, La Sardegna fenicia e punica, Sassari
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