Often sitting at the lights in capital cities around the world the only noise that emerges from the vehicle parked next to you is the deep thumping rhythm of drums and bass guitar. These low-frequency pulses penetrate walls and resonate bodies. Similarly the beating of drums was used to drown the noise of screaming children passed through fire in what is considered a bizarre and ugly practice of idolatry. The word Tophet is considered either an expansion on the Hebrew word Toph (singular) drum or Tophim (plural) drums from the root word taphaph meaning timbrel or alternately the place of fire.
The sanctuary to Tophet, or the Tophet of Salammb0 in Carthage, was discovered in 1921 and is located on Rue de Hannibal, or the street of Hannibal, that astonishing figure who almost toppled the Roman empire! The enclosure of the sanctuary is marked with what must be almost a thousand small memorial headstones to children that were pasted through the fire to Molech. An assemblage of these are located within the subterranean chambers on the northern margin of the sunken sanctuary site. Archeologists estimate the death in excess of 20,000 at this site. While we were there a bus load of Koreans were busily snapping photos of the little rocks, and gleefully calling to each other across the park. The significance in all its historical ugliness was lost of them, sanitised by the neatness of the garden and orderliness of the presentation. But this site is a horrific reminder of the brutal cost of idolatry. The practice of child sacrifice is noted by Plutarch as active at this site, and considered as a Phoenician practice (2). This involved placing a live child on the outstretched arms of the image, and with the movement of limbs, the infant would fall into a blazing brazier to its death. The sacrifice was considered the result of a vow on receipt of the kindness of the god, who had delivered goods into a foreign port or such like action or the entreaty for kindness during famine or sickness. The practice was long-lived with nine distinct levels of deposits extending from ca4cBC through 4cAD. It should be remembered that this practice was not one of a primitive society, but by the Phoenicians whose sophistication is well evident in the intricate works as seen in the Beirut museum, the stone work in their temples in Lebanon and the degree of commercial success as evident in the wide-spread and lasting maritime enterprise.
The Phoenician or Punic practice has been identified at numerous sites, including Tyre (4), Lebanon, el-Hofra at Constantine, Algeria, to the east of the of the acropolis at Amathus in Cyprus and of some interest Motiya in Sicily where the absence of disease in infant bones that survived the cremation practice, confirming the sacrificial nature of the practice. Both Greek and Latin texts highlight the strength of this religious connection between Phoenicia and her “daughters” (3b). Unique features are seen in the Tophet that distinguish it from non-ceremonial grave sites: The presence of pit graves, the presence of animal bones, the range of grave-goods, the marking by funerary stelae, and distinctive burial urns. There is only ever one Tophet even where numerous cemeteries exist. The practice was dedicated to Baal Hammon with inscriptions found in Algeria remarking Baal Hammon as “the lord of the temple” (3). Baal is found with or without the goddess Tinnit. Three distinct offerings were made at Phoenician sites being mlk.mr (mulk immor or sheep substitute) mlk.adm (mulk adam, or common child) and mlk.b’l (mulk ba’al or distinguished or honoured citizen’s child) (1) But at Carthage not a single reference to mlk.adm has been discovered. The term mlk, is similar to the word used in Lev 18:21 where the law prohibited the passage of children through the fire to Molech, a hebrew term for an idol meaning king. This passing to Molech is connected to Tophet in 2 Kings 23:10 Molech and Ba’al are mentioned together in Jer 32:25.
Molech or Milcolm was the abomination of the children of Ammon 1 Kings 11:5,7 and was attached to immoral sexual practices Lev 20:5 and was so abhorrent that the practice was considered outside the mind of deity Jer 32:25. To engage in the practice was to defile the sanctuary of deity and profane His name Lev 20:3.
(1) N Spencer: Time, tradition and society in greek archeology: bridging the great divide pg 21
(2) Curtius Rufus; Histories of Alexander the great 4.3.23
(3) E Gruen; Cultural identity in the ancient monuments pg 374 (3b) pg 376
(4) Berytus: The American university of Beirut, Museum of archeology; vol 39; 1992 pg 39-82; Description of finds from Tyre 1991, including Iron age IIcineary Phonecian urns from Tophet at Tyre found by Seeden and Simmonetti
(5) E Mazar; Archeology in Israel; AJA98 (1994) pg 495
(6) Philip King: Jeremiah an archeological companion pg 136