Walking throughout Tunisia, I’ve stubbed my toe on fragments of mosaics from days of the Roman Empire. Just 350 miles south of Rome, across the Mediterranean Sea, Tunisia is home to one of the world’s largest museum of Roman mosaics.
The National Bardo Museum in Tunis has long been considered important, often identified as second on the African continent only to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. The monthly Style magazine of Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper in 2018 named it one of the 10 most beautiful museums in the world.
I first visited the Bardo Museum as a college student in 1980. It was a portal to other worlds for this Minnesota farm girl.
Since then, I’ve returned four times, most recently last summer, and I always find and learn something new.
After Tunisia’s revolution in 2011, at the start of what became known as the Arab Spring, I witnessed teams of museum workers preparing installations of intricate mosaics as part of an ambitious expansion. Now they are in place and more of the Bardo’s enormous collection is on display. The result is magnificent.
In ancient times, mosaics covered floors and lined vast pools in Roman homes and temples across the empire, which included land that today makes up Tunisia. Composed of tiny pieces of stone, sorted by color and assembled to create images and detailed scenes, the mosaics document life and the environment of the ancient world.
You can see examples in museums globally. The Minneapolis Institute of Art, for instance, has two on display: a fighting elephant and tiger, and a set of birds encircled by wreaths of pomegranates, both from Turkey. In London’s British Museum, the towering walls of the west stairs showcase a collection of mosaics, most from Tunisia.
But the Bardo Museum offers a large collection of some of the best mosaics recovered anywhere, showcasing the detailed artistry of the Roman world. Flora and fauna, gods and goddesses, signs and figures from the zodiac, sumptuous feasts, and scenes of domestic life, agriculture and hunting now adorn gigantic walls. Neptune, Poseidon and all kinds of fish were popular displays in shallow pools, the ancient form of air conditioning.
Through the mosaics, you can trace the rise and fall of the empire. From its peak, marvel at the figure of a gladiator in the arena or a shepherd milking a lifelike dairy goat. From its waning years, notice the loss of detail, rougher tiles and less precise human expressions.
In a fine portrait of the poet Virgil, seated and flanked by the muses History and Tragedy, the texture appears like beaded gems. Their expressions are vivid, Virgil alert and tentative, the muses compassionate and sad. Once tucked in a shadowy passage of the old museum, this mosaic is now given its proper due, framed in red and hung at the top of a landing.
Another example is the famous Ulysses mosaic, arguably a signature image of the Bardo. The hero is sailing past the irresistible birdlike Sirens on the shore, his eyes wide, tied to the mast of his ship by the loyal crew, their own ears plugged with wax to protect them from the Siren song. This mosaic is now eclipsed by even larger works, scenes and landscapes spread across the expansive walls of the addition. Lightly painted segments fill in gaps that allow viewers to better understand the original content and scope.
The late Roman, early Christian collection is beautifully at home through a hallway of arched rooms. These mosaics are not as refined, but beautiful nevertheless. One of my favorites is an image of the four rivers of paradise, a speckled stag and doe kneeling to drink from each side, symbols from a time when Christians refused to bear arms and focused on the beauty of creation. In the next room is an ancient baptistery, a waist-deep well in the floor with a cloverleaf-shaped opening, decorated with more images from paradise — trees and birds, vine and cups — in mosaic tile.
Bardo palace is a jewel
Mosaics are not the Bardo’s only draw. Treasures range from far more ancient cultures — Berber, Punic, Greek — up to recent centuries, including sublime Islamic art and artifacts. Across the hall from the early Christian rooms is the Judaica collection, a large Torah in its center, documenting centuries of Jewish life in Tunisia. Nearby is a scale model of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, constructed of wood in careful detail, among rooms and passageways of Islamic art.
The new, modern addition provides ample space for holdings once cramped in small rooms or in storage, as well as special exhibits. Memorable masks and sculpture from the Punic period have room to breathe. Glass cases finally display the magnificent riches of a Greek shipwreck off Tunisia’s coast in the first century B.C.
One result of the museum’s expansion is that the original Bardo palace is now a treasure in its own right. The original building is a jewel that dates to the 1100s, embellished through the Ottoman period. It became a museum in the late 1800s.
From my first visit, I’ve loved the old palace’s marble floors, colorful tile work and exposed beams of ancient trees supporting ceilings, some ornately painted. The simple portico entrance, an odd fit for the ancient palace, now makes for a seamless interface with the modern addition. It also sets off the brilliant tile work and features of the older structure. I was happy to rediscover the blue and white “small patio,” with its graceful, three-tiered fountain, drawing visitors into its open space like a magnet.
It was there that my hosts and I met visitors from Iraq, who were marveling at the surrounding beauty and the scale of the new museum. Having witnessed the destruction of their own homeland’s historical treasures in recent years, they congratulated Tunisia and expressed their best wishes for the outcome of its elections scheduled for the coming weeks. “May God help and preserve you,” they said to my hosts in a heartfelt exchange.
Witnessing a darker time
Another room in the old Bardo holds a simple glass case pierced by a bullet in one of two mass shootings in Tunisia in 2015. The attacks were a blow to the nation, the lone functioning democracy in the Arab world since the 2011 revolution. But the country and the museum recovered. The pierced glass in the old Bardo chamber, and a simple memorial in the new Bardo atrium honoring the 22 people from nine countries who died there, avoid erasure of that painful history and the context in which the museum perseveres.
In March 2015, we were only beginning to understand the destruction of ancient sites in Syria by ISIS. When I heard the news on my way to work about a shooting in an unnamed Tunis museum, I immediately thought, ‘No, no, no, please not the Bardo.’ I thought of the open-mouthed, wide-eyed statues and masks in the Punic room. I thought of Ulysses and imagined the wax earplugs of his crew protecting them from the pop-pop-pop sound of modern guns.
It is a relief to see that damage to the museum itself was limited. A greater damage would be cloaking the mosaics and sculptures in fear that keeps us away, that deprives us of this portal to ancient worlds that gives perspective on the present.
The Bardo’s contents provide context. They are a testament to human history in all its violence and beauty.
Gayla Marty is a Minneapolis writer and the author of “Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm.”