Some of the world’s best preserved Roman mosaics are housed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, and the Archaeological Museum in El Jem, just a little south of Tunis. They date from the time of the “Roman African Province,” 146 BCE–435 CE, a time of great prosperity (for some). After the defeat of the Carthaginians, what is now Tunisia become a trading and agricultural hub in the Roman empire. The wealthy built many large, lavish houses, some of which were eventually buried under sands and rubble until the last century. Now, they stand in fabulous museums in Tunisia.
The mosaics are often huge, several meters in both dimensions. A few are comprised of geometric designs, but most show scenes from mythology and everyday life. The mosaic artists’ work is remarkable for its attention to the particularities of natural history: local birds, fish, and other species are represented with skill and often a touch of humor.
A painful beach scene:
Some ornithology: swallow, hoopoe (fairly common in rural areas, even today), crane, owl (standing as a symbol of defeat over envy, according to the signage), a peacock, moorhen, quail, what appear to be some thrushes ready to be made into pie, and, finally, a bird being made into pie.
Sadly, the museums are empty of visitors. We walked through hall after hall, alone save for museum employees. The same is true in much of Tunisia. A country whose coasts were thronging (and thonging) beach holiday resorts and whose cultural sites were popular destinations for history and archaeology buffs now receives few foreign visitors. Miles and miles of beach hotels stand completely empty, as if the Rapture had taken away all the lovers of blue seas, discos, and seafood. Historical sites — Roman, Carthaginian, Byzantine, French colonial — are visited by local schoolkids and few others. Two bombings by extremists succeeded in closing down a thriving tourist economy. The terrorists got exactly what they wanted: travel warnings from Western countries that stemmed the flow of foreign money to the only remaining Arab Spring democracy.
We tolerate all kinds of risks in life, but if a minuscule risk comes from a jihadist, our governments capitulate, promulgating the message of fear, enclosure, avoidance. Travel in the last years in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and now in Tunisia, all areas flagged as “dangerous” by State Department warnings, suggests to me that a more productive approach might be one of informed engagement.
To whet the appetite, the Roman amphitheater at El Jem. Seating for 35,000. Gladiator and animal rooms still intact. Walk right in…only a nesting kestrel in the high arches and some schoolkids for company:
Photo credits: David Haskell, Katie Lehman
Many thanks! Seeing pictures of ruins like these always gives me goosebumps and makes me
want to touch them.
How deeply lovely
And equally deeply sad
Incredible views and mosaics. Thank you for sharing.
I have often gone “bird-watching” or looked for animal species in NYC’s architecture. (There are many owls in building facades here) I love seeing your bird list from the ancient tiles. Thank you for the thoughtful post about Tunisia. It’s inspiration to see such beauty in person one day.
Thank you. Looking for owls in facades is a brilliant idea!!
It could be an intriguing destination, thank you for your wonderful post and beautiful pictures.
Hi David. I asked a friend who is a classics scholar for the transliteration of the inscription of the owl mosaic. He wrote “I would imagine this is some bizarre gnomic latin saying: I parse it as follows: Invidia (ablative of agency) rumpuntur aves (subject) neque noctua (the little owl, subject) curat – “birds are destroyed by envy but the little owl is indifferent to it”. That fits the mosaic image. I don’t know the individual mosaic, which tells me it’s not in a major western classical collection, but the style is very visibly north African”. This makes me wonder what my (English) school teachers thought they were doing to my childhood brain by such complex grammar instead of fostering the spirit of scientific inquiry. from Uncle John
Ha. Who knows what the schoolteachers were up t, but I’m grateful for this insight…Roman culture seems to have integrated some ideas from N Africa. Modern Tunisia is likewise a startling place of hybridization among cultures: reflected in diet, architecture, and the language.
PS. On owls as moral signifiers: One of the most prominent morality tales (aka Dreaming myths) of the Worora, Ngaryngin and Wunambal nations of the far northwest of Western Australia concerns Dumbi the Owl. This story is celebrated in rock art throughout the country of these three “Wandjina tribes”, so called after their unique art style that has fascinated non-Aboriginal people since first contact in late 19th century. Poor Dumbi Wandjna was teased by boys who plucked its feathers; the other Wandjina (Creator Beings) were so angry at this human cruelty that they caused a massive flood that washed away the humans, leaving just two who remained. They learned the lesson of the need for humans to respect all animal life as of moral worth. This could be the moral tale that has had the longest provenance in human history since we have hard (dated archaeo) evidence that the forebears to these nations arrived in Sahul c 60 000 yrs BP. John
Wow: fascinating. And the oldest tale is one of respect for others. Beautiful.