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