While it may have come to the world’s attention because of the 2015 terrorist attack, Tunisia’s Bardo Museum has always been well known by those who appreciate art and antiquities. If the Louvre in Paris impresses you, so will the Bardo.
The Bardo—Tunisia’s national museum—is in the capital, Tunis. Next door is the building that houses Tunisia’s parliament. A half-hour drive away is Carthage, now a seaside suburb, and the blue and white village of Sidi Bou Saïd, which sits high above the sparkling Mediterranean.
If you remember your history, you’ll know that Carthage was once the most powerful city on the Mediterranean, before Rome took over that honor. Carthage was the center of trade for the ancient Phonecians and home to Hannibal, one of history’s most powerful generals. The Romans destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C.E. but Julius Caesar built a new city there 100 years later. Carthage grew to become one of the Roman Empire’s largest cities and its port shipped extraordinary treasures from art to gold to wild animals for battles in the Roman Colesseum.
All that history left incredible antiquities in and around Tunis. You’ll find ruins from one of the world’s greatest civilizations all over the area, not only at UNESCO sites but also in vacant lots and beside highways. Inside the Bardo Museum are some of the most pristine and ancient artifacts.
101 Ancient Masterpieces
It’s said the Bardo has 101 masterpieces, though the collection has 8,000 works to capture your interest. The museum displays the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics as well as the largest vertical mosaic in the world. Everywhere you turn you’ll see objects that are almost unbelievably old.
A mottled ostrich eggshell, open at the top so it can be used as a container, sits inside a glass case. Your jaw will drop when you read the sign below it: this fragile shell is 2,700 years old, from the seventh century B.C.E. Elegant urns with ochre swirls are from the third century B.C.E., another decorated with lions is from the seventh. An amphora, looking like it was fired in a kiln last week, is from the fifth century B.C.E. Elsewhere in the museum is a second-century bust of Marcus Aurelius, a marble statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis, and one of Demeter sitting on a throne from the first century B.C.E. How these treasures survived the millennia is a mystery, especially items like statues of the chief god of Carthage, Baal Hammon, which you’d imagine the Romans would have wanted to be smashed beyond repair.
The Bardo’s artifacts range from the holy to the everyday. There’s a stunning Qur’an—1,500 years old with gilded letters on blue vellum. An ornately-tiled baptistery is from Kelibia, known today for some of the Med’s finest beaches. The Bardo has ancient gold coins, jewelry worn by North Africa’s elite, elaborately-carved candelabra, bronze shaving knives, Roman pottery, grave markers, and sarcophagi. The simplest items marvel, too—how can a linen shirt still exist 1,100 years later, let alone look completely wearable? The Bardo even has furniture and art from the 2,000-year-old Mahdia shipwreck, discovered in 1907 by sponge fishermen.
The Bardo’s mosaics are a real draw. They’re mostly Roman and Byzantine and were once the floors of palaces and noble houses. Composed of tiny tiles, most smaller than a square-centimeter, the mosaics were designed to emulate the wall paintings of the time. If you’ve seen Italian mosaics, you’ll find these North African ones are more colorful. That’s thanks to the varieties of marble and limestone once abundant in the region, as well as the mastery of the makers.
The mosaics depict everyday life at the time as well as famous scenes from history and literature. Extraordinarily preserved, some are on the museum’s walls, others on the floor covered by glass, and others you can, incongruously, just walk on. The first you’ll see is in the Bardo’s entrance hall. More than 1,000 square feet, it’s of Neptune and the four seasons, and it’s almost perfectly intact. It’s one of the largest remaining ancient mosaics in the world.
The Bardo’s most celebrated mosaic is of Virgil, the Roman poet, who sits writing the Aeneid. It’s thought to be the only existing picture of Virgil and was discovered in 1896, buried just a couple inches within the ruins of a third-century mansion. Virgil’s epic poem describes the tragic love story of Aeneas, who eventually founded Rome, and Queen Dido, the founder of Carthage. In the poem, Aeneas recounts events like the arrival of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy. At the Bardo, you’ll also see mosaic versions of Odysseus being tempted by bare-breasted Sirens and a quite modern-looking Diana the Huntress, complete with ankle boots, a sleeveless A-line dress, and her hair in a topknot.
Inside a Palace
Artifacts aside, wandering through the museum if it were empty would still be a treat. The main building is a former palace, built for the Bey of Tunis between 1859 and 1864. The older parts of the museum have intricate vaulted and domed ceilings hung with embellished chandeliers, alcoves, carved pillars, sculpted plaster, stalactite finials, and stained glass windows. Indoor wooden balconies feature carved arches brightly-painted with elaborate designs. Even some of the harem bedrooms have been turned into exhibit rooms. Modern extensions, featuring airy rooms with skylights and the occasional glass floor, were added between 2009 and 2012, doubling the museum’s space.
When you visit, be sure to pause at the mosaic memorial at the entrance to pay respects to the 22 victims who died during the 2015 attack on the museum. As you explore the Bardo’s treasures, you may recognize some of the rooms from television footage of the attack. Sometimes guides will point out the bullet holes in the museum’s walls.
#TravelSomeday, But Until Then: Internet
When travel begins again, Tunisia’s beaches, UNESCO sites, and museums are well worth a visit. Until then, the Bardo does have a virtual tour webpage, though you’ll need a device compatible with Adobe Flash to make it work.