The ancient mosaics of Tunisia


Moreen and I love to browse in Mediterranean bazaars and Middle Eastern suqs for small, locally made items. In Tunisia, we especially enjoy looking at the multicolored ceramic jars, plates and tiles for tableware use and, yes, tourist souvenirs.

Occasionally, in this small North African country, we’ve found beautiful mosaic items made by die-hard craftsmen who cling to the ancient tradition of using geometric and calligraphic designs, especially in green and yellow. The green is made from a blend of lead and copper oxide, with the yellow a blend of lead and antimony. It’s all glazed in kilns fired with olive wood and olive oil cakes (olive pit residue).

Mosaic art evolved from Greek craftsmen who first created designs in the fifth century, B.C., with small stone chips. These were groups of similarly colored pebbles, neither cut nor carved, laid in various designs. Later, pebbles were cut and cemented together.

The art of mosaics reached its zenith during the second to fifth centuries, A.D., especially in African cities under Roman rule. Tunisia grew rich then, being the major supplier of grains for Rome, enabling it to also enjoy the material advantages of Roman civilization. Wealthy Tunisians embellished their residences with decorative mosaics in order to keep up with their neighbors — just like today!

National Museum of Bardo

Moreen and I first began to appreciate the ancient art craft of mosaics a decade ago, when we spent several hours in the National Museum of Bardo in Tunis, Tunisia. This museum was officially inaugurated in 1883 in the Palace of Bey (king), a 13th-century Hafside Palace. It was expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Today, there are 50 rooms and galleries highlighting Tunisia’s mosaics and artifacts from its prehistoric, Punic, Roman, Christian and Islamic eras.

This museum definitely has the best collection of mosaics we’ve seen in our Middle East and Mediterranean travels. Hundreds of compositions illustrating mythological and profane subjects discovered throughout Tunisia have been carefully relocated here on the museum walls and floors.

Individual rooms are dedicated to specific periods of Tunisian history; e.g., in rooms 6 and 11 there are mosaics from the ancient cities of Bulla Regia and of Dougga, respectively.

Bulla Regia and Dougga

I mention these two rooms purposely. We certainly enjoyed seeing these mosaics in the Bardo Museum, but our interest was further enhanced when seeing others in situ. Travelers can easily visit both Bulla Regia and Dougga in a single day, as it is only 75 miles from Tunis.

The ruins at Bulla Regia are not as spectacular as those at Dougga, but what is interesting is having an opportunity to view the bedrooms, dining rooms and recreational rooms of ancient villas, built below grade to minimize stifling summer heat. Many of the floors in these rooms are mosaics, still wonderfully preserved by the hot, dry climate.

Nearby Dougga (ancient Thugga) is one of the most complete and evocative sites for travelers. It’s built into a broad hillside with a theater overlooking acres of pastoral land that once fed the Roman Empire. Dougga, a contender to Carthage, has grandiose temples and villas but, similar to the situation in Bulla Regia, a majority of its mosaics have also been relocated to the Bardo museum in Tunis.

Today, these mosaics provide historians and visitors a window through which we can visually study the lives, dreams and fears of people who lived nearly two thousand years ago.

Minutiae

The National Museum of Bardo, closed on Mondays, is normally open from 9:30 to 4:30. There are several good websites with information and excellent photographs of the museum’s mosaics; use Google.

Dougga (Thugga) was approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
For information on Tunisia, write to the Embassy of Tunisia, 1515 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005; phone 202/466-2546. For tourist info, visit www.tourism tunisia.com.

Though there is currently no travel advisory for Tunisia, readers should always use caution when visiting countries discussed in this column.

Coming up: Let’s visit the ancient city of Termessos high in the mountains of southern Turkey.

—The Timeless Roads of the Mideast and Mediterranean is written by Ed Kinney.