The Bardo National Museum is a charming museum in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia. Bardo has the pleasure of boasting the world's largest collection of mosaics from the Roman era. Most of these mosaics and artifacts were moved to the museum from sites in Tunisia and North Africa, such as the legendary city of Carthage, where Tunis now stands.
The building that houses the museum's collection is a piece of history itself. It was once a palace and it dates back to the 13th century. However the museum's older architecture has since been updated to a mixture of 17th and 18th century Moorish architecture. Though the exterior design of the building is attractive, it pales in comparison to the relics housed within.
Upon entering the Bardo National Museum, the interior doesn't look much like a museum -- in fact the interior architecture makes it looks as though it was plucked from a more futuristic setting.
However, upon further exploration, visitors find themselves among one of the museum's oldest collections -- the department of Prehistory. The exhibit, located on the ground floor, provides an overview of the rich and varied prehistoric sites in Tunisia.
This period lasted from the beginning of the Quaternary until towards the end of the 12th century BC, when Phoenician sailors brought with them the use of writing. The museum has compiled quite the collection of ancient artifacts from the prehistoric civilizations in Tunisia dating back to the 14th century BC. These include basic carved figurines, haunting clay masks and basic tools from the early people of the land.
However, the Prehistory exhibit is by far the most unimpressive department in the museum. It is not that archeologists and the directors of Bardo are not diligent in their search, but that many of the documents and treasures from pre-Carthigean history were destroyed by the Romans during the Punic Wars. This has made investigating prehistory in Tunisia and Northern Africa rather complicated.
Also on the ground floor, there is a set of rooms dedicated to the area of Punic history in Northern Africa. These rooms include the Room of Baal Hammon, which is a room complete dedicated to ceramics from the era. There is also a room comprised completely of Punic jewellery, and a corridor lined with Neopunic burial stones that connect the rooms.
These objects were collected from sites such as Carthage, Hadrumetum, Utica and Cap-Bon. Many of these artifacts travel in between other Tunis museums, such as the Ceramic Museum and the Carthage National Museum, all of which work in cooperation with each other to show off the city's rich Punic history.
Inside the Room of Baal Hammon, the first item that catches the eye is the three statues of the chief God of Carthage, Baal Hammon -- one with him sitting upon his throne dated to the 1st century BC, and two of him standing with his hand held out from the early pre-Roman period. How did a God of Carthage survive Roman occupation? When the Roman Empire took control of Carthage, Baal Hammon was understood to be an interpretation of the Roman God Saturn, so his statues were primarily kept intact throughout the occupation.
These statues, like the other artifacts in much of the museum are encased in temperature and air quality regulated custom-lit glass cases so that they are assured to last forever. The dimly-lit room allows for viewing of not just the statues, but the beautiful Punic ceramic work. These ceramics include sandstone tablets that showcase ancient phonics and small statues that have retained a stunning amount of detail even thought they are thousands of years old. However, the most eye-catching relic, aside from Baal Hammon himself, is the great twisting sandstone serpent that once adorned a building.
Outside Baal Hammon's room of ceramics is a corridor that is lined with stones of all shapes and sizes. Upon closer inspection, visitors will spot vague pictures and ancient phonics. These stones served as grave markers for residents of pre-Punic Carthage. The residents of the graves that these stones once marked have since been excavated and studied and the stones themselves were preserved and have found permanent homes in the Bardo Museum.
The corridor of grave markers leads into the final exhibit of the Punic era department -- and it is a glittering one. This whole room is dedicated to showcasing the various necklaces, earrings and other body adornments found throughout Northern Africa.It even has a small collection of golden coins used during the time period.
Visitors can spot Tanit icons made from gold and decorated with precious jewels. A popular neckpiece-style of Carthage featured amulets or bead chains of odd-looking, different painted heads. Some represent different Gods, while others have an unclear meaning and origin. There are even a few head beads that look a bit like aliens from science fiction, providing fuel for some entertaining alien theories on ancient civilizations.
Upstairs visitors will find not only the largest exhibit, but the most important exhibit in the museum -- the Roman department.
Through its sculptures, pottery, jewellery and other artifacts, it provides a living testimony to the evolution of artistic ventures in Tunisia under Roman occupation. Much of the artwork combines notable Roman influences, but it seems that even under occupation, the artisans kept true to past design traditions.
Visitors will find rooms filled with sculpture, such as the monumental marble statue of Apollo Citharoedus, a portrait bust of Septimus Severus, who was an Emperor of African origins, and a bronze statue of a satyr. Elsewhere, visitors can find rooms dedicated to the more useful items from Roman occupations, such as shaving knives made of bronze, gilded Roman armor and a great number of painted pottey items.
While the artifacts are all stunning, it is the mosaics left behind by Rome that attracts visitors to the Bardo National Museum. Along the walls, ceilings and even on the floors the Brando Museum shows off its stunning collection.
It is much like looking at a picture book of the valuable living, social, economic, religious and cultural information of Roman life in Tunisia during this time. Some of their masterpieces include the mosaic of Virgil writing The Aeneid, the wedding of Poseidon and Amphitrite, the daily activities of Seignior Julius and a piece of Dionysus overlapping a panther that has been pain-stakingly restored.
All of these beautiful mosaics have not been borrowed from the heart of the Roman Empire in Italy -- they all were excavated from Tunisia and other sites in Northern Africa. While they have strong Roman influences and story work, they have definite marks that they were made in the region.
Before moving onto other exhibits, be sure to visit Bardo's re-creation of a Roman bathing area. There is no actual water in the area, but it does serve as an excellent venue to show off some of their lesser known mosaics.
Also located on the upper floor is the Christian exhibit that is dedicated to showing the vitality of African Christianity through its artwork.
This exhibit is small due to the rather brief presence of Christianity in Tunisia's history, but it is still quite vibrant. Aside from several beautifully-decorated sarcophagi, this exhibit primarily showcases terra cotta tiles and mosaics of Christian influence. The mosiacs that decorate the walls and ceilings depict biblical, hagiographical and symbolic themes.
Christian grave slabs depict an image of the deceased and a basic story of their life. This has offered archeologists an unprecedented look into the life of ancient residents. But the prize jewel of their Christian collection is a baptistery that was found at Kelibia. This ornately tiled dipping pool bears Christian symbols, as well as the names of its donors.
The department depicting Islamic history and influence in artwork spans both the ground and upper floor. As the department is separated onto two floors, so is its collection.
The section on the ground floor displays various objects and artwork of Muslim influence from the Middle Ages. Most of the objects displayed in this section were excavated from sites in Raqqada and Sabra in the Kairouan region.
There are beautiful Fatimid glasses from the 11th century, ceramic fragments that depict figures taking part in some sort of story, astrolobes, and Kufic inscriptions. The prize of this collection includes a unique version of the Quran written on blue vellum. The script is written in gilded Kufic letters and is truly a jewel.
The second collection of Muslim artifacts located on the upper floors displays arts and popular traditions from other eras in the region's Muslim history. Visitors can admire objects made from hammered copper, such as weapons and musical instruments and view beautiful silver jewellery, ceremonial dress and adornments from old Tunisian rituals. This section is also home to a collection of tiles and pottery glazed in China, but originating from Tunisia, Asia Minor and Spain.
Underwater Excavation at Mahdia
Tucked away in a lonely corner on the upper level of the Bardo National Museum is some artwork and relics that look Roman in origin, but are actually Greek.
The department is stocked with Greek artwork and relics that were found in an ancient shipwreck that was discovered off the coast of Mahdia. The wrecked vessel sank in 86 BC and since 1907, three campaigns have been launched to retrieve and reassemble the sunken ship, as well as gathering its cargo of artwork and other items.
The boat was carrying was artworks of bronze and marble, which are speculated to have come from Athens. The most rare masterpiece aboard was the lost Agon in the pillar Hermes, which was signed by the famed sculptor Boethos of Chalcedon. While Tunisia is not often thought of as a major harbour for Roman or Greek history, the Bardo National Museum proves that even the rarest of artifacts can turn up in the unlikeliest of places.