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Bardo National Museum in Tunis: the Keeper of the History of Civilizations

Bardo National Museum in Tunis: the Keeper of the History of Civilizations

02.08.2021 Tourist attractions

Before arriving in Tunisia, tourists often do not know about such a museum, but after the visit they boldly say: the Bardo is one of the most beautiful landmarks of the country which you definitely must visit!

The museum occupied an important sixth place in the list of the World’s most beautiful museums, made by one of the oldest Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. And it’s not for nothing because the Bardo features the biggest collection of mosaics of the Roman and Byzantine periods in the world, as well as a huge collection of Roman statues – there are 50 halls and galleries.

Bardo National Museum is located in the suburbs of Tunisian capital – Le Bardo. It is one of the most important museums in the Mediterranean and the second largest museum in Africa. By visiting it, you can learn the history and art of the Tunisian lands, dating back to the foundation of Carthage. This is exactly the case when art can reveal history in a fascinating and imaginative way.

How Was the Museum Founded?

The Bardo Museum is located in the complex of buildings of the Bardo Palace, its name can be translated as “garden” or “meadow”. The palace itself was built in the 15th century (according to another version – in the 13th) by Andalusian craftsmen for the Arab Hafsid dynasty. Its beauty was admired by Europeans who visited Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, in the 19th century the palace ceased to be a residence, various state institutions were located here — the mint, the cadet school.

The palace complex consists of several buildings, some of them were constructed later than others, such as the Grand Palace, built at the end of the 19th century. Now the government is located in part of the buildings.

When in 1881 the country’s territories become a part of colonial France, European archaeologists began extensive excavations throughout Tunisia. They found thousands of artifacts, magnificent antique mosaics and statues – they are the evidence of the flowering of arts in these areas, the objects telling about the daily life of Tunisians and Romans. The ruler of Tunisia of that time, Ali III Bey, protested against the export of valuables from the country and gave the Bardo palace to the French, which was then called the “Alaoui Museum”. The found artifacts were brought here for storage.

The official opening date of the museum is considered May 7, 1888. Over time, the museum expanded, new buildings were transferred to it, because the Tunisian land is rich in historical monuments, and excavations there do not stop to this day.

By the way, the modern name – the “Bardo Museum” – was given to the museum after Tunisia gained independence from France, in 1958. In the 2010s, the museum was renovated and reconstructed, and today it amazes visitors not only with the collection, but also with the splendor of the decoration.

Bardo National Museum Collection

As already mentioned, the museum houses artifacts of several civilizations. Many people know art objects of antiquity at least from photographs and films, but the finds of the Carthage heyday are a rarity and the pride of the museum.

The museum’s expositions are divided into several parts, according to historical periods or important events during the study of Tunisian lands by historians.

  • The Punic Period

Это самая ценная коллекция музея, которая связана с историей Карфагена до его разрушения римлянами. Римляне стерли с лица земли почти всю карфагенскую культуру, уничтожая вместе с памятниками и свидетельства о быте, религии и даже облике жителей могущественного некогда государства Карфаген. Именно благодаря римлянам, карфагенян считают жестокими язычниками, приносившими в жертву богам младенцев. Так ли это, ученые выясняют до сих пор.

Так, один из ценных экспонатов коллекции — стелла, где изображен жрец с ребенком на руках. Некоторые считают этот памятник доказательством жестокого культа карфагенян. Интересны терракотовые погребальные маски с яркими эмоциями на лицах, статуи богов, от самых маленьких, в 20 см, до крупных, в человеческий рост, пуническая керамика, украшения и даже доспехи.

  • Antique period

There are many statues in the halls of antiquity — gods, heroes and emperors greet visitors in majestic poses. Some, however, cannot greet the guests, because they do not have heads — a reason for tourists’ confusion and numerous questions. The reason is that the heads were often pinned to statues and over time, during transportation or because of careless handling, the statues lost them. However, the heads are often kept here in the museum as well.

According to another version, explaining the absence of statues’ heads, is the arrival of Muslims, who allegedly chopped the heads of ancient idols off, because images are prohibited in Islam. Damage to antique mosaics is also attributed to Muslims, some of the mosaic characters seem to have their eyes scratched out.

Antique mosaics are one of the most beautiful and fascinating exhibits in the Bardo Museum. Admiring them, you can not only appreciate the skill of ancient artists, but also learn more about everyday life, lifestyles and beliefs of the Romans.

One of the most valuable exhibits is the Virgil mosaic, where the ancient Roman poet is depicted surrounded by muses. This image is the oldest portrait of Virgil and was created no later than the 3rd century AD.

Pay attention to the mosaic marine atlases: a detailed image of underwater inhabitants with captions is an amazing and rare exhibit. Guides always tell about it during the excursion to the museum.

  • Islamic Art

In the halls of Islamic art, both, historical artifacts dating back to the Middle Ages and modern exhibits telling about Islamic culture and faith are presented.

In these halls, you can learn and even feel how Tunisian people have been living for many centuries after the arrival of the Arabs here, when the construction of mosques, powerful city fortresses –medinas, and ribats – centers of Sufi culture, begins.

In the collection you can see reliefs from the Grand Mosque of Kairouan – once the main mosque of the country, and musical instruments, household items, and a magnificent collection of Arab weapons. The most valuable exhibit is the sheets of the Blue Koran with golden calligraphy found in the ancient capital of Tunis, Kairouan.

  • Marine Archaeology Hall

In 1907, an antique ship with many works of art on board was discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea near the shores of the city of Mahdia. Jacques Yves Cousteau discovered the ship, thus marking the development of maritime archaeology.

The find was stunning! Antique statues, including a bust of Aphrodite, a statue of Dionysus and other deities, bronze furniture, architectural elements, columns and capitals that sank to the bottom of the sea in the 1st century BC.

Presumably, the ship was carrying works of art from Greece, Italy and Sicily to Roman buyers on the African coast, but got caught in a storm. Having lain at the bottom for almost 2000 years, many sculptures suffered from sea salts, but it was still possible to restore their appearance and assess the value of the find.

In the Bardo National Museum, objects from the Greek ship are allocated a special hall.

  • Interiors of the palace

The interiors of the palace are amazing: walls decorated with majolica, original Arabic architecture, carved decor. In the halls you would like to linger and take pictures of everything.

Some halls show everyday life, for example, the life of a harem, for which a separate room is allocated. The presence of concubines seems to be felt here: in the center there is a huge four-poster bed with silk linen and authentic furniture around. The magnificent decoration of the hall also emphasizes the special atmosphere.

Why Should You Visit Bardo National Museum?

Bardo National Museum, first of all, will appeal to history lovers, but not only to them. The splendor of the interiors, their decoration and decor delight even visitors who don’t know anything about art and historical romances. Here it’s the best place to feel the atmosphere and understand the life in the country where you’re staying a bit better. The Bardo Museum shows an amazing interweaving of traditions and cultures – Phoenician, Antique, African, Arabic.

Some mosaics vividly illustrate the everyday life and entertainment of the Romans. For example, a mosaic depicting gladiator combats demonstrates the rules of this world-famous ancient entertainment, and can also debunk some myths. So, it is shown here that there were judges in the battles, and gladiators very rarely fought to the death. Other mosaics tell how the Romans looked and dressed, what could be found on their tables during feasts. And the halls of Islamic art will help to understand the people who now inhabit the country better: what is dear to them, what is sacred to them, and what is unacceptable.

And finally, people go to the museum for the same reason why the visit the Louvre in Paris or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg: that is to take a breath of cultural life, enjoy fine arts and feel different atmosphere. Bardo National Museum is a reliable testimony of the originality and richness of Tunisian culture.