Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mosaics in Tunisia

I have recently returned from a holiday in Tunisia. This was mainly a way for my wife to access some autumn sun and for me to explore a new cuisine. However, Tunisia is also the home to some first class Roman ruins, including an enormous coliseum at El Jem.

The national museum, founded by the French colonial administration in the nineteenth century, is called the Bardo and is housed in a fine Islamic palace graced by alabaster ceilings and colourful tiles. The exhibits include a little bit of Carthaginian stuff, some forgettable marble Roman statutes, a very fine bronze Eros from a ship wreak and lots of mosaics.

It’s the mosaics that make this one of the great museums of the world. The collection is staggering in size and quality. The Roman province of Africa was rich and reasonably peaceful so undefended villas, full of fine floors, have been unearthed all over the country. Many of the best mosaics are now housed in the Bardo. I don’t know if African craftsman particularly excelled in making mosaics - the museum implied that they were not well paid or especially appreciated - but the results of their labours took my breathe away.

If, like me, you are partial to mosaics and want to see the very best, you will need to make a beeline for Tunis. I’ve found some photographs of a few of the best, but they convey little of the grandeur or, indeed, sheer size of the originals.

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