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Art. At the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, the exhibition "Lieux saints partagés" challenges viewers to recognize themselves in strangers.

A Mediterranean without borders

On the morning of March 18, 2015, the Punic gods and the Roman emperors must have trembled on their stands of eternal glory at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. And ancient Africa, mirrored in ever-glorious mosaics, was stained with the blood of Islamic terrorism.

The assault that day surprised hundreds of tourists in the famous North African museum has left a sinister echo in the Palace of the Bey. Even on the first anniversary of the massacre, you could still see, on walls and windows, the bursts of the Kalashnikovs shot by the two young Islamic State militants, who, in the name of a war of civilizations, ended the lives of 22 people. Among the victims were 21 foreigners who had arrived to Dido’s shores with the certainty of meeting a welcoming and generous land.

More than a year and a half after this tragic event that, in addition to the fundamentalist attack in Sousse in June 2015, threw Tunisia in a dire economic crisis, the Bardo is trying to mend the two shores of the Mediterranean Sea with an exhibition entitled “Les lieux saints partagés.” Running through Feb. 12, the exhibition aims to break down prejudices and to encircle the great monotheistic religions in a true embrace. Produced by the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) in Marseille, where it was presented between April and August 2015 with great success, the new version of the exhibition is a collaboration between the MuCEM, the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunis and the Bardo Museum.

To each his own god, sacred books and saints, according to a declination that aims to unite rather than divide. With this in mind, the large team of curators (Nejib Ben Lazreg, Dionigi Albera, Manoël Pénicaud and Isabelle Marquette) assisted by Hassan Arfaoui, Taher Ghalia, Fatma Nait Yghil and Mikaël Mohamed, have designed a circuit that consists of 150 works including artifacts, photos and multimedia devices designed with an anthropological approach.

Amani Ben Hassine Khadraoui’s scenographic EQUIPMENT takes shape in the apartments of the Petit Palais, the domestic architecture jewel within the Bardo. Built during the reign of the bey Hussein II (1824 -1835) as a gift to one of his daughters, the building is a mix of Tunisian, Andalusian and Turkish influences. Here, within the frame of faience and stucco, archaeological objects and local ethnographic testimonies reveal beliefs and rituals shared from the beginning between the followers of the three monotheistic religions. A copper candlestick, a Christian triple spout lamp and the sublime Islamic lantern of Al-Mu’izz all illustrate the theme of light, one of the pillars of the exhibit, together with water, signs and amulets. The area between the patio and the Sousse hall presents a focus on Mary, a figure present not only somewhere between paganism and Christianity, but who is quoted thirty-four times in the Quran. This puts her as a symbol of trust in God.

Here are exhibited side by side a Roman mother goddess, a Virgin and Child and a creation of the painter-calligrapher Abdallah Akar depicting the suras dedicated to the mother of Jesus. Finally, the Sousse hall is reserved for crossborder devotional practices which are expressed in different holy places in the Middle East as well as in Egypt, Turkey and Lampedusa.

Of course, the Tunisian example with the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba could not be left out. On its threshold both Jews and Muslims take their shoes off before praying. A perhaps unsettling path, leading back — even for the meaningful context in which it unfolds — to the common roots of the Mediterranean peoples, to regrow in the same spot where someone wanted to sever it violently.

Since March, a new guide book is available at the Bardo. The title, “A monument, a museum… Je suis Bardo,” recalls both the social media motto expressing solidarity with Tunisia after the attack and the bond to the centuries-old institution that guards the testimonies of some key passages of the history of the Mediterranean. Edited by the Agence de mise en valeur du Patrimoine et de Promotion Culturelle Tunis and curated by Samir Aounallah, the volume has nearly 500 color pages and brings together the contributions of numerous Tunisian and international scholars. It is dedicated to the memory of the “martyrs, listed in a sad roster which includes — in addition to tourists from nine countries — a lieutenant of the anti-terrorism Tunisian Brigade and Akil, the dog that participated in the raid in which the two responsible for the carnage were executed.

Printed in large format (there is also a more manageable print size), the book was necessary to illustrate the new course the Bardo embarked on in 2012, since renovations funded by the World Bank. Among the most important new features is the ample space dedicated to a discovery that marked the birth of underwater archeology. The room called “L’épave de Mahdia” hosts the items found in a Greek wreck discovered by sponge divers off the coast of Mahdia, a pearl island set in the Eastern coast of Tunisia. It was 1907 and just a year later, Alfred Merlin undertook a first excavation of the deposit under the aegis of the Antiquities Service.

In 1948, the famous pioneer of the abyss Jacques-Yves Cousteau kept looking, until 1993, when a team of Tunisian and German technicians completed the study of the submerged ruins. Those extraordinary, high-quality artifacts can be admired today in the light of a modern construction, after being restored with the help of Germany. The vessel, which was wrecked at the end of the first century BC near Mahdia after leaving Athens, was en route to Italy. Its cargo included works of Hellenic art, probably sacked by Sulla in 86 BC. The most noteworthy pieces are the wood and bronze triclinium beds, so exceptionally preserved that they seem like they came out of an Art Nouveau villa, and the capitals and monumental chandeliers in white marble.

But what draws the most attention is the superb series of bronze ornamental figurines: tiny Hermes, dancing dwarfs and cupids express the grace of a time suspended in the enchantment. Even the Hall of Punic civilization, which includes the unique stele with crescent moons consecrated to Tanit and the terracotta pantheon of the three sanctuaries at Cap Bon, now enjoys an airy surface.

The uniqueness of the Bardo remains, however, linked to its immense collection of Roman and early Christian mosaics. Crossed by beams of light thanks to the renovations made in the Palace of the Bey, these African crafts masterpieces tell the daily life and fantasies of a fierce people, who conquered the Empire and who still loved beauty. Amphitheater beasts, gladiators and pugilists alternate with mythical and literary figures like Ulysses and Virgil. Agricultural scenarios and triumphs of sea gods swarm out of sight between tiles of many colors. In this kaleidoscope, the eyes of those who did not see the upcoming spring on that fateful March day, were lost.

But for the victims of the Bardo and all the terrorist acts that have recently also swept the European continent, sympathy and ceremonies are not enough. The courage to look at each other is needed, to recognize we are all people of the same dream of equality and freedom.

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