When we visited Tunisia, we didn’t stay in Tunis, the capital city. But, we felt that it should be visited, and there were plenty of tours from Souss, where we were staying.
First, they took us to a museum. I thought the last thing I wanted to do in Tunis was to spend time traipsing around a. museum. But, the Musée Bardo is different. It used to be the palace of the Bey, or ruler of Tunisia, until the French occupation in the 19th Century.
I did think the guide rushed us rather hastily around the few Carthaginian artefacts to be seen, and wondered it the conquering Ancient Romans did such a thorough propaganda job that, even now, modern Tunisians gloss over that period in their history?
But, the museum’s main theme is the best collection of mosaics I’ve ever seen. And, there aren’t just the familiar floor mosaics, there were wall decorations, too. We were allowed to photograph them, too, provided we didn’t use flash … on payment of the customary one dinar for a photographic permit, which we encountered at just about every attraction we visited.
They collected them from all over Tunisia, and the guide told us how to tell them apart. If there’s writing on them, it’s in Roman script on the Roman ones (stands to reason, really!), and in Greek lettering on the few Byzantine ones. Muslim ones are abstract shapes, rather than images of people or animals, for this was against their religion.
By the time we left, I had completely changed my mind about museums. In fact, I thought they might have allowed us more time there.
From the Bardo Museum, they took us to where I really wanted to go, Carthage. There’s not a lot there to indicate that it was once the hub of a thriving empire, which even predated the Roman Empire. That was a great pity, for, in History and Latin lessons at school, the Carthaginians were always portrayed as the Bad Guys … or, indeed, one of the most evil bunch of blots ever to walk the earth.
And, if possible, I wanted to get the Carthaginian take on the affairs of the time.
The Carthaginians fought three wars, the Punic Wars, against the Romans, and with each one, they lost a substantial part of their empire. Finally, in the Third Punic War, the Romans took Carthage itself, and completely destroyed it, even sowing the surrounding fields with salt, so nothing would grow there for a considerable time.
That’s probably one of the earliest examples of the saying that history is propaganda spread by the winning side!
All that is left of the Carthaginian civilisation is a few meagre, insignificant grave-sites, from which some gold jewellery, now in the Bardo Museum, was recovered.
Eventually, the Romans built their own city there, reasoning that it was a good site for the capital of their new province. And, indeed it was. Looking out over an excellent view of the bay, Carthage is now one of the better suburbs of Tunis … the Presidential Palace is nearby.
But, little remains of the Roman city, too, except for the remains of the Antonine Baths. After the Romans left, the city was sacked, first by the Vandals, then by the Arabs, who took most of the stone to build their mosques and castles, and set up their capital in Kairouan.
There are, however, a few Roman sites remaining, and we visited the Antonine Baths. However, we didn’t stay long … it didn’t give much of an impression of ancient Carthage. I mean, would you get much of an impression of a house if you only saw the bathroom?
We rounded off our visit to Tunis with a call at Sidi bou Said, another better suburb of the city. During all of our stay in Tunisia, people kept pointing out where films were made. The English Patient; Star Wars, The Life of Brian … I don’t know if any were ever made at Sidi bou Said … but they ought to be.
Certainly, there were the usual tourist stalls, but they sell a better style of craft-work than those elsewhere. But, we weren’t really here to buy, just wander the streets of pristine whitewashed houses with the woodwork picked out, always in blue. And have a coffee, and take lots of pictures, of course.
I wondered if there was any particular reason for this blue and white colour scheme. I know they originally did it as an act of patriotism in the Dodecanese Islands. Under Turkish rule, they weren’t allowed to fly the Greek flag, so they painted their houses in its colours, instead.
Another place Sidi bou Said made me think of was Portmeirion, in Wales, where they filmed the cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’ … maybe this is what made me think of film sets?