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‘If we stay away from Tunisia, we are cowards’

1 February 2016

In late November, the ruins of the Antonine Baths in the leafy suburbs of Carthage were empty. I couldn’t say no to the dejected guide at the entrance of the archaeological park, and so, together, we picked our way along the otherwise deserted paved road lined with weathered busts, steles and clusters of Carthaginian stone cannonballs under the shade of trees.

Built in the first century AD on the edge of the sea, only the ground floor remains. But the arches, gutters, and huge marble columns are testament to what was once a six-floor structure housing all the amenities that would have been expected of a leisure complex in one of the most important cities in the Roman empire. Now, on a hilltop up above the ruins, the Tunisian flag on the presidential palace wavered in the wind.

I was in Tunis for the 26th Carthage Film Festival, a week of Arab and African film, and the longest-running festival of its kind. This edition had been celebrated as a symbol of culture triumphing over terrorism; but on the Tuesday, a suicide bomber had murdered 12 presidential guards in the centre of the city. After the attack, queues at cinemas stretched longer than they had before. The people of Tunis seemed to want to make a point.

With a curfew in place, the screenings were earlier than planned, but there was still time to visit the Bardo National Museum. On the way, I asked the taxi driver how business had been since the attacks – all of them. ‘The economic situation is bad. The young have no hope,’ he said. ‘These men are not true Muslims. They are mad. We Tunisians like the good life. We like peace.’ I couldn’t resist: ‘What about Hannibal?’ ‘Ha! But Hannibal was not a Muslim!’

There was no one at the gates of the museum apart from four guards with guns. At the entrance is a mosaic listing the names of those who died here in the attack on 18 March last year. Twenty-two names and, alongside, their nationalities: among them Tunisians, Italians, Poles, three Japanese women. Proof of the global reach of terrorism, perhaps, but more striking as a reflection on museums as the new temples of cultural exchange and diversity.

The chorus of the harem (former ‘Virgil’s Hall’) at the Bardo National Museum, Tunis

The chorus of the harem (former ‘Virgil’s Hall’) at the Bardo National Museum, Tunis. Photo: Fleur Macdonald, 2015

The Bardo’s modern extension was finished in 2011, designed to accommodate more of the mosaic collection and the prospect of more visitors. The white halls are spare and airy. Roman mosaics clothe the walls, mostly dating from the first to the third century. Like the baths, they are impressive reminders of everyday life for the elite. There are scenes from myth: Odysseus and the sirens; sailors morphing into dolphins; Neptune riding over the waves, his horses foaming. There are also intricate depictions of the ordinary: fishing, hunting, and weaving.

From the modern section, you walk into the former harem palace built by Mhammed Bey between 1859 and 1864 in Italo-Tunisian style. On the walls and floors are more mosaics, with delicate images of fruit, fish, and fauna. There are bristling wild boars, their tails standing to attention. In their original Roman homes, hungry diners must have feasted their eyes on these mosaics while waiting to be served.

The Carthage Hall, the main atrium of the palace, leads on to what were the private quarters. At the back of this domed hall, there is an alcove where, according to my guide, the bey – between the four bedrooms of his wives – used to do his paperwork while overlooked by the mosaic of Virgil flanked by the muses of history and tragedy. I walked in to one of the four rooms, appreciating the light, and towards one of the two cabinets at the centre, which houses a bronze of Dionysus as a boy. Approaching the glass, I realised that something was obstructing my vision: a crack.

It was then that I saw a bullet hole: the glass had been shattered, though the statue looked to be undamaged. Bullets had been sprayed across the white walls. The guide said that they hadn’t got round to repairing or replacing the cabinets, but it seemed fitting; a jarring memorial of what had happened here, and a reminder of the importance of the role that culture plays in peace and war. Another glass cabinet along the wall, filled with small stone figures of Venus, had also been hit. Feeling too uncomfortable to ask my guide about the attack, I stuttered something. ‘We carry on with life as well as we can,’ he responded. ‘We have to. Death lasts a moment and happens to all of us.’

By the time I left, I had only seen four other visitors. The calm made the museum seem almost holy. But if we stay away from these wonderful sites, if we decide the beaches of Tunisia are no-go zones, we are cowards and, worse, we are missing out.

From the February issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.