‘I am not rubbish off the street,’ Said told me indignantly when I initially turned down his offer to guide me round Tunis’s Bardo Museum. After all, I’d been briefly before, had my Rough Guide with me with its excellent museum map, and had the whole day if I wanted it. ‘I am a qualified guide,’ said this smart-suited man, with his glasses, bushy moustache and dapper red fez. He showed me his Tourist Guide papers. ‘You cannot get a guide inside the Museum, and I can tell you things you will not read in the books. Only ten dinars for one hour, two hours, as long as you wish!’ A few pounds? It was a deal.
I’d been bowled over by the Bardo on a brief guided tour as part of ‘A Day in Tunis’ when staying in one of Tunisia’s beach resorts the previous year. It has the world’s finest collection of Roman mosaics, but is one of those rare museums which would be worth seeing even if stripped of all its contents. The building is the former Bardo Palace, home to the Beys or Regents of Tunis, and there has been a Palace on the site since the 13th century. The present white Moorish building dates back to the end of the 17th century, and has been a museum since 1888.
‘Look at the beautiful blue tiles, look at the stucco ceiling,’ Said instructed me as we wandered round. I’d decided to put myself into his hands for now, enjoying his occasionally fractured English (‘This is Emperor Hadrian, the founditor of Carthage Baths’) and the way his character illuminated his descriptions: ‘Here we see a mosaic of a lion attacking a horse. It is the sight of tyranny, no? The strong always wishes to devour the weak.’
The Bardo’s collection of mosaics is astonishing in both its scope (much of the museum’s three floors is given over to them) and its quality. One reason for this is that Tunisia’s hot, dry climate preserved them particularly well, and another is that the North African trend was for multi-coloured floor mosaics to contrast plain-coloured walls, while the fashion on the Mediterranean’s northern shores was for colourful walls and monochromatic floors.
Some floors, too. The largest mosaic is 140 square metres, from the floor of the reception hall of a wealthy horsebreeder from Sousse, which shows Neptune surrounded by sea creatures. The most detailed items are four small mosaics called emblemata. These are made up of fragments as small as 2mm, giving an almost photographic quality to them. The best shows the remains of a meal, including fishbones and egg-shells. ‘All natural colours,’ Said explained, ‘no painting, no dyes, just stone, minerals, glass, terracotta, all these kinds of things. Truly the work of skilled artists.’ Indeed, and a reminder that mosaics, like music, owe their name to the muses.
I paid off Said with a cup of coffee and a tip. ‘Many people are so pleased with my tour that they give me a tip, but of course I never ask for one,’ he had clarified for me, in case I was unsure. I was free to wander round more leisurely, and argue with the Rough Guide. The author dismisses the El Djem Room in one sentence, as containing ‘hunting scenes to delight the heart of any blood-sport enthusiast’ – a strange way to understand the past, by filtering it through the sensibilities of the present. It’s not even true. The El Djem Room has a couple of hunting scenes and several dozen exquisite wildlife mosaics showing fish and fowl, gazelles, hares, fruit and flowers.
One thing everyone agrees on is that a star exhibit is the 3rd century mosaic of the poet Virgil, which on my previous tour the guide had unashamedly described as ‘the finest mosaic in the world.’ Today a British tour group is gazing at it like a Tunisian Mona Lisa, and the guide says: ‘Your Queen of England came to see this mosaic and she stood gazing in wonder at it for thirty minutes, such is its beauty.’ Yes, well, even if you can only spare five minutes, you can still appreciate its almost perfect state of preservation, and incredible detail: you can even read a line from the Aeneid on the papyrus scroll that Virgil is holding in his lap.
In the end, in all museums, despite the experts and the guides and the books telling you what are the best things in the collection, you will always find the little things that move you more than anything. I was looking not at the magnificent mosaics but at the humbler terracotta pieces in display cabinets around the balconies that look down on the Carthage Room. At the far end, in the central cabinet, was a relaxing – or should that be resting? – actor with a face so wonderfully awful that it cheered me up no end. Then I took a look in the final cabinet and there was a head, a few inches high, of a beautiful chubby-cheeked baby, its gurgling grin almost lost between the fat folds of its face. What skill, I thought, to make that child come alive two thousand years later. Then I glanced at the caption, one of the few in English, and saw that it was a funeral mask. I made my way downstairs to the exit.