Emblems of the New Tunisia

The North African country is considering how best to serve its rich heritage.

Charlotte Crow | Published 12 August 2014

Re-emergence: a mosaic of Neptune, Carthage, first century AD. RoosterElections will be held in Tunisia in October, ending the ten month ‘transitional period’ after the country agreed a new constitution in January. Since the uprising of 2011 and the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has experienced a sharp rise in unemployment and in terrorist activity, including the killing in July of 14 soldiers by jihadists in the Chaambi mountain region bordering Algeria, ‘the heaviest toll suffered by the army since independence [in 1956]’, according to the ministry of defence.

Tourism, Tunisia’s second biggest economic sector after agriculture, slumped following the revolution and has not recovered its 2010 levels. The country is at a difficult juncture in terms of processing a past that is so engaging to outsiders. Unlike its aging political class, nearly half of Tunisia’s population is under the age of 30. The issues that matter to them don’t necessarily encompass a historic identity. A recent blog noted: ‘Activists speak of a day when the timbers that sprouted from the soil of Ben Ali and Bourguiba, may be uprooted. When that happens, it will be the realisation of a true revolution, one that breaks with the past rather than clinging to an even more distant history.’ 

None of this augurs well for the country’s rich archaeological heritage. The museums and ancient sites in Tunisia are in urgent need of safeguards to prevent theft and damage. Yet unlike in more conflict-ridden countries, where tourism is totally off the agenda, here there is a dichotomy between the potential to develop places of interest within an established economic sector and the demands to prioritise education, welfare and infrastructure.

Founded in the eighth century BC and probably the earliest Phoenician settlement on the North African coast, Utica became the capital of Rome’s first African province in 146 BC. Cato the Younger committed suicide here a hundred years later, refusing to capitulate to Julius Caesar. Yet, in spite of its significance, Utica attracts fewer than 4,000 visitors a year. It is thus a guilty pleasure to wander in solitude through the excavated streets and houses, yet uncomfortable not to be stopped from stomping over their antique floors, like Hanno’s elephants, which wrought havoc in the vicinity in c. 240 BC during the Mercenary War. Mosaic chips from the Phoenician and Roman pavements are sprinkled in the grass across the site. 

The finest Roman mosaics to have been excavated from Utica, Carthage, Dougga and Souze are safely displayed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. They present a visual record of the sophistication of the North African empire from the early Christian era to the seventh century. Yet, presented as works of art, on the walls as if paintings, there is no context to link them to the buildings they were created for. 

Tunisian treasure: the ampitheatre at Dougga. Re-emergence: a mosaic of Neptune, Carthage, first century AD. Rooster

Djebel Zaghouan mountain, south of Tunis, forms a dramatic backdrop to the ruins of the Temple of Water, built during Hadrian’s reign (AD 117-38), at the start of the immense aqueduct, which carried water to Carthage 130 km away. Situated in a national park, the temple remains draw Tunisian families and a few toy sellers, but there is almost nothing in the vicinity to explain its historical significance. Maknine Abderahmen, a government administrator of the district, said: ‘I would like there to be a museum in the area but we have other priorities. The main aim is the development of the region, then social affairs but there will be a big change after the election.’ 

The most recent archaeological discovery that Abderahmen is aware of is a mausoleum dating back to the second century found in 2011, close to the Roman city of Thuburbo Majus. There are currently no plans to excavate it, which is perhaps no bad thing. Only an estimated 17 per cent of Tunisia’s ancient remains have officially been unearthed, yet it is reported that increasing numbers of open-air sites are being illegally excavated and raided.

One aspect of the country’s heritage which seems more secure is that of music, where both pure forms of the Arab-Andalusian genre known as ma’luf and its many hybrids offer young and old the means to express distinct Tunisian identities. 

Eighty years ago this year, during the French occupation, the Rashidiyya Institute was founded in Tunis to help preserve and revive the Arab-Andalusian musical legacy. Though he had died by 1934, one of the leading protagonists of the movement behind the institute was a Bavarian-born artist, musician and scholar, Baron Rudolphe d’Erlanger (1872-1932). A French naturalised citizen, the wealthy Erlanger fell for the climate and landscape of the northern Tunisian coast. At Sidi Bou Said, overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, between 1912 and 1922 he commissioned master craftsmen from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt to create an exquisite home, the Ennejma Ezzahra (Arabic for ‘Splendid Star’), in homage to his passion for the Middle East. The baron’s residence became a centre of research and musical performance, where d’Erlanger collected both instruments and musicians from across the Maghreb.

Erlanger’s former home was made the Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music by presidential mandate in 1991 under Ben Ali’s ministry of culture and heritage conservation to protect and promote Tunisian music. Some have seen these efforts and those they supercede as the actions of an elite fearful of losing a musical heritage that has usefully underpinned the foundations of Tunisian national identity. But the centre continues actively to flourish in an international capacity, holding concerts and organising courses and study days, while the Ennejma Ezzahra itself and its collection of instruments are treasures in their own right. 

Earlier this year, at a ceremony at the presidential palace in Carthage held to honour Tunisian artists, the interim prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa told the assembled audience: ‘We are aware of the key role of artists in building the new Tunisia’ … In the second republic, he continued, ‘… culture will be the emblem of intellectuals and their living consciousness’. It is unclear to what extent this vision will be accepted or upheld.

Charlotte Crow is deputy editor of History Today.


Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week