Bardo massacre: ‘The blood. The bodies. They won’t go away’

Visitor numbers at Tunisia’s famous Bardo museum collapsed after the jihadist massacre in March 2015. It’s what the terrorists wanted, says its director

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The massacre at Tunisia’s national museum, the Bardo, epitomised Islamic State’s war on culture. Twenty-one tourists from Europe, Asia and South America died because they wanted to see the world’s finest collection of Roman mosaics. A Tunisian policeman was killed trying to protect them.

On the morning of March 18th, 2015, two Tunisian gunmen opened fire on the tourists as they left the coach in the parking lot in front of the museum. Six died on the spot. Islamic State later claimed responsibility.

Other tourists ran into the museum, with the gunmen in pursuit. They reached its most beautiful room, called Carthage after the ancient city on the outskirts of modern- day Tunis. Two women were shot dead as they scrambled up the steps leading to what was once the harem of the bey’s palace.

The other 14 people who died tried to hide in two small anterooms, where they were trapped and shot.

Moncef Ben Moussa is a professor of archaeology and the director of the National Bardo Museum. He was attending a meeting elsewhere with colleagues from the Louvre that morning, to discuss a joint project for Roman statuary. He raced to the Bardo, where security forces were still evacuating some 400 visitors and staff. Once the gunmen had been killed Ben Moussa and the then culture minister, Latifa Lakhdar, were the first to witness the carnage.

“Certain images refuse to leave me. I try to erase them, but I cannot,” Ben Moussa says. “The blood. The bodies. There are images of the victims that I see constantly. I sleep and wake up and travel with them. They are inside me and will not go away.”

We walk up the steps where the two women died. Ben Moussa tries the doors to the anterooms, but they are locked. The exterior grey marble walls are pocked with bullet holes. A shattered glass showcase stands nearby.

Does he believe in ghosts? “I don’t want to answer,” Ben Moussa says. “The night guards tell me they hear a lot of things. Movement. Doors opening and closing. Several times when I’ve been here at night I get shivers when I walk through here. Only that. I know what was in those two rooms. I reconstitute the whole scene. They are empty now, but I see them as they were that day.”

Throughout my visit our conversation moves from the massacre to the mosaics and from the mosaics to the massacre.

The Bardo displays 5,000sq m of Roman mosaics.“This region was of vital importance to the [Roman] central government,” Ben Moussa says. “In antiquity a politician’s raison d’etre was to provide two things for his people: bread and circuses. This part of north Africa was the breadbasket of Rome. Ambitious Roman politicians curried favour with the local elite, who gained privileges and favours. This is the result,” he says, pointing at the mosaics that cover the floors and walls around us.

Ancient Carthage

Ancient Carthage was such a paradise that illegal immigrants travelled there by boat from what is now Italy, Ben Moussa says. “Those who were caught were prosecuted and sometimes beheaded. It was forbidden to travel without permission. Everything was controlled.”

Nearly 2,000 years have passed since affluent subjects of the Roman empire commissioned these stone carpets and paintings for their villas.

“A historian of the day wrote that they had reached such a degree of wealth that they walked on precious stones,” says Ben Moussa.

The mosaics were status symbols, created by professional artists who trained in schools in Carthage and Sousse. Like patrons through the ages, they often asked that their own portraits, and images of their villas, be immortalised.

Although agriculture was the main sources of wealth, the Mediterranean Sea – the Romans’ Mare Nostrum – was a constant theme. A mosaic map of the Mediterranean is filled with every imaginable species of fish. Another provides a registry of Mediterranean shipping, with the vessels’ names spelled out in Greek and Latin next to their images, intermingled with images of octopuses and cherubs. In yet another, Venus rides on the back of a dolphin.

“The sea has several meanings for those who live here,” Ben Moussa says. “It is not a border but a space shared by all the peoples of the Mediterranean – a form of identity and an opening on to other civilisations.”

A calendar of the zodiac and the days of the week paves the floor of the harem room where the worst of the massacre took place. The astrological signs are identical to those we use today. They are intermingled with the divinities who gave their names to the days of our week: Saturn (Saturday), Sol (Sunday), Luna (Lundi in French), Mars (Mardi), Mercury (Mercredi), Jupiter (Jeudi) and Venus (Vendredi).

“The genius of these cultured, native people was that they became Romans,” Ben Moussa says, alluding to the forefathers of modern Tunisians. “They adopted and assimilated a culture that was not their own.”

A wall mosaic shows animals that were hunted for entertainment in amphitheatres. “It’s the cruel, ugly side of Roman civilisation,” Ben Moussa says. “The animal fights, the people delivered with bound hands to be devoured by wild beasts or killed by gladiators while people applauded.”

A huge, fierce head with wrinkled face and a gleam in his eye glowers from a wall mosaic. The pincers of a crustacean emerge from his hair. His beard is made of algae. He is Oceanus, god of the oceans, and his expressive face seems to judge us.

Ben Moussa began working on archaeological digs as a child, and studied in France and Italy as well as in Tunisia. He says it makes him suffer to walk on the ancient mosaics. The still life beneath our feet shows a visual menu of everything a host can offer: fruit, fish, fowl . . .

“It’s an expression of generosity towards guests,” the museum director says.

Neptune, half man, half god of the seas, rides a chariot drawn by seahorses. He is from the mid-second century, the golden age of Roman mosaics. Small tesserae, the pieces that make up a mosaic, outline his muscular chest and trident.

Personifications embellish the corners of The Triumph of Neptune. Spring is a young woman surrounded by cherubs. Summer still has a young body, and holds sheaves of grain. Autumn is beginning to look middle aged as she harvests grapes. Winter, the eldest woman, hunts and gathers olives.

The Coronation of Venus is believed to have been commissioned by a horse breeder. The goddess of love has a painted face and is crowned by female centaurs – the only such image that is known to exist. The centaurs have female breasts and their lower bodies are those of horses, not bulls.

Although Ulysses Enduring the Song of the Sirens was made nearly 1,000 years after Homer wrote The Odyssey it retains the lyricism of the epic poem. Ulysses has asked his shipmates to tie him to the mast, so that he will not succumb to the siren song. The sailors have put wax in their ears. With their wings, golden flute and lyre, the sirens are beautiful, despite their grotesque bird feet.

Nearly another 1,000 years later TS Eliot would write: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”

Time and space

The mosaics seem to collapse time and space. “Despite the distance they still move us,” Ben Moussa says. “We are communicating with Greek and Roman culture, with that of Tunisia in the Roman epoch. We are in the 21st century, yet we understand this message. There are no limits, no barriers.”

We close our visit with a rare portrait mosaic of Virgil, discovered in the ruins of a villa in Sousse. Fittingly for the Bardo, the Roman poet is flanked by the muses of Tragedy and History.

In its heyday, a decade ago, the Bardo received 50,000 visitors a month, Ben Moussa says. That declined to about 15,000 after the “jasmine revolution” of January 2014. But since the slaughter of March 2015 a few thousand visit, at best, each month. “What saddens and disappoints me most is that people don’t understand that is exactly what the terrorists wanted,” Ben Moussa says.

Three jihadist attacks in Tunis and Sousse killed 72 people, including 59 foreign tourists, in Tunisia last year. More than twice that many people died in similar attacks in Paris.

Tunisian security forces have been beefed up. Ben Moussa believes his museum is safe to visit. But cruise ships no longer call in Tunis harbour, and foreign embassies tell their citizens not to visit the Bardo.

So Ben Moussa concentrates on the museum’s youth programme, which includes Christian, Jewish and Islamic art, as well as pagan Roman treasures, to children and teenagers.

“Education and culture are my only weapons,” he says. “They’re all that is left to 21st-century man, to save us from fanaticism and extremism.”

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