On the road that leads to the Bardo Museum, in the suburbs of Tunis, there are no more queues of tourists who used to admire the age-old mosaics. The access to the palace, now void of all traffic, instead provides a playground for a few youths kicking a football under the indifferent gaze of police officers standing by their van. Mohamed, 27, manager of the nearby tobacco shop, sighs.
“Tourists used to be my main source of income. Now I am forced to tell them that the museum is temporarily closed. An American came to ask me for information, Tunisian families who made the special trip from the south to visit. Everyone is disappointed,” he said. Already affected by the closure of the museum during the Covid-19 pandemic, the young merchant has seen his sales drop for lack of customers.
Is it the museum’s fault that it is located in the same compound as the Tunisian Parliament, which the President of the Republic announced would be frozen on July 25, 2021? On that day, the head of state, elected in late 2019, assumed full powers by dismissing the prime minister and suspending parliament. Museum and parliament each occupy a part of the Bardo Palace. So, for nearly a year, no one has had access to this jewel of Tunisian heritage for “security reasons.” More on this topic Subscribers only Brazil: Should statues of sinister Portuguese conquistadors, known as ‘bandeirantes,’ be taken down?
One of the largest collections of mosaics in the world
The Bardo is an object of national pride. It holds one of the largest collections of mosaics in the world, priceless pieces tracing the 3,000 years of Tunisian history. In its heyday, up to one million visitors would flock there every year. Local residents are also very attached to it. “Before, there was a public garden in the palace that opened onto the main square of Bardo. It was a place to stroll and socialize,” said the photographer Hamideddine Bouali with nostalgia. He used to go there with his parents from when he was just five years old.
The Bardo also reflects a page of Tunisia’s recent and tragic history, when the young democracy was targeted by jihadist networks. In broad daylight on March 18, 2015, an attack claimed by the Islamic State killed 22 people: 21 foreign visitors and a Tunisian policeman. Just like today, vans and security barriers had been deployed around the site of the tragedy. “The museum quickly reopened after the attack but now we have no idea when it will reopen,” said Mohamed from the nearby tobacco shop. Since the attack, the annual average number of visitors has never exceeded 30,000 to 40,000.
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The Bardo Museum is caught in the grip of Tunisian political turmoil. Since his coup de force in July 2021, President Kais Saied has continued to unfold his roadmap. He has promised to hold a referendum next July and legislative elections at the end of the year. But in the meantime, he seems to be unravelling the democratic advances obtained by the country since the fall of dictator Ben Ali in January 2011. After suspending parliament in July 2021 – and then dissolving it in March 2022 – as well as dissolving the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (CSM) last February, Mr. Saied recently attacked the electoral body responsible for elections (ISIE). In a decree issued on April 21, he granted himself the power to appoint members of this previously independent body.
“It’s as if people were getting used to being deprived of certain rights and freedoms.” Hamideddine Bouali, photographer
But among a population crushed by economic hardship and exasperated by the parliamentary conflicts of recent years, these decisions have not provoked massive protests. Part of public opinion sees Mr. Saied’s seizure of power as an opportunity to put an end to the Islamo-conservative party Ennahda, which has been in power for nearly 10 years. “It is as if people are getting used to being deprived of certain rights and freedoms, just to avoid returning to the previous situation. But the Bardo has nothing to do with the political situation,” said Mr. Bouali.
Former employees of the museum deplore the lack of information and transparency regarding the future of the institution. Habib Ben Younes has been the curator of the museum for nearly ten years. He has been pleading for a reopening since November. “Everything made of bronze or manuscript needs continuous attention due to humidity, the repair of mosaics on the ground too” he said. According to an article in the online media Middle East Eye, “some employees have been allowed to enter the museum and resume work, but neither the Heritage Institute nor the Ministry of Cultural Affairs is offering further information.” “I see the maintenance staff entering every day, I know that all employees are still receiving their salaries, but people like us have been forgotten,” said Mohamed, the manager of the nearby tobacco shop, bitterly.
According to Chedlia Annabi, curator at the Carthage Museum, which has been closed for two years as part of a rehabilitation project, there is no justification for the closure of the Bardo. “It is really terrible, it will have a negative impact on tourism but also on all the young researchers who work on the collections of the museum,” she said, while the tourist season is recovering well after two years of dearth due to Covid. “If the reason is purely one of security, they should simply create a separate entrance for the museum and protect parliament,” said Soumaya Gharsallah, former curator of the museum and now a cultural consultant.
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Opposite the Bardo, frustrated visitors and school groups now turn to the Center for arts, culture and letters of Ksar Said, a palace that reopened in 2019 and currently shows a retrospective on the Husainid beys. The beys of Tunis were the monarchs of Tunisia from 1705, when the Husainid dynasty acceded to the throne, until 1957, when monarchy was abolished.
Mr. Bouali has taken to social networks. On his Facebook profile, followed by 19,576 subscribers, he publishes photomontages of emblematic works from the Bardo, bringing them virtually into Tunis neighborhoods. The series, entitled “Bardo hors les murs” (Bardo outside the walls), is a way to continue to preserve “the educational importance of the works.”