Ode to the Bardo Museum


Last week the international news was awash with the horrible events that occurred in Tunis, at the Bardo Museum.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families who have been affected by this terrible crime, and to the people of Tunisia.

Having been to the Bardo Museum for my research, it is hard to imagine the sound of gunfire and screams in such a lovely house of the Muses.

I suspect that many would-be tourists will be scared away from the Bardo now, and that is truly a shame. I spent some hours there, immersed in the ancient world, listening to its many voices. It was a place of serenity, and of beauty.

So, rather than focussing on the violence that has so recently tainted this wonderful place, I thought I would focus on the beauty of the Bardo Museum.

This is a post I originally wrote in June 2013 entitled, Mosaic Masterpieces – Treasures of Roman North Africa. I hope you enjoy it…

 Ulysses - Bardo museum Tunis

For a writer of historical fiction, and for an historian, the museum is the place to go for research.

Not only can you learn a lot about people and places, you can also come face to face with the possessions of the people and places about which you are writing. You can interact with the items that decorated and served long-ago worlds – Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Carthage and Rome etc. etc.

In a museum, culture is frozen in time as a sort of gift to future generations, a window to peer through and better understand those who went before us.

I’ve been to a lot of museums in my travels, large and small, great and not-so-great. But there was always something to be learned, something to take away with me that I could use in my writing.

Bardo Hall

This post, I wanted to touch on a particularly wonderful museum that I visited in Tunisia – The Bardo Museum in Tunis.

When I went to Tunisia to do research for Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, visiting Punic and Roman sites on the fringes of the Sahara was one of the biggest thrills of my travels.

When our 4×4 left the desert behind, I was disappointed to be back in the city. Tunis held none of the allure of the southern desert or the fertile green hills of central Tunisia. There were no ruined temples or amphitheatres, no mosaics or ancient streets as open to the sky, unsuffocated by modernity.

We pulled up outside a rather unassuming building and were told this was the ‘famous’ Bardo Museum. I probably rolled my eyes, remembered swaying palms and Saharan sand beneath my feet. I dreaded the dark building before me after so much perceived freedom.

I was so wrong. When we entered the Bardo, my eyes fell upon some of the most magnificent artistic creations I have ever seen.

The walls and floors were absolutely covered with myriad mosaics of such colour, such intricacy – I thought the images would jump right out at me.

Floor to ceiling

Floor to ceiling mosaics in the Bardo

And they were tucked away in this little museum that, up until that point, I had never heard mentioned by anyone at university or elsewhere.

I decided this week to look back over some of the photos I took at the museum and enjoyed revisiting those moments when I locked eyes with a tesseraed Triton or the striking statue of a Roman woman.

When I looked at the website for the Bardo Museum, I found that they have moved to a completely new, more spacious building.

Click HERE to take a virtual tour of the new Bardo.

The new museum is stunning, but for me the mosaics still take centre stage.

Triton mosaic

Triton mosaic

What is amazing about these creations is that they were what decorated the homes of the people who inhabited the period about which I am writing.

The visual that these mosaics provided for me and my written world was priceless.

Suddenly, my characters’ homes no longer contained shabby dirt or terra cotta floors, or even plain marble. Triclinii, peristylii and atrii came to life with the mythological and natural scenes that decorated Roman homes.

Gladiatorial scene

Gladiatorial scene

But these mosaics at the Bardo, and elsewhere, do not only depict the religious or fanciful aspects of belief.

More importantly to our knowledge, they depict the everyday activities of people ages ago. We see people hunting, fishing, tilling, and bringing in the harvest. We see images of the food they ate, the sports they watched and the heroes they worshiped.

These mosaics tell us so much about a world that would otherwise be lost to us. Thanks to these masterpieces, we know more about the buildings they decorated and the importance placed upon particular rooms within private homes, public and religious spaces.

The Months of the Year

The Days of the Week

When I stepped out of the Bardo Museum into the setting sunlight on a Tunis street, I felt as though I had been a guest at sumptuous banquet in someone’s home, far off on the edge of the Empire. This was not some flee-infested frontier region. No.

The Roman provinces of Africa Proconsularis and Numidia yielded not only the oil, grain and garum upon which the Empire depended, but also artistic treasures that have left a mark on time.

At the Bardo Museum, you can walk among these treasured mosaics with many silent, sentinel statues as your fellow guests.

Champion Horses

Champion Horses

If you ever get the chance to visit this place, do so. You’ll not regret it, and the memory of what you see will linger with you for years to come.

Thank you for reading.

What are your thoughts on the Bardo Museum? Given the chance, would you go? What do you think you could learn from the wealth of mosaics on display?

Tell us what you think in the comments below…

The poet, Virgil

The poet, Virgil


Hatra – The Sad Death of an Historic Site

Hatra Temple

My research for the current book I’m writing has taken me to a place that has been in the news of late.

The news from the Middle East has not been good for many years, especially on the human scale. But things have taken another sad turn with the added destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq. A couple weeks ago, we heard of the wanton destruction of the ancient, Assyrian Bronze Age city of Nimrud, and this loss of world heritage has shaken the archaeological and historical communities.

But last week, came yet another catastrophic blow. The ancient city of Hatra, just 290 kms northwest of Baghdad, was bulldozed to the ground. The supposed reasons for this vile act being that Hatra did not represent the religion of the group in question.


Hatra details

Prior to the levelling of this ancient site, I had been admiring its magnificent, intact ruins as part of my research for a prequel to my novel, Children of Apollo. This is… was… an amazing place.

Hatra was built in the third century B.C. under the Seleucid Empire, founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucas. It was later located on the edge of the mighty Parthian Empire with which Rome would wage terrible war.

The city of Hatra was one of the best-preserved Parthian cities in the Middle East. It had inner and outer walls that were about 6 kms around, with 160 towers. These walls were so strong and well-fortified that of all the Parthian possessions, including the capital of Ctesiphon, Hatra was the only frontier city that withstood attacks from Rome’s legions.

Map of Hatra (source: UNESCO)

Map of Hatra (source: UNESCO)

The emperors who laid siege to Hatra were no slouches either! Both the warlike emperors Trajan (in A.D. 116/117) and Septimius Severus (in A.D. 198/199) attacked the city, only to be turned away by the walls, the defenders, and the harsh environment outside of those walls. Some say, the gods themselves had a hand in the successful defence of Hatra…

Eventually, the city fell to the Sassanid Emperor, Shapur I in A.D. 241, but that warrior ruler did not destroy the city. Hatra stood for over two thousand years… that is, until last week.

Emperor Trajan

Emperor Trajan

It wasn’t the walls that kept Hatra standing, nor the power of the Parthians, for both of those things were breeched in the end. What kept Hatra alive, so to speak, was respect and a common sense of heritage.

In my research, it has been interesting to read about how Hatra was a place of religious fusion, of great harmony among faiths.

The architecture may have been a beautiful melding of Hellenistic and Roman styles, but the great temples at the heart of Hatra belonged to the Assyrian and Babylonian faiths, to the beliefs of Greeks, Syrians and Aramaeans, Arabians and Mesopotamians. The age-old gods of all of these faiths co-existed at the heart of this circular city in the desert, standing proud and protected around the base of the Great Temple itself, with its 30 meter columns.

The Great Temple

The Great Temple

I’ve not seen recent pictures, but from what I’ve heard, Hatra has been levelled.

There are no words, really.

Think of it this way – even Saddam Hussein saw value (however selfishly) and wanted to restore Hatra, as well as Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Babylon. He didn’t bulldoze them.

For over a thousand years, Muslims have preserved these ancient sites, including Hatra, because they represented a glorious past, humankind’s past. The towering columns and temple pediments, the ornate reliefs carved by our ancient ancestors did not represent a threat. They were artistic glories, the ornamentations of the houses of many gods, side by side.

In my prequel to Children of Apollo, I’ll be writing about Septimius Severus’ two sieges of Hatra, and how, despite his rage and being repelled twice, the city yet stood. Some stories say it was the threat of mutiny, others that it was the Empress, Julia Domna who urged him to spare the city because of the magnificent temples within that honoured so many gods.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Whether the story is true or not, Severus respected the gods, and the monuments built in their honour. He left them alone, even though the Hatrans angered him with their stubbornness.

Severus now crossed Mesopotamia and made an attempt on Hatra, which was not far off, but accomplished nothing; on the contrary, his siege engines were burned, many soldiers perished, and vast numbers were wounded…

…He himself made another expedition against Hatra, having first got ready a large store of food and prepared many siege engines; for he felt it was disgraceful, now that the other places had been subdued, that this one alone, lying there in their midst, should continue to resist. But he lost a vast amount of money, all his engines, except those built by Priscus, as I have stated above, and many soldiers besides. A good many were lost on foraging expeditions, as the barbarian cavalry (I mean that of the Arabians) kept assailing them everywhere in swift and violent attacks. The archery, too, of the Atreni was effective at very long range, since they hurled some of their missile by means of engines, so that they actually struck many even of Severus’ guards; for they discharged two missiles at one and the same shot and there were many hands and many bows hurling the missiles all at the same time. But they inflicted the greatest damage on their assailants when these approached the wall, and much more still after they had broken down a small portion of it; for they hurled down upon them, among things, the bituminous naphtha, of which I wrote above, and consumed the engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell. Severus observed all this from a lofty tribunal. When a portion of the outer circuit had fallen in one place and all the soldiers were eager to force their way inside the remainder, Severus checked them from doing so by ordering the signal for retreat to be clearly sounded on every side. For the place enjoyed great fame, containing as it did a vast number of offering to the Sun-god as well as vast sums of money; and he expected the Arabians to come to terms voluntarily, in order to avoid being forcibly captured and enslaved. At any rate, he allowed one day to pass; then, when no one came to him with any overtures for peace, he commanded the soldiers to assault the wall once more, though it had been built up during the night. But the Europeans, who alone of his army had the ability to do anything, were so angry that not one of them would any longer obey him, and the others, Syrians, who were compelled to make the assault in their place, were miserably destroyed. Thus Heaven, that saved the city, first caused Severus to recall the soldiers when they could have entered the place, and in turn caused the soldiers to hinder him from capturing it when he later wished to do so.

(Cassius Dio – Roman History LXXVI)

Who was living in Hatra last week, when it was ground to dust? No one.

All that was there were the silent stone monuments of history, tufts of grass and wildflower sprouting up from around the column bases, and the desert sand whirling about them, as it had for so many centuries.

Hatra columns

You may not have known of Hatra before last week, but now, I would urge you to spare a thought for its ghost and the shared history of the peoples who called it home over the ages.

Thank you for reading…

What are your thoughts on the destruction of Hatra and other sites? Let us know in the comments below…

For further reading, click HERE to see the UNESCO pages on Hatra.

Here is a video from UNESCO that will give you a short tour of this once-beautiful city: