Adventure in Tunisia  
 

Tunisia Odyssey: Historic North
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

 
 

Dispatch 2 - Mejez El Bab

 
  Tunis to Mejez el Bab (elev. 50m) (60km, 37mi).  Our route out of the city takes us past the Bardo.
Program options:  Bardo National Museum, Commonwealth War Cemetery.

 
 

Ready for a bicycle tour in TunisEscaping the central city by bicycle isn't particularly bicycle-friendly. But, if you go with the flow, which is congested enough to be pretty slow, it is manageable. The streets of Tunis are narrow and curvy, not on a grid system and filled with one-way streets without obvious couplets so it can be a bit of an adventure finding the most direct route to any destination. It is an urban ride with assorted sights to intrigue the mind; Placards on gates post gave notification of embassies from around the world. Building architecture seems to have elements of French Provincial, Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Turkish and the Middle East.

Door to mosque, Bardo, TunisAfter a winding ride through the streets of Tunis -- winding because there is no such thing as a straight ride through the streets of Tunis -- we arrived at the Bardo National Museum.  Despite some missteps we got to the Bardo fairly expeditiously and were first in line.  In the end that didn't mean anything because we got elbowed out by a large tour bus group whose guide obviously had an in with the doorman.

Bardo National Museum, TunisThe Bardo is easily Tunisia’s finest museum. It is housed in a sumptuous palace built in the late nineteenth century for the Husseinite beys. By 1888, part of it was turned over to use as a museum.  When it was built it was in the countryside,  isolated from the city.  Now it is totally in gulfed by the city and then some.  It is now many miles before you leave the urban milieu, but inside, the Bardo: Banquet room with musicians galleryBardo remains a tranquility and grandeur frozen in time.  Until 1957, part of it continued to used as the Bey's Palace (head of Turkish administration.)  It’s hard to imagine it as living quarters. With all the marble and gymnasium-size rooms much of  it is cold and impersonal. It is certainly grand though, and the ceilings of some of the galleries rival the exhibitions pieces.

The thirty-five rooms and corridors on three floors are filled with wonderful things. The exhibits are arranged in part chronologically (e.g., prehistoric, Punic, Roman, etc.), in part by the location where they were found (e.g., Sousse, Dougga, El-Jem, Carthage) and in part by major themes (e.g., Mahdia ship wreck, garden, mausoleum, mosaics). While some of the early steles, marble statues/busts, ceramics, and metalwork were finely crafted, with excellent detail and proportion, most people find the mosaics most exciting and engaging. We had seen some fine examples in Carthage yesterday, but nothing like what is displayed here. They are, quite simply, the best collection of Roman mosaics in the world.

Bardo: mosaic of Venus and two centauressesIt is difficult to describe the wonderful contents of the Bardo (the Lonely Planet Guide takes seven pages, but still falls short.)  Mosaics from the Islamic era are here with their floral and geometric themes (Islam forbids the depiction of human and animal forms), but it is really the Roman efforts that stand out here (at least for someone brought up on western themes.)  The travails of the gods, the excitement of the hunt, sea monsters and strange sea creatures, a compendium of wild animals known at the time and some that assuredly weren’t – all are here. Most of these mosaics were flooring from the major Roman sites in Tunisia and most have been mounted vertically on walls and are enormous seen this way, reaching so far up the wall that one must climb to the next floor to view the top part from a balcony. For anyone interested in the art of mosaic this place is “must see.”

Damaged mosaic with the design drawn in.To be sure, many if not most of the mosaics are damaged and some give only tantalizing hints as to the full scene, but in some cases, curators have added plaster and paint to outline the missing parts.

Punic priest carrying childIn addition to the mosaics, you can judge for yourself the famous Punic stele from the Sanctuary of Tophet that supposedly depicts a priest carrying a child to ritual sacrifice. Well, first off the stele’s etching is barely visible behind the protective glass, and it is no more sinister than those pictures of Jesus carrying a little child that were so popular in Catholic school. If this stele is primary evidence for Punic child sacrifices, then it is hard to buy it. Click here or scroll to the bottom of the page for more on the Bardo.

From the time we entered the museum, buses were unloading large groups of foreign tourists as well as school children, and they soon surged through the building. Luckily I was able to keep one step ahead of them most of the time and still pace ourselves nicely. At one point a cute eleven or twelve-year-old girl asked if I was from Italy and when I replied “America,” she brightly replied in very good English, “Welcome to Tunis.” It was a little thing, but it made me feel good. Actually, we have had several instances of people, men as well as women, give us the same friendly greeting. Especially when you are expecting a hard sell from anyone who approaches you, this is a welcome surprise.

Rural countryside, farmland, west of TunisFrom the Bardo we headed out of town. After the chaos of city riding it was pleasant to glide into the green countryside again. The slight wind was at our backs making it warmer than I had imagined upon exiting the Bardo. The route was rolling fields with an occasional olive grove. It could have been Iowa except for the high hills in the distance to the north. About half way to our destination, Massicault: Commonwealth War Cemeterynear Borj el Amri, we stopped at a WW II Massicault Commonwealth War Cemetery from the North African campaign. Most of the almost 1600 deaths occurred on April 22 and 23, 1943, when the Brits had been marching on Tunis and encountered the German army.  (Tunis fell about two-weeks later.)  The Massicault: Commonwealth War Cemeterygraves were in perfect order as military cemeteries are wont to be, and local landscapers paid by a British memorial organization have ensured each grave has a proliferation of live flowers. It is effective and quite beautiful in its way.  The allies had advanced to within 20 km of Tunis (Djedeida-Teboura) on November 28, 1942, but couldn't hold there positions and retreated  to Mejel el Bab on December 4th.  The held these positions through the winter, until the spring offensive.

Countryside, farmland, east of Mejez el BabContinuing on we stopped for lunch at a small village and, from our vantage point, could see a stork nest with possibly a young stork visible. Later we saw an adult fly over, a large ungainly bird. Still later we spied a proliferation of largish nests in a row of bushes along the highway. After seeing them several more times we finally stopped to investigate. To our surprise house sparrows were perched all around the nests, squabbling and moving in and out of the nests. It was a curiosity to our bird expert because he had never known of house sparrows building communal nests and certainly not nests this large and covered to boot. He suspected what has happened is some communal species (weavers perhaps) abandoned these nests in some year past and the sparrows have discovered them and moved in as they are wont to do given the chance (like with martin houses).

Bridge, Mejez el BabWe reached Mejez el Bab (Roman "Membressa") and our hotel around 3 pm.  Mejez el Bab means "ford gate" -- presumably the ford has been replaced by the bridge.  Another interesting note on the area between Mejez el Bab and Mateur is it is the Afri Berber clan from which the Roman Africa Proconsul is thought to have taken its name and for which the entire continent and its people eventually drew their name.

Mejez el Bab was the scene of extensive fighting of the WWII North Africa campaign in November 1942 and was the frontline through the winter, from December 10, 1942 until April 22, 1943.

After tracking down the manager of the only hotel in town and ascertained they had vacancies we checked in. The forewarned “worst hotel" of the northern Tunisia program has been improved since Ibike was last here but it is still not your usual consumption heavy tourist hotel. The water is hot, the room’s floor and bathroom nicely tiled, and a species of towel was provided. The downsides: no TP, no toilet seat (that porcelain is cold), and soft, saggy beds. This latter deficit is solved by pulling the mattress on to the nice tile floor.

French colonial era building, Mejez el BabMejez el Bab, TunisiaA stroll through town finds a few French colonial era buildings, made of stone, covered with plaster and topped with peaked red-tile roofs and generally in need of some Fruit stand, Mejez el Babrepair.  Most of the town is modern square flat-roofed Tunisian style constructions.  There is one main commercial street lined with shops.  In the case of some of them, the merchandise cascades out into the street.

Menu in Mejez el Bab, TunisiaAfter everyone congregated for supper and we walked into town through a sprinkling rain -- which didn't start until after the bikes were conveniently parked for the night. The adventuresome dish of the night was lebliba. It seems to be Eating lebliba in Tunisiaquite unique in world cuisines. The waiter gives you a large bowl and a goodly length of baguette, which you tear into small pieces and fill your bowl to the top. You hand the bowl back waiter who returns it to the cook, who pours broth over it, scoops in a cup or two of chick peas, adds a soft boiled egg, a spoon of cumin, a scoop of a hot sauce, and a half cup of tuna fish, and the it is returned to you with two large spoons with which you mix up the whole mess. Tt is a traditional dish Tunisia.  Some members of the group found it quite tasty and other ate more of the roasted chicken.

=================

A little more detail on the Bardo National Museum:

Ground Floor Rooms-

1.  Prehistory.

2.  Baal Hammom: Carthagian mask, to keep evil from graves 7th -3rd BC, ivory, bronze, glass, ceramic figurines. Import ceramics 7th-2nd BC; Corinthian, Eutruscan, etc.

3.  (alcove)

4.  Punic: Evolution of style: 8th BC - simple pottery; 6th BC - rough coffin, stelae of Egyptian design; 5th BC - classical pediment; 4th BC small obelisks (flat stelae w/ symbol of Tanit)

Corridor B: Funerary: Punic funerary stelae from Trophet - site of child sacrifice to Tanit and Baal Hammam (Rom: Celestis & Saturn, gods of day and night).

Bardo: Sarcophagus of Nine MusesCorridor D: Stelae & Sarcophagus; One of the more amusing items is the Sarcophagus of Nine Muses.  Each muse is identified by her symbols: Tersichore, muse of dance with a lyre; Erato, muse of the church with a zither at her feet; Thalia, muse of comedy carrying a mask; Euterpe, muse of music holds a flute; Melpomene, muse of tragedy has a mask at her feet; Clio, muse of history holds a writing tablet and has rolls of paper at her feet; Polyhumnia, muse of lyric poetry; Urania, muse of astronomy who carries a sphere; Calliope, muse of oratory and epic.

Corridor E: fresco fragments

Bardo: Early Christian gallery5.  Early Christian: Early Christian antiquities, mosaics from various basilicas & tombs - 4th-6th C, baptismal.

6.  Bulla Regia: Bulla Regia statuary, early Christian antiques, 5th-6th C polychrome terracotta plaques.

7.  Roman Emperors: Statuary

8.  Thuburo Majus:

Stairs: Christian funerary mosaics

First Floor Rooms-

Bardo: Carthage room9.  Carthage: Courtyard of Harem - sculptures of Roman Carthage, wood stalactite ceiling, cathedral ceiling and mosque lower story.  Dionysus (Bacchus) and the grape harvest.

10.  Sousse: Banquet Hall - Triumph of Neptune (Sousse/Hadrumetum), Jupiter.

11.  Dougga: Sculptures of Dougga: scene from Virgil (Roman poet, author of Aeneid) of the cave of the cyclops with three giants; Brontes, Steropes & Pyrocmon forging the thunderbolt of Jupiter, Neptune and the four seasons.

12.  El Jem: Triumph of Bacchus, hunting mosaics.

Bardo: Banquet room with musicians gallery13.  Althiburos: Banquet halls off courtyard of Harem with gallery for musicians and another for women, Althiburos & Utique; village and hunting scenes

14.  Oudhua (Uthina): Former dinning room off courtyard of Harem, Althiburos & Utique; village and hunting scenes.

Bardo: Ceiling of harem's quarters15.  Virgil: Quarters of the harem: Virgilius & Zaghouan; seven days, 12 Zodiac, Virgil  with two muse, large elaborate ceiling

16.  Tresor's: coins & gold jewelry,

17, 18, 19, 20, 21 & 22.  Madia Ship Wreck (Roman) (81 BC)

23.  Garden Room: Aphrodite playing with dolphins, scenes of fishing, seascapes

Bardo: Roman statuary (unknown, Jupiter, Hercules)24.  Mausoleum (2nd C): Roman mausoleum, hunting scenes, Venus in chariot drawn by cupid,  Dionysus fighting Tyrrhenian pirates who throw themselves into the sea and become dolphins, Apollo and Marsyas with four seasons

Courtyard of Bey’s Private Quarters

Sitting room of Bey’s Private QuartersCeiling of Bey’s Private QuartersSmall Palace:  Bey’s Private Quarters; traditional furnishings, Jewish artifacts, kitchen, heavily decorated.

Bardo: mosaic of Four Season's25.  Mosaic: Four Seasons, wrestling, Mercury & Venus, Dionysus & Ariadne wedding.

26.  Bacchus & Ariadne

Bardo: mosaic of Ullysses and the Sirens27.  House of Ulysses, Thugga/Dougga: Ulysses and the Sirens (sea nymph, represented as part bird and part woman, who lured sailors to their death on rocky coast by seductive singing),

28.  Mosaics: Peacock Room: life scenes; horse grazing, female centaurs, cranial Venus, peacock, boar hunt

Second Floor Rooms-

Bardo: stalactite gallery, over Carthage room29.  Bronze, glass and terracotta (stalactite gallery, over Carthage room): small items in cases.

30.  Mosaics: Hunt, amphitheater games, and mythical scenes.

31.  Mosaics: Venus, people, fish and animals.

Bardo: mosaic of Neptune and other marine themes32.  Mosaics: Games and spectacles.

33.  Acholla (40km N of Sfax): large mosaics; mythical scenes, Neptune

Addendum

Excerpt from Ralph's journal:

"I’m sitting in the courtyard of what David said would be our worst hotel on the northern tour in a town not even mentioned by my Lonely Planet guide about sixty kilometers west of Tunis, writing in my journal, watching the rain, and sipping a strong, aromatic, slightly sweet thé. All is right with the world. [snip]

"So I came downstairs and walked into the “bar” (I doubt this is the right designation in a country where alcohol is forbidden by the main religion, but it is where beer is being served) and asked for thé. A bustle ensued. Chop chop. The “barman” called to another man, “thé,” and this gentleman rushed out of the bar, down the portico, and popped into another room of the hotel which looked like a second bar. Out he came again with a short, squat older man sporting the traditional Tunisian red chechia and carrying the thé making paraphernalia. Together the two men, the chechiaed one overseen by the second barman, came to my table and prepared the thé. First came the small glass in which thé is always served here, then the chechiaed one opened a largish bag he carried in a basket, pulled out a sprig of some herb with a flourish, and held it up for my approval. I nodded thinking at the time it was mint, but finding out soon it was rosemary. This he put into my glass. He dived into the bag again and pulled up a broad leafed herb and I again gave a slight nod and again it was placed in the glass. Next he held up a large steaming teapot, much larger than any I’ve seen Stateside and made a show of pouring the dark, near-boiling thé over the herbs. I picked up the glass, took an appreciative whiff and said “bon” (good) with a smile. Meanwhile, the thé maker had poured another glass two-thirds full sans herbs for the second barman who took a sip as a welcome gesture I think and then both were gone.

"Everyone knows the comfort of a favorite custom: a family Christmas tradition, reading bedtime stories to the kids every night, my Wednesday burrito lunch with Rick, but I was surprised at how this one put me at ease, made me feel welcome, and, I must say, charmed me. Suddenly, a bright spot appeared in my mood and life was good."

 

   
 

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