While Tunisians sort out their future after a distraught vendor sparked the Arab protests in December 2010, the country’s past continues to attract the World Monuments Fund.
Since 2009, the WMF, an international nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of historic architecture and sites, has been helping to stabilize and safeguard the ruins of Bulla Regia, a once prosperous colony-city not far from Carthage, the home of Hannibal and the abandoned Queen Dido of Virgil’s poem.
The site includes a number of mysterious subterranean houses and fine mosaics.
I spoke with Marilyn Perry, who led a recent tour of WMF supporters. Now a painter, Perry was chairman of the WMF and president of the Kress Foundation.
Hoelterhoff: What’s unusual about Tunisia?
Perry: Tunisia is a fascinating country, far more than I’d anticipated.
For example, it has the longest coastline on the Mediterranean in that part of Africa. I also hadn’t realized how close it is to Sicily -- around 100 miles.
And it’s so varied. There’s the extremely fertile area in the north, a mountainous region and then the Sahara in the far south.
Hoelterhoff: Once a famous city overlooked the sea: Carthage, from where Hannibal launched his elephant attack on the Romans.
Is there anything left?
Perry: No monumental remains. The Romans destroyed Carthage. In time North Africa became extremely important to the Roman Empire because of its fertility and proximity to Italy.
The grain that fed the legions grew in Tunisia, and even today the country is fourth in worldwide production of olive oil.
There were many prosperous Roman colonial cities along the coastal rim, among them Bulla Regia.
Hoelterhoff: How much remains?
Perry: There is a substantial expanse of ruins of the ancient city up to the Byzantine period on an unusual hilly terrain.
What really distinguishes the site is not what you see above ground but underneath. Unlike other ancient Roman cities, Bulla Regia, for reasons that are still mysterious, has a large number of majestic private homes underground.
Open courtyards allowed light into high and airy rooms that were decorated with beautiful floor mosaics, some of which are still in place. Presumably, the residents enjoyed a cool environment, though the experts are not agreed that this is the sole explanation.
Hoelterhoff: Why else?
Perry: Some think they may have been conversions of ancient cisterns. But these are just guesses. It’s weird.
Hoelterhoff: What has WMF been doing there?
Perry: The challenge, as at most archaeological sites, is to preserve the ruins so that visitors can see them in safety. For example, WMF has been working on securing the Maison de la Chasse, a Roman house notable for its famous hunting mosaic on the floor.
An international team of preservation engineers have designed appropriate structural supports to make it accessible.
Hoelterhoff: So are local craftsmen able to restore their history?
Perry: Yes. WMF always works with local partners, in this case the National Institute of Patrimony of Tunisia. Also involved is the Getty Conservation Institute, a leader in training mosaic conservationists.
Hoelterhoff: Is Bulla Regia hard to get to?
Perry: It’s only a couple of hours from Tunis, and the roads are good. We had a little bus that took us to several important sites in the country.
We felt perfectly safe.
Hoelterhoff: What else is there to see?
Perry: In Tunis itself, of course the Medina, the old walled city with the souk. There are luxurious resort towns such as Sidi Bou Said, which reflect the long French occupation of the country, and further south a number of other Roman sites, including an impressive stone aqueduct and a huge Coliseum-type amphitheater in El Jem.
The heritage of Islam is present throughout the country, especially in the city of Kairouan.
And, in the far south, approaching the Sahara, there are fascinating troglodytic dwellings, man-made caves in which people have lived for centuries.
Hoelterhoff: Is that the destination of the “Star Wars” pilgrims who look for the Luke Skywalker home?
Perry: Indeed. The whole region inspired George Lucas, and several film locations can be visited. Very unearthly.
Hoelterhoff: You’ve spent your life forging partnerships that safeguard the ruins of the past for the future. What’s the motivation for you?
Perry: Walk on an ancient Roman street, enter a mosque or a cathedral, climb on an aqueduct, admire a mosaic -- and you begin to wonder about the astonishing history of human achievement.
How and why did they do this? No reconstruction or computer simulation can remotely capture the feel of the real place. It is essential to our understanding of our own existence in the world.
Take the necessity of water in an arid land: the Roman aqueducts, the Islamic basins in Kairaoun, the beauty and durability of these structures.
Seeing what previous civilizations have accomplished can also be a very humbling experience.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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