Tunisia is a small North African country flanked by Libya and Algeria. Its central geographic location has made it a significant point of confluence and, over centuries, has attracted various voyagers from other Mediterranean, African, and European regions. They brought with them diverse cultural influences that fostered the development of a rich and unique artistic style.
My travels to Tunisia were all about experiencing the cuisine, the Sahara, and North African hospitality… and also spending a good deal of time getting sidetracked in museums and artisanal workshops – specifically those dedicated to the display and repair and refurbishment of mosaics. Some of the mosaics that interested me most were those used for tomb coverings.
Tunisian mosaics blossomed and matured from the 1st to 7th century AD when the area was under Roman rule and known as Africa Proconsularis. During the 7th century the region was renamed simply Ifriqiya – Arabic for Africa – and, following conquests from the East, was re-organized under Islamic rule.
Tunisia has the most extensive mosaic displays anywhere on the planet, and this ancient technique of the application of design and letterforms into mosaics was likely the precursor for cemetery memorials in Europe and most of the Western world. Seeing the mosaic letterforms alone are worth the price of admission to the country.
In the traditional sense, a mosaic is the art of creating images using an assemblage of tesserae. Tesserae are small cut pieces of stone, typically limestone or marble, but also pebbles and glass. Because of the weight of the stone, the mortar bed to hold the tesserae together, and the method of placement to form an image or pattern, mosaics are found in floor and ground applications. The mosaics of ancient Tunisia were used in private homes, public buildings, and tombs.
In those days, artisans typically traveled with a team of laborers from town to town, building to building, offering their services to the highest bidder. Being the original interior decorating team, their narrative would have been how mosaics might dynamically enhance and transforming living spaces. Each mosaic had a unique life about it: storytelling, invoking imagination, and simply being a decorative visual pleasure. Even though there is virtually no mosaic work happening today, the trade flourished for 600 years or so.
Note: A few months after my travels in Tunisia, the Arab Spring uprising started in Sidi Bouzid, a city in the center of the country. During my travels, I encountered incredible hospitality and humour – if I was told then that a revolution was coming soon, I wouldn’t have believed it at all.