Exhibition sheds light on legacy of Tunisia’s beys
Tunis - A short distance from Tunis’s world-class Bardo National Museum, stands the largely unnoticed palace of Ksar Said, the former residence of the Bey Dynasty of Tunisia. The palace was recently brought out of the oblivion that had shrouded it since the monarchy was abolished and Tunisia was declared a republic in 1957.
The palace, which dates to the early half of the 19th century, treats visitors to a journey into the lives and contributions of the beys, showcasing a unique collection of artefacts and manuscripts.
The exhibition titled The Rise of the Nation: Art at the Dawn of Modern Tunisia (1837-1881) was organised by the Foundation Rambourg and the Tunisian National Heritage Institute.
“The exhibition is a unique event that will set in context the process by which the modern Tunisian state was formed during a little-known period of its history, namely the period of great reform,” said curator Ridha Moumni.
While the palace of Ksar Said is an architectural jewel that combines European and Arab-Andalusian influences, the seat of power of the Tunisian monarchy was also the site of events that shaped the modern state, such as abolishing slavery and the signing of the Bardo Treaty, which allowed the French protectorate to be established in Tunisia.
“During this complex period of European imperial expansion in the face of declining Ottoman power, Tunisia undertook the modernisation of its state through a series of reforms which saw the country assume its autonomy and equip itself with an enduring framework,” said Moumni.
“Unprecedented socio-cultural advances left a permanent mark on the history of the nation and saw the publication of the first legal texts granting equal rights and religious freedom to every Tunisian citizen, as proclaimed in the constitution of 1861, the first constitution in the Arab and Muslim world.”
The exhibition features 300 works and objects, ranging from historical paintings to manuscripts, drawings, medals and costumes as well as archival documents of the founding texts of the Tunisian state.
“We wanted these works to illustrate the transformation undergone by the country and bear strong political significance… The paintings from history and the portraits exhibited represent a historical discourse which has been overlooked and which needs to be revisited both on grounds of artistic merit and as a contribution to history,” Moumni said in a news release.
Historians Brahim Belgacem and Salwa Houidi, who specialise in 19th-century Tunisia, stressed the significance of the exhibition in shedding light on reforms that are still relevant to modern Tunisia.
“The exhibition highlights the current conflict around democracy and the leaders of reform in Tunisia as well as the nature of the Tunisian society, especially in the current identity crisis. There is a fear of losing sense of identity amid political conflicts. This requires reminding people of Tunisia’s leading history,” Belgacem said.
Not only does the exhibition serve as a reminder to Tunisians of an often-forgotten part of the country’s identity, it also calls to mind the importance of that period in understanding today’s volatile political scene.
“We don’t know our history. After the revolution, Tunisians felt that they ignored a lot of things about their identity and history to be able to understand how things are like today. The system was dissected after the revolution, which created a conflict. The socio-political needs reconstruction, which required people to look for their true identity,” Houidi said.
“Today, there is confrontation between two groups of different ideologies. Before, it was [President Habib] Bourguiba and his opposition. One cannot understand the different components of today’s political dynamics unless we obtain a thorough knowledge of the important political developments that took place in the previous century, those of the beys namely.”
Belgacem also stressed that the reforms highlighted in the exhibition, including protecting social and religious rights as well as abolishing slavery, were not only ahead of their time but were at the centre of the foundation of Tunisian’s modern state.
“Tunisia was a leading country as it had the first constitution of 1861, which is in many ways even more advanced than the present constitution. There is a fear and concern about the country’s situation and future, which drove people to grow interest in that period of time again to study and research and sensitise people about the reforms that are ahead of their times.”
Belgacem said: “Even the reforms introduced during Bourguiba’s time are a continuation of the reforms carried out by the beys. Tunisian society would not have been ready to accept them if it wouldn’t have been for the beys’ reforms.”
Upon entering the palace, visitors might marvel at the unique details of the ceilings and patterns of the tiles. Stairways lead to the upper floors where there are artwork and documents, including the Bardo treatise abolishing slavery as well as the early versions of legislative and judicial laws.
“This is about the reconciliation with the past. Seeing those manuscripts and paintings is just fascination and it gives you that sense of belonging… an identity that we do need in times when we lose confidence in ourselves and trust in our government” said Afef Messaoud, a school teacher visiting the exhibit.