At first my nephew and I thought the military museum had been deserted?not a soul seemed to stir?but eventually someone emerged from the shadowy depths of the ticket office and took our dinars, one each for entering and two extra for the privilege of taking photos. Soon a friendly guide showed up, opened the great iron gate, and, thankfully, offered a tour in English.
What immediately struck us as he lead us down the long walk toward the palace was the sheer size of the place; I’d passed the gates of this museum many times but had assumed it to be little more than a closet housing a few rusty knives and broken pistols.
Au contraire?the Rose Palace is a wonder in itself, with all the grandeur of old Araby, full of sunlight, lofty arches, high ceilings, colourful ceramics, marble, and gorgeous mosaics.
The contents are an even richer source of delight. The Rose Palace of Manouba grants an eagle’s eye view of the military history of Tunisia, which in itself is a kind of microcosm of European history from the dawn of recorded time.
Our guide talked us through room after room housing relics and models from each battle and war in the country’s history, granting us a summary of Tunisia’s history. It seems as if every powerful nation in Europe has at one point had its toehold in Tunisia, including Phoenicia, Rome, Greece, Spain, the Vandals, the Byzantine Empire, The Ottoman Empire, England, and France. And each nation left its mark on Tunisian culture in some indelible way.
Parallel to the history of occupation lies a history of resistance. No matter which foreign power took hold in Tunisia and no matter the varying attitudes of the Tunisian populace toward the invaders (there’s usually a consensus that the Romans improved the country but that the Spanish did not) there has always been a group of resistance fighters hiding in the mountains looking for ways to disrupt the established occupying order, just as today groups of religious extremists lurk at the borders and in mountain caves, their agenda to shake the existing social order hard enough to sneak in a new one. If history provides any lesson at all, It’s that any military success is doomed to be short-lived.
The sight of the tunnel by which Bey or ruler escapes death at the hands of his foes is a striking reminder of Ben Ali’s 2011 flight from the country under the burden of thousands of voices screaming “Degage!” Helicopters and airplanes have replaced underground tunnels, but the plot is just as thick.