06 April 2013

Cemeteries Part 15: Christians and Pagans

... stretching the cemeteries concept a bit ...

Sousse medina
Artifacts in the Kasbah Museum in the town of Sousse, Tunisia, had me gaping in astonishment. Sousse is one of Tunisia's Mediterranean coastal towns existing since eons BC. It became a thriving Phoenician (aka Carthaginian) trading post and then an indispensable port into the Roman province of "Africa." It was attacked by Vandals and Berbers and occupied by the Byzantines before the 9th century Arab conquest. The mediaeval walls of the Sousse medina, a World Heritage site, were built for protection against further waves of attack by Normans, Ottomans, Spaniards, and French. Today they enclose a vibrant life that seems little changed since then. The only minor damage sustained in five hundred years occurred during a sea bombardment during the Second World War.

Sousse was home to early Christians whom the Romans originally oppressed and persecuted. As in other parts of the empire, Christians resorted to burying their dead in underground catacombs away from the eyes of authority. They were by no means the first to employ this practice; remains and items of the Carthaginians preceded them, and probably others. Outside the walls are fifteen kilometres of catacomb tunnels with something like 15,000 burials. Rediscovered in the 19th century, only a tiny portion has been excavated and restored.
Sousse medina, kasbah wall

The splendid museum is located in the kasbah, high in a strategic corner of the medina walls befitting its first function as a military fortress. The kasbah itself is beautifully designed and proportioned, and the museum architecturally complements it to dramatic effect. Highlights are the spectacular mosaics created as floor decorations in the Roman homes of Sousse, then called Hadrumetum. They are displayed vertically for best (overwhelming, actually) effect, many of them room-size, some in fragments. Greek and Roman mythology are the main artistic themes, with occasional scenes of hunting, fishing, and daily life.  
A poor shot of a smaller masterpiece
Roman baptismal font
Most stunning of all: what looks like a typical Roman communal bath, with incredibly beautiful mosaics, is a 6th-century Christian immersion baptismal font. The Latin inscribed around the edge is Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax [h]ominibus bone, bolum[itatus l]audamus te (glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will, we praise Thee).

But to the point: the museum also exhibits a number of fascinating funerary and burial-related objects from the catacombs. Viewing marble epitaphs for Byzantine Christians of the 4th century was awesome enough but some of the pagan Roman stelae date back to the 1st century AD. Most of them commend the departed to the household gods (dis manibus sacrum - DSM) so containers and food for a meal were deposited with them. A stela usually gives the person's name, age, parents, status, and name of the person who erected the stone. The date of death does not seem to be the norm!

This one for Felicita is explained:
In this one for Demetrius, we can see a dedication to the goddess Aphrodite:
What amazed me was the antiquity of the stones and that the inscriptions could have survived so long―we are accustomed to most cemetery markers being worn away by weather elements after a few hundred years. Being "stored" underground likely helped preserve them. Time at the Kasbah Museum was priceless, worth getting lost trying to find it through the twisting medina alleys and steep climbs!

All photographs BDM November 2012
© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman   

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