23 February 2011

Tunisian dictator looted Carthage, too

Nice pool deco
 The family of ousted Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was apparently using Tunisia's museums and archaeological sites as their private collection, reports Marisa Katz in The Art Newspaper:
Many of the artefacts and antiquities confiscated by the Ben Alis originally came from the Bardo Museum, which has the world's largest collection of Roman mosaics. According to Samir Aounallah, the Tunisian museums committee president, Leila Ben Ali used museum artefacts, including mosaics and frescoes, to decorate the family's villas.
Archaeological sites have also been affected. “I have accredited sources that have said sites in Cap Bon had objects taken from them by the Ben Ali clan,” said Aounallah. Although the director was not sure whether these pieces had been returned to their rightful owners, he did point out that a significant amount of “objects found in the villas of the Ben Ali clan have now been put back in their rightful collections.”

According to Julien Anfruns, the director general of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), several international archaeologists and curators are currently in Tunisia surveying potential damage to objects as well as drawing up revised inventories for the country's museums. Despite the violence, which according to a United Nations mission saw 219 people killed and 510 injured, museums have for the most part remained well protected. “People there are very understanding of the importance of the preservation of these museums,” said Anfruns.
Ben Ali shared the goodies with friends, too. As Richard Miles notes in the Guardian, the dictator's developer buddies were given sweet real estate deals on top of archaeological areas:
I started excavating in Carthage in the mid-1990s and it was clear that [Tunisian archaeologist Abdelmajid] Ennabli and those who had strived for decades to protect Carthage were fighting a losing battle against a cabal of influential businessmen and politicians who all enjoyed presidential patronage. For these people Carthage was nothing more than a piece of prestigious real estate ripe for "economic development". The legislation that protected the ancient city was a mere inconvenience that could be ignored and brushed aside.

As an archaeologist one understands that the needs of the present have to be balanced against the preservation of the past, but the regular flouting of the planning laws by members of Ben Ali's family had little to do with solving Tunisia's severe housing shortage. One only has to look at the brochure for the "Residences of Carthage", a luxury housing development illegally built on protected land to see that. One can marvel at the chutzpah of the developers' boast of its proximity to Roman ruins when there is little doubt that they were probably built on top of Roman ruins.
The Residences de Carthage are indeed super swanky. Take a look here, then go and sign the petition to restore protections to the site of Sidi bou Said/Carthage.

UPDATE: PhDiva has raked up articles from the French press, suggesting that the Ben Ali/Trabelsi clan may have been involved in antiquities smuggling as well. Read it here.   

1 comment:

  1. Alex Says:

    Oh man. I'd like to point out the awesomeness of the "Sid Meier's Civilization" caliber 'exotic' music on the Residences of Carthage webpage.

    What addition would you like to make to your luxury condo? Press 1 for a row of Roman Columns. Press 2 for a Gaullic wooden palisade. Press 3 for a line of Mongolian torches.