Tourists watch mosaics at the Bardo museum in 2012. The Tunis museum is famous for its exceptional collection of Roman mosaics. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Bardo museum in Tunis, which was attacked by gunmen on Wednesday, may not be as famous as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the British Museum. But it houses one of the world’s greatest collections of ancient mosaics.

“The collection of mosaics — that is, pavement mosaics and wall mosaics — is unequalled,” Peter Brown, a distinguished scholar of antiquities at Princeton University, said in an interview.

“It way outweighs the Metropolitan Museum. Way outweighs it,” Brown said — at least when it comes to Roman mosaics.

The museum’s only rival, mosaic-wise, may be the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples, which contains finds from Pompeii, he noted. But whereas that museum has a cross-section of mosaics from a specific moment in time, he said, “the Bardo museum covers up to 400 years of Roman culture."

Detail of a Roman mosaic showing one of the four winds, from  the "Triumph of Neptune." (CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

[Click here to see more images from the Bardo museum.]

The Bardo is a source of deep pride for Tunisians. It’s also a major destination for tourists who flock to the North African nation and are a key source of income for the economy.

The museum, established in 1888, is housed in a palace built under the Husseinite dynasty, whose members governed Tunisia starting in the 18th century. The museum significantly expanded in 2012, with a $12.7 million makeover that doubled its display area. Its contents come from Carthage, whose ruins are in the suburbs of Tunis, and other parts of the country. Tunisian and French scholars have built it into a major institution.

A 3rd-century Roman room at the Bardo museum. (Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

The museum carries items from the Carthaginian, Roman, early Christian and Islamic periods. But its mosaics are especially renowned. Many of them are huge, covering entire walls. They depict animals as well as Romans: men in loincloths on a ship, robed figures in chariots. Among the most important mosaics featured in the museum is the "Triumph of Neptune," originally found in Chebba, Tunisia, dating from the 2nd century, and "Virgil’s Alcove," showing the Roman poet with his muses.

According to Agence France-Presse, the museum received a record 600,000 tourists in 2005. But that figure plunged to 100,000 in 2011, the year of the uprising against longtime strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The attack on Wednesday killed at least 19 people. It did not appear to have damaged the museum's famous works. Nonetheless, it was a huge blow to Tunisians — and all those who love its ancient treasures. "I'm absolutely heartbroken," Brown said.


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