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Tree of Paradise at the Brooklyn Museum

An Exhibition of Roman Jewish Mosaics from Tunisia

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Mosaic of a Bird in a Vine by an unknown Roman artist, 3rd century-5th century A.D. Tunis, Tunisia.

Mosaic of a Bird in a Vine by an unknown Roman artist, 3rd century-5th century A.D. Tunis, Tunisia.

Brooklyn Museum
From October 28, 2005 through June 4, 2006, the Brooklyn Museum will present an exhibition of Roman mosaics recovered from the 3rd century AD Jewish synagogue at Naro, Tunisia. The mosaics, showing natural, religious and personal images, exemplify a little-known way of life, that of wealthy Jewish citizens of the late Roman empire in Africa.

At the end of the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), the Phoenician city of Carthage in what is now the modern country of Tunisia was utterly destroyed by the Romans. Carthage was located on a narrow peninsula in Tunisia that extends into the Gulf of Tunis of the Mediterranean Sea, 150 kilometers southwest of Sicily; it’s near where Tunis is now. A three day sail from Rome, Carthage was considered by members of the Roman Senate an enormous threat to the Roman state. After two punishing wars in the 3rd century BC, Rome decided it was time to lay waste to Carthage once and for all. By 146 BC, Carthage’s population was decimated, its port destroyed, its buildings razed, its fields in flames. Some legends report that the ground was salted to prevent Carthage from ever rising again. But 50 years later during the reign of Augustus, Carthage became the capital of the Roman African Proconsularis. Important as a port and an invaluable source of grain and trade goods, in its day Carthage was the home for very wealthy Roman citizens, including a large population of wealthy Roman Jews.

Fast forward 1800 years. After the Romans, brief occupations by the Vandals and then the Byzantines, Tunisia became part of the Islamic empire in AD 647; in 1574, it became part of the Ottoman Empire. By the late nineteenth century, the French had become interested in Tunisia, and in 1881 they invaded. During the French occupation, a French captain Ernest de Prudhomme built a villa in the town of Hammam-Lif, a small town on the peninsula about 50 kilometers from Tunis. Wishing to add a new garden to his villa, Prudhomme instead discovered the remains of a Jewish synagogue of the Roman period, with beautiful mosaics of natural, personal, and religious themes inlaid in the floors, perfectly preserved beneath the villa’s yard.

Twenty-one of the mosaics were acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1905, and there they will be displayed, along with other related objects, in an exhibition between October 28, 2005 and June 4, 2006. The glazed terracotta mosaics illustrate animals such as gazelles, tigers, dolphins and roosters, as well as menorahs and human figures. An inscription on one in Latin indicates they were donated to the synagogue by Julia of Naro. These mosaics are evidence that, although the Roman empire continued a policy of non-tolerance towards Jews throughout this period, in some places around the Mediterranean, Jewish people prospered.

In addition to the figures on this page, a collection of images from the exhibition are illustrated on the Scenes from Paradise page created for this feature. Thanks to the Brooklyn Museum for allowing the use of these images.

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