Re-presenting Antiquity as Distinction: Pre-Arab Pasts in Tunis’ Colonial, Postcolonial and Contemporary Built Environments
Coslett, Daniel Eppes
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The rich legacy of Tunisia’s ancient history has played a vital role in the articulation of its identity and its architectural and urban development for centuries. Punctuated with relics of its diverse pasts, Tunisian built environments have long since incorporated and presented their accumulated histories through multiple related media. Designers and managers of these sites and spaces have actively drawn on subjectively repackaged history and remade heritage images to legitimize rule, dominate or educate locals, and solicit foreign visitors and capital. This dissertation project addresses the sustained influence of Tunisia’s salient pre-Arab heritage (including its Punic, Roman, and Early Christian/Vandal/Byzantine eras), as refracted by French colonial and then postcolonial and contemporary socio-political lenses, in the (re)shaping of Tunis’ architectural and urban spaces since the 1860s. It considers the deployment of these antiquities through the exploration of three themes—antiquity as an aesthetic ideal, a political tool and a revenue generator—making use of a variety of historical and contemporary source materials, including archival planning and design documents, journalistic media, correspondence and other ephemera. Using these themes, selected sites are situated within the contexts of Tunisia’s colonial and postcolonial history, as well as those of national identity formation, politicized archaeology, historic preservation, globalization and heritage tourism development. Transcending the chronological or typological approaches typically taken when studying material of this sort, this dissertation adopts a novel diachronic and thematic approach while addressing underexplored concepts and sites. In its exploration of Tunis’ integrated, multimedia “pre-Arab antiquity culture-scape,” this dissertation consists of three primary parts, each of which addresses one of the above-mentioned thematic lenses as pursued by a single socio-political constituency. Individual chapters explore the aesthetics of built environments built by the French colonial administration, the architectural representation of the Roman Catholic Church’s politics and the postcolonial state’s interest in generating revenue. Research reveals that the colonial state communicated power through imagery drawing on Roman forms, the Catholic Church participated in colonialism in its pursuit of inter-nationality Christian unity through rhetorical and architectural allusions to the region’s early Christian history, and the independent Tunisian state has raised considerable capital through heritage-based tourism development. In exploring these issues, this project ultimately exposes the consistent use of Tunisia’s pre-Arab past—by those in power—as a tool for distinguishing the country’s identity and for referencing “the Other” through symbolically charged built environments. It furthermore illuminates continuities and nuanced differences in messaging and content, opening compelling questions regarding postcolonial identities and hybridity.
- Built environment