To reproduce in its truest and most curious particularities the customs, arts and industry of Tunisia, such was the aim that seems to have been achieved in this building erected at the right angle of the Park and which is designated under the name of the Bey's Palace.
Oriental life, with all its graceful artistic memories of the Alhambra, is here caught in the act; and I have no doubt that these Moors, who for several centuries have made the south of Spain prosperous, are the direct and natural ancestors of the inhabitants of Tunisia. It is not that here and there the Christian way, as they themselves say, has not penetrated into the native industry and art; but if an educated and intelligent man asks them for a faithful reproduction of the great Moorish art, the artist immediately sets to work and has only to remember.
A man came along who knew the artistic tendencies of the Tunisian workers; he knew how to invigorate them, how to train them and how to obtain their help in putting the finishing touches to the Bey's Palace.
It was Mr. J. de Lesseps who was the intelligent and active organizer of this brilliant installation; and naming such a name dispenses us from extending our praise.
The Bey's Palace is in facade the very exact reproduction of the palace built in Tunis and which is called the Bardo.
Six lions are staggered to the right and left of the main staircase, which leads under an elegant peristyle supported by slender and graceful columns whose scrolls are cut out in the open. From the peristyle one reaches a vestibule on the same level, to the right of which is the bey's chamber of justice.
This chamber, designed in the purest Moorish style, is raised in the form of a dome decorated with gilding enhanced by striking red and blue tones.
To the left of the vestibule is the guard room; and next to it is the salon of the Prime Minister, Sidi-Mustapha-Khaznadar, who for thirty years has held the same position under three different reigns. A rare thing, is it not, and one which reveals a superior merit and ability to overcome the fluctuations inherent in all dynastic changes.
The prime minister's room leads into the bey's room of honour, known as Beit-el-Bacha. This room is decorated with moucharnbi, a kind of window cut out in the open, and closed in such a way that one can see from inside without being seen from outside.
It also has the following characteristic feature of oriental customs:
The moucharabi is located in a recess which allows a wide and convenient couch to be installed where the bey stands, always surrounded by his court. If the bey wants to be alone with a visitor, he only has to make a sign and the assistants withdraw. The moucharabi then forms a separate room within the salon, and at the slightest desire of the sovereign, the assistants, invisible for a moment, reappear as if by magic and surround him again.
In the centre of the Palace is the summer salon, called the Patio. This room has no other gilded or silvered ceiling than the celestial vault: a basin equipped with a jet of water occupies the centre, and on each side two shelters in the form of divans allow the bey to breathe at ease the beneficial coolness of the evening.
I recommend to ceramists the decorated earthenware which decorates these two shelters, and which are original works, although frustrated, sent directly from Tunisia.
From the patio, one enters directly into the bey's room.
It is a vast room decorated with unprecedented taste and luxury. A central window, which is situated opposite the patio, is surmounted by a rose window with coloured glasses of dazzling brilliance.
By a singular coincidence, which is certainly due to the gracious attention of the eminent man I have already named, a maxim from the Koran appears at the bottom of the multi-coloured rose window.
Translated into French, it means:
Happy is the country that is governed by the sadeck!
The sadeck, in French, is the righteous.
And do you know what the current bey is called?
Sidi Sadeck bey.
To the right of the patio, there is a gallery which will serve as a dining room.
This gallery is devoted to a museum of extremely rare value, a museum currently installed in the Tunisian gallery of the inner palace of the Exhibition, and whose classification is directed by our learned compatriot, M. de Longpérier.
The antiquities of Roman and Phoenician Carthage sent by Prince Mohammed, the eldest son of the Prime Minister Sidi Khaz-nadar, will be installed there with the greatest care.
Never has such an exhibition been made, and it will be a unique opportunity to study the ancient processes which are still only very imperfectly known to us.
For my part, I shall be delighted to have a clear picture of the Carthaginian antiquities.
I was, like many others, driven by the desire to visit the ruins of Carthage.
Great was my disappointment, when I saw myself in front of an immense plain of very sparsely rolled and very sharp stones. A few shapeless heaps of stone represent the temple of Astarte and the palace of Dido, that inconsolable lover of Aeneas.
All that has resisted the ravages of time and people are the cisterns, which are still in a relatively surprising state of preservation today.
What the ruins of Carthage can offer us, Prince Mohammed obligingly places before our eyes; may our most sincere thanksgiving follow him to his palaces in La Goulette and Tunis!
To return from our little excursion to Africa, let us pass into the gallery-museum, cross the patio and examine to the left of the bey's room another room which His Highness reserves for noble visitors who would like to rest in the Palace.
If the interior of this delightful edifice offers the exact and conscientious specimen of Tunisian civilisation in its highest type, the exterior of the palace also offers the spectacle of the various native industries and functions.
To the right and left of the main staircase are two guardhouses, and two grated caves intended to contain ferocious beasts. - Local custom. On the side facing the great avenue of the velum is an immense Arab café, the ceiling of which is decorated with hand-made cut-outs of admirable workmanship; we shall no doubt be allowed to drink in this establishment, faithfully modelled on the native establishments, this unique coffee, in which the grounds are not separated from the liquid, and which has a flavour that amateurs know how to appreciate.
Following this café and on the side that runs along the quay promenade, there is an Arab barber's shop with its back room, equipped with a huge couch where the customers come to lie down and rest.
The barber's shop is a meeting place for oriental talkers. The barber is the obligatory gazetteer of all the gossip. - Chatting like a barber" - must have been invented by the Orientals. The barber and the adjoining café alone represent three quarters of Tunisian life. This is the real circle; this is where the stories of the day are told, those of the day before and often those of the day after. Happy barber, happy people who do not need to invoke the right of assembly!
To complete the physiognomy of this faithful and entirely new picture for us, a series of Arab bazaars has been installed on the façade along the station's promenade. Nothing is as pretty and graceful as this series of small stalls with their colourful displays of red and blue, gold and silver, and the boxes containing the most curious fabrics and knick-knacks.
The bazaar shop is small, the merchant placed in the centre has everything within reach and without disturbing himself. He is there, calm, dignified, smoking his long pipe, his schibouk, and deigning from time to time to extend his arm to receive the piastres in exchange for his goods. The Oriental merchant preserves in his trade the indolence which the heat of the climate commands.
Now that we have taken a tour of the Palace, let me pay tribute to the remarkable talent of the architect who inspired so many marvels.
Mr. Alfred Chapon, whose work we shall have occasion to return to often, has succeeded in an exceptional way in reproducing for us the genius of this simple and complicated architecture, which captures the eye and rests on it, embarrassing it with its innumerable festoons, and satisfying it with its strange and varied character.
The highest praise of Mr Alfred Chapon's talent came from the mouths of some of the natives called by Mr de Lesseps to help decorate this Tunisian work.
After explaining to them that the purpose of their assistance was to give an exact sample of Tunisian art and industry, and when they saw Mr. Chapon's plans, they exclaimed:
"What are we doing here? Nothing is missing! "
Yes, everything was admirably designed and remarkably rendered; but what no one could render was the bold and striking way in which these artists work and sculpt their plaster.
Two iron scissors, of unequal size, do the trick and are their only tools. No hammers, knives or compasses - just thumb and chisel. No drawing is drawn in advance, the artist goes by inspiration, and executes with a dexterity and regularity to confound the observer, the most complicated and delicate rosettes and cut-outs. The rosettes with daylight, whose most beautiful effect consists in transmitting into the flats rays of light resplendent with the richest colours, skilfully and harmoniously combined, are executed by these singular artists with the help of a process as simple as it is ingenious and which astonishes the spectator.
Here, as in the case of the sculpture, there is no prior drawing. A vast layer of plaster is spread over a flat surface; pieces of glass of different colours, artfully broken rather than cut by the artist, are placed on this white layer. In a moment, the rhombuses, squares, hexagons are arranged, chosen, ordered; the capricious child who executes bizarre figures on a marble table with dominoes is no faster, no more lively than the Tunisian artist. When the whimsical drawing is finished, a layer of plaster is applied to this game of patience. The scraper soon removes the useless layers; suddenly appear, gently illuminated by the white depth of the plaster cuts, and crossed by the rays of daylight, these coloured rosettes of an infinite softness and a resplendent whole.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée