Habib Bourguiba's palace: a time capsule from Tunisia's brightest days

The little-visited museum is a tribute to the glitz, glam and hope of the 1960s in the Mediterranean

The salon's walls are covered, floor to ceiling, by handwoven mergoum tapestries in vibrant colors depicting scenes from different Tunisian landscapes. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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Postcard from Monastir

On the outskirts of Monastir, one of Tunisia's favoured tourist towns with turquoise waters and relentless sunshine, a once-guarded garden path leads the curious visitor to a nearly-abandoned masterpiece of modernist architecture: the summer residence of the country's former ruler, Habib Bourguiba.

In the shimmering heat of the central coast, the white marble cube with its swooping roof stands cool as a block of ice.

But it is its interior, transformed into a museum in the years after the 2011 revolution, that keeps a moment in Tunisia's history frozen in time — a period when Bourguiba, at the height of his power, ruled the country with charisma, energy and an obsessive love of all things modern.

After a decades-long struggle to shrug off French colonial rule in Tunisia, Bourguiba stepped into the role of ruler after it secured independence in 1956. A dedicated secularist with an eye towards the West, he set about “modernising” Tunisia in everything from agricultural policy to freedoms for women.

He wanted a palace that blended modern architecture with Tunisian touches and to serve as a place where he could both live near his beloved home town and conduct the work of running the country.

Bourguiba commissioned Franco-Tunisian architect Olivier-Clément Cacoub to build the palace from a vast array of Tunisian and Italian stone, and recruited some of the era's most swanky designers, including Raphael, Maxime Old and Andre Leleu, for the interiors.

On the leader's 59th birthday, he inaugurated the palace with a grand soiree. The political class were dazzled.

Each room is audacious, colourful, and dripping with the kind of moonshot fever aesthetic that defined the 1960s. The grand hall, where Bourguiba conducted most of his business, features floor to ceiling handwoven tapestries of abstract palms and gazelles drinking from oases, woven in punchy yellows, teals and purples. On the facing wall is an oil painting of Bourguiba in a massive ostrich feather hat, astride a horse, looking delighted.

An adjoining dining room — with mirrored walls and matching tapestries — doubled as a boardroom for important meetings that could be interrupted by opulent meals brought up on the deftly hidden dumb waiter, which stood beside the home's other great secret: centralised air-conditioning vents.

Not all of the palace was designed by the creme de la creme of European tastemakers. On the ground floor is the Moroccan salon, the entirety of which, down to the thousands of tiles on the floor and walls and the marquetry panels on the ceiling, was a gift from King Mohamed V of Morocco.

The two leaders had different approaches to modernising their countries, but, it appeared, shared a love of luxury cars. On display in the foyer is Bourguiba's 1965 Mercedes limousine, complete with a telephone, mini bar and electric cigarette lighter. Only five of these modern marvels were made — one each for John F Kennedy, the Shah of Iran, Fidel Castro, Mohamed V and Bourguiba.

In Bourguiba's private wing are the two jewel box bedrooms he and his wife occupied, with lacquered walls in rich teal and olive, connected by an opulent gold-leafed bathroom complete with a massive bath carved from a single slab of white marble.

The leader's private office serves as a vitrine for many mementos and gifts given to Bourguiba over the years — models of battleships, gold-embellished copies of the Quran, Lalique vases, and a personalised copy of Ronald Reagan's biography, with an haut-relief portrait in bronze of the American president on its cover.

The museum reveals Bourguiba's paradoxes as he styled himself as thoroughly modern autocrat. In the dark wood-panelled press room, photos of Bourguiba in full man-of-the-people mode line the walls: here he is shaking hands with farmers near a combine, or observing keenly the work of Tunisian scientists in a laboratory, or kissing the cheek of a young child held aloft to greet him.

But in the private residential wing of the palace, formal oil paintings of the leader in full military garb and his wife in a royal sash reveal, perhaps, his deeper ambitions towards a monarchical legacy.

Bourguiba made himself president for life in 1975, at the age of 72. Twelve years later, after nearly three decades running the country, he was ousted by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in a bloodless coup. During the night of November 6, 1987, a group of seven doctors signed a medical report attesting to the mental incapacity of Bourguiba.

Ben Ali exiled Bourguiba to Monastir, but forbade him from taking up residence in the palace. In a moment of spite, Ben Ali seized the property and paved over the once lush gardens to put up a shopping centre on the grounds.

Today the coffee shops and boutiques are shuttered, and the grand building stands alone next to the empty pool where Bourguiba would swim each afternoon — only after taking his morning swim in the Mediterranean.

The palace is open to the public, but despite the nostalgia for Bourguiba that burns in the hearts of many Tunisians, few make their way to see it. So it stands, settling into its surroundings, bracing for the moment it becomes, like so many of the country's Roman feats of architecture that surround it, a ruin of its former self.

Updated: June 08, 2023, 5:41 AM