The Zarzis Museum stands as a distinctive Tunisian archaeological and heritage museum, blending archaeology and anthropology, history, and contemporary lifestyle. It finds its home in the former Notre-Dame de la Garde Catholic Church, built in 1920 during the French protectorate in the Southern Territories. While the city of Zarzis had a limited Christian population during the protectorate, the church remained under military administration until Tunisia gained independence. As a result, the Archdiocese of Carthage did not consider it necessary to construct a church in this remote and turbulent region, which fell under the jurisdiction of the parish of Gabès.
A Change of Fortunes
The arrival of Father Gabriel Deshayes in September 1913 would transform this situation. As a member of the congregation of Notre-Dame de Sion, he spent two years traveling across the south of the country. In October 1915, he was appointed military chaplain for this vast territory. Determined to build churches, Father Deshayes sold his belongings to fund the construction projects.
After completing the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church in Tataouine in 1918, he moved to Zarzis in 1920. At that time, the city had only a few French settlers and Maltese and Italian families. Accommodated by a resident who also provided him with food, Father Deshayes conducted services in a converted store that leaked during winter and became scorching hot in summer. Encouraged by the success of his endeavors in Tataouine, he purchased land for 950 francs and, becoming an architect, mason, and quarryman, embarked on building a church in the local style.
Transformation into a Museum
Following Tunisia’s independence, the church was eventually closed as part of the modus vivendi signed between the Tunisian government and the Vatican on July 10, 1964. The building was transferred free of charge, with the condition that it would be used for public purposes aligned with its former function. Subsequently, it underwent a transformation into an archaeological and heritage museum after the bell tower was replaced by a dome.
A Journey Through History
Since its reopening in 2003, the Zarzis Museum has been a captivating space that showcases the history of the Zarzis peninsula and the region’s significant ancient sites. Visitors can explore archaeological artifacts and everyday objects that have withstood the test of time.
The Carthaginian period is represented by a Punic epitaph-bearing amphora retrieved from a shipwreck, as well as a wooden sarcophagus dating back to the 4th century BC.
The exhibited collections offer insights into the civilizations that have thrived on Tunisian soil, showcasing objects discovered through excavations in various archaeological sites on the Zarzis peninsula.
A Glimpse into Local Life
The museum’s second section immerses visitors in the daily lives of the Akkaras, the indigenous population of the peninsula, highlighting their ancestral connection to the land, the sea, and trade.
A model of the Gigthis site emphasizes the economic exchanges of Roman times, accompanied by statues, stelae from Zita (Zian), and collections of Punic and Roman ceramics from Chammakh, Ras Lemsa, and Al Alindaya.
Visitors can also marvel at the tools and instruments used by the people of Zarzis throughout history, particularly in the three key activities that have shaped their daily lives: olive cultivation, fishing, and trade.