Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former president of Tunisia, lived in the Carthage presidential palace until 2001, when he moved to his own private estate in Sidi Bousaid. Built by Ben Ali, it was located on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, a beautiful landscape, but one with a flaw: a saint was buried there.
Ben Ali decided to just move the tomb elsewhere, erecting his own palace in its place. It was a move that in a country like Tunisia, which has a long tradition of Sufi worship, was bold, but also indicative of just how much power he had.
The palace is now abandoned, its owner having fled the country in January 2011 following the mass-protest movement that led to his downfall. His assets, estimated at $2bn, are now for sale, with the government looking to attract wealthy businessmen from Gulf countries to help fill the public exchequer.
The palace provides a glimpse into Ben Ali’s grandiose and lavish lifestyle. The foyer is packed with antiques, works of art, porcelain vases, gifts from monarchs and wealthy friends.
He had a collection of rare and unique clocks, some of which belonged to the Bey Dynasty that ruled Tunisia for more than two centuries.
The palace’s design reflects the Islamic Moorish architecture typical of the region.
The masons looked into all the details: the stuccos, the mosaic and the arches, to the point that as soon as you pass through the main entrance, you find yourself in a museum where you suddenly feel haunted by ghosts from a distant, glorious past.
But Ben Ali was no glorious conquerer. He illegally accumulated much of his wealth by buying companies at knocked down prices, or simply confiscating them. He still has funds stashed away in bank accounts abroad that the government cannot access.
The former president wanted to be remembered as a leader. He even ordered all reference to the founder of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourgib, wiped off the official records of the state. He simply wanted to stand as the unchallenged hero in his people’s memory.
Those who served in the palace portray conflicting portraits of the man. He was very disciplined, they say: he went to bed at 8:00pm every night and woke up at 5:30am. After a long stroll he would go to his offices and by midday he would retreat in his private palace.
When the protests broke out in December 2010, the man changed, they say. He became more agitated.
On January 14, 2011, he escorted his family to the airport amid a deteriorating situation. His plan was to return to Carthage, but a conversation at the airport prompted him to change his mind, they said.
The staff, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said that they didn’t quite know what was going on, but they decided to board the plane and flee the country with him.
It was dusk, as the plane took off, they said, and he was so distressed he likely never cast a final look on the palace he had built – a refuge in which he had, perhaps, hoped to spend a peaceful retirement when the time finally came.