The Medina of Tunis

26/02/2016 09:23

Its narrow alleys combined with mosques courtyards’ breadth and madrasas, their Ottoman minarets and ancient souks earned in 1979 to the medina of Tunis joining the Heritage of UNESCO.

Tynes was once an insignificant place which not even would deserve to be called a village. Here the Roman general Regulus camped during his campaign along the First Punic War against the city of Cartago. Both Carthaginians and Romans preferred to settle on the hill of Byrsa: Cartago. Were Arabs who in the seventh century, led by Hassan Ibn Noonan, chose Tynes plain beside Sebkhet Sejumi salt lake, where they opened a channel to open it to the Mediterranean. After snatching Carthage from the Byzantines they began to build the new city of Tunis where the Hafsids made its capital in the thirteenth century, the Turks fortified giving it walls and erected many mosques and palaces, and the French, during the years of the Protectorate, between 1881 and 1956, drained part of the marshes outside the walls to build an expansion which is known as Ville Nouvelle.

The new city and the medina join in the Place de la Victoire, a large open space where Bab al Bahar opens to the seaside. The name comes from the sea, the salty lake waters that almost reached the walls. Bab el Bahar had been the gateway to the medina, a gateway rebuilt by the French.

Jemaa Zaytuna street links the door to the Great Mosque, built in the eighth century, among other elements with 184 Roman columns which come from the ruins of old Carthage. It is the largest and most important but not the only one in the Medina, the Kasbah is where the citadel was situated next to the Western Wall. The Kasbah was destroyed during the 1811 riots. Now there are in addition to the mosque, its minaret, the tallest in the city, and some wall fragments. Hammouda Pacha mosque with a distinctive octagonal minaret and Sidi Youssef with its minaret topped by a lookout protected by a wooden cover, denote a marked Turkish reminiscence.

Around the Grand Mosque swirl three madrasa, the Koranic schools built in the eighteenth century during the rule of the dynasty of Hussain:  the Palm tree, Bechia and Slimania. There are also around the National Library constructed in a former military cantonment, or Tourbet Aziza, the Mausoleum of Aziza, Othman Bey daughter who died in 1669 and Dar el Bey, former palace of the Turkish governors where other buildings and government offices are today concentrated.

But undoubtedly the main attraction lies in the myriad of stores that spread around the Grand Mosque in the old souks. The shops are crowded next to each other as if they need some warmth, their goods get to hang from the ceilings looking for a place where to be show off. Alternate with small cafes that sometimes have hookahs available to customers prepared with scented tobacco flavours and ready to be lighted on.

The souks group same specialty stores that reflect each market name. Souk al Attarine is the big market of essences, aromas and perfumes, henna , incense, candle wax and herbalists. Souk el Berka was the old market where on wood planks were shown to be sold slaves captured by privateers. In Souk al Trouk are carpets, fabrics and the tailors necessary to transform them into garments. On Bechamkia there’s no shortage of slippers or shoes and the Souk des Libraires where Tunisian and international literature are found.

Among the narrow streets of the medina, on some doors, it is easy to observe painted tiles depicting the inverted hand of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet. The Hand of Fatima has become a popular protective talisman. His five fingers symbolize the five pillars of Islam: Shahada, Salat, Zakat, Ramadan and Hajj, i.e., the profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca. They also represent the five daily prayers: fahar, zuhar, asr, maghrib and isha.

Across Bab el Bahar starts the Avenue of France which after Independence Square becomes the Avenue Habib Burghiba. It is the main axis of the Ville Nouvelle, the new city French took from the sea by draining a portion of the neighbouring marshes. The development of new neighbourhoods coincided with the heyday of Art Nouveau, Modernism in Europe. So many examples have been built even mixed with other examples of Art Deco and hybrids with the own lines of Islamic architecture. In France Avenue, next to restaurants and cafes that emulate those of the Parisian boulevards, there are the National Theatre, the Majestic Hotel, the Central Post Office or the Cathedral of Saint Paul, the latter built in 1882 on an old Catholic cemetery. The cathedral combines Gothic, Byzantine and Arab styles. Between its twin towers there’s a mosaic image of Christ dominating the entrance .

Halfaouine is a vibrant neighbourhood located north of the medina, it knew better  days in its beginnings when wealthy families preferred it to the medina. Those days are gone and now Halfauine is a popular neighbourhood known because there was built the last great mosque, Ettabaa Sahab, just before the French protectorate was declared. Halfauine was immortalized in 1990 by Tunisian director Ferid Boughedir who six years later would shoot the film Un été a La Goulette, both about the recurring theme of the discovery of sexuality in the adolescence.

La Goulette is the maritime district of Tunis, ten kilometres from the medina and across the strip of land that  was built on the salt lake and where now the tram runs. The people of the city flock to La Goulette to eat fish in any of its many restaurants or just stroll along the beach. There are still the walls of a Spanish fortress that the Turks bring down and rise again. It is Karrak Bordj. Was used as a jail for prisoners captured by pirates and then carried to the Berka Souk to be sold as slaves. Today in Souk el Berka slaves are not sold anymore, just stuffed giraffes abound.

Beyond Cartago, the charming village of Sidi Bou Said has become one more city neighbourhood. A Sufi holy man gave its own name when he returned from pilgrimage to Mecca and settled there. The town was until then known by the name of Jabal Minar.

In the early twentieth century Sidi Bou Said attracted European artists and intellectuals. Simone de Beauvoir, André Gide, Jean -Paul Sartre, Paul Klee... arrived delighted by the brightness of the place. Its cobblestone and shining streets and houses with layers whitewashed annually. Its wooden doors painted in an intense light blue and framed with horseshoe arches and andalusian plasters . In 1922 Baron Rodolphe d' Erlanger was charmed by the place and Tunisian music. He built a mansion with magnificent sea views, that here play with the bright hue of the doors. Is Dar Ennejma Ezzahra and now houses the Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music .

Huge bougainvillea, colourful geraniums and aromatic jasmine embrace on every street the walls of the houses. In the floral confluence of rue Habib Thameur with Hedi Zarrouk the Café des Nattes closely guarded in its walls the portraits of those who once sat at the tables, those avant-garde that became fashionable in the roaring Twenties.

© J.L.Nicolas


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