‘Souk’ and Ye Shall Find – Tunis’s Kasbah
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
At the end of Boulevard Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’s Champs Elysées, we made our way through Avenue de France to the imposing Bab Behar (Sea Gate) better known as Porte de France. At one time it was one of he 17 gates in the city’s medieval ramparts which were, for the greater part, torn down at the turn of the last century. Passing this ancient gateway, we stopped to have a cup of coffee in a peoples’ open-air café to our right. Refreshed, we walked a few feet to the beginning of two main streets, Rue de la Kasbah and Rue Jamaa ez-Zitouna leading to the Kasbah or heart of the Medina (old city). Trying to decide on what street to take, we noted most people were turning on rue Jamaa ez-Zitouna. Like sheep we followed he crowds of pedestrians, feeling excited as the thought of the ageless souks (markets) built within us.
Our first impression was the cleanliness of the street on which we were walking and the connecting lands. We had visited a good number of the major cities in North Africa, but this appeared to be the quietest and most garbage-free medina we had seen.
Travellers have written that this Kasbah is the richest and best preserved of all urban centres from the medieval Islamic era. It reached the flower of its splendour between the 13th and 16th centuries – the time when the majority o its souks originated. Much from that age of glory has filtered down to us in the ancient structures and souks.
All around were displays of colourful handicrafts – some being produced under the watchful eyes of tourists by artisans busy at their age-old trades. Exquisitely engraved brass and copper plates, attractive handwoven rugs, antique and silver wares, eye-catching ceramics, all types of leather goods, colourful traditional women’s clothing and beautiful filigree style bird cages crammed the shelves of the tiny shops which crowded both sides of the street. It was a world of sheer shopper’s delight. The only thing which was at times annoying were a few aggressive merchants who attempted to pressure us into buying their wares at inflated prices.
We walked through this commercial scene from the Middle Ages until we reached Jamaa ez-Zitouna, the city’s Great Mosque. Founded in the 8th century, it is Tunis’s principal house of worship. Its construction was initiated in 732 and completed in 864 A.D. As it has, in the past, the majesty of its minaret dominates the old city. From its inception, ez-Zitouna was an important Arab-Islamic university which functioned until our times. In the last few decades, its faculties were amalgamated with those of the University of Tunis and, hence, today it is only a venerable religious centre. Unlike the mosques in Algeria and Morocco, this Tunisian house of worship, as are mot other s int eh country, is open to non-Muslim visitors. However, the only section tourists may enter are the courtyards.
Around the mosque, the merchant stalls, eating places and busy life of the Medina seemed o reach the ultimate in colour and movement. The most interesting spot were the shops on Souk el-Attarine (Perfumer’s Street) huddled against one of the mosque’s walls. All types of natural perfumes and hair dyes, and the many articles needed for weddings were on display. The wonderful intoxicating scent of rose, jasmine and incense which engulf this street seem to have a magical effect and create an aesthetic sense of pleasure, especially for a first-time visitor. One of the most sough souks in the Kasbah, its little shops with colourful decorations and polite owners have made it a favoured tourist shopping centre.
From Souk el-Attarine we moved on to Rue Sidi Ben Arous to examine the green roofed 18th century Hamouda Pacha Mosque, bult when the Ottoman Turks ruled Tunisia. It had an attractive rounded minaret. This style of mosque towers which is much different than the square ones common in North Africa, are to be seen in every country the Turks once ruled.
Leaving the mosque, we plunged into the labyrinth of narrow side streets and covered passageways of the Medina. They were bursting with masses of people moving between picturesque stalls offering almost everything under the sun. To us, it was an intense vibrant experience and a source f infinite pleasure. We wandered randomly through the Kasbah’s central area, stumbling on many unexpected sights. Hand manufacturers of chichia and fezes (Tunisian headwear, now only worn by the more senior), silversmiths, cobblers, saddle makers and tailors, working at their crafts created a unique atmosphere and took us back to the days of long ago. It is said that within the Medina’s complex of souks visitors can find almost any age-old handicraft product they may wish to buy.
Around every other corner we stumbled upon centuries old buildings which have kept their original charms. Incorporating elaborate stonework, decorated doors and windows which are a delight to art lovers, they enhanced the tiny laneways and squares. Their historic aura complemented and made more delightful the souks of the old city.
We were entranced with the panorama around us in this bustling heart of Tunis. Yet, a number of the over 700 timeworn monuments dotted throughout the Kasbah, some of which can match the best in the world, beckoned. Of course, like most tourists we had only time to visit the most important. Our first stop was Dar Ben Abdallah, a palace built in the 19th century and housing he Museum of Folklore and Popular Art. We rested a wile in this beautiful former palace ornamented with fine tiles and plastic filigree, examined its evocative décor, then left.
We walked across the Medina to Dar el Bey – a former magnificent palace of Tunisia’s beys (kings). It has been converted to government offices and we could only survey tis historic yet modern place of authority from the outside. Its eye-catching architecture made it an unforgettable end to our day of exploration.
Feeling famished after our hours of wandering we retraced our steps to near Jamaa ez-Zitouna where we had seen a series of peoples’ eating places. In a typical Tunisian restaurant, we dined on brik, an egg pie; a Tunisian tuna salad; and couscous, the king of North African cuisine. The meal was tasty, but the atmosphere had much to be desired. It was a place to eat then quickly depart. The multiple delights of the Tunisian cuisine were not to be found in the eating places of the masses.
The next evening, we returned to the Medina to dine in style. Our goal was the M’Rabet Restaurant near Dar el Bey. In emir-like fashion we feasted on the epitome of Tunisian food while listening to the haunting oriental music of the Malouf.
After our sumptuous meal we sipped our drinks in a seductive aura, created by the colourful folklore and the sultry swaying of a lovely dancer. It was a fitting end to our journey into the Kasbah’s world of inexhaustible delights – the nostalgic never-never land of the ‘Arabian Nights’.