The Many Delights of Tunis's Medina
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
At the end of the Boulevard Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’s so-called Champs Elysées which had seen better days, we made our way on Avenue de France to the imposing Bab Behar (Sea Gate) better known as Porte de France. At one time it was one of the 17 gates in the city’s medieval ramparts, which were, for the greater part, torn down at the turn of the 20th century.
Passing this ancient gateway, we walked a few feet to the beginning of two main streets: Rue de la Kasbah and Rue Jamaa ez-Zitouna leading to the heart of the Medina or as it is often called, Kasbah (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 the crowds of pedestrians, feeling excited thinking of the ageless souks (markets) we were soon to explore.
Our first impression was the cleanliness of the street on which we were walking. 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. It was much different from the edging paper and plastic strewn so-called new city.
Travellers have written that this Medina 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 of its souks originated. Much from that age of glory has filtered down to us, not only in the souks but in the many ancient structures.
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 hand-woven rugs, leather products, antique and silver wares, eye- catching ceramics, hand-carved wood souvenirs, 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. Centuries seemed to slip away as we stepped into a medieval world.
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 that 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 religious centre. Unlike the mosques in Algeria and Morocco it is open, as are most other mosques in the country, to non-Muslim visitors. However, the only section in these mosques the tourists may enter is the courtyard.
Around the mosque, the merchant stalls, eating places and busy life of the Medina seemed to reach the ultimate in colour and movement. The most interesting were the shops on Souk el-Attarine (Perfumer’s Street) huddled against the mosque’s walls. On display were all types of natural perfumes, hair dyes, nuts and spices, traditional clothing and the many articles needed for weddings.
The wonderful- intoxicating scents of roses, jasmine and incense which engulf this street seem to have a magical effect and create an aesthetic sense of pleasure, especially for first time visitors. One of the most sought souks in the Kasbah, its little shops with colourful decorations and polite owners has made it a favoured tourist shopping centre.
From Souk el-Attarine we moved onto Rue Sidi Ben Arous to examine the green roofed l8th century Hamouda Pacha Mosque, then 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 of infinite pleasure.
We wandered randomly through the Medina’s central area, stumbling on many unexpected sights. Hand manufacturers of chichia and fezes (Tunisian headgear, now only worn by the old), 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 that 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. Like most tourists, we only had time to examine a few of the more than 700 ancient monuments that dot the Kasbah. Our first stop was Dar Ben Abdallah, a palace built in the 19th century that houses the Museum of Folklore and Popular Art. After touring the museum, we rested awhile in this beautiful former palace ornamented with an evocative decor of fine tiles and plastic filigree.
Feeling famished after our hours of wandering we retraced our steps to near Jamaa ez-Zitouna where we had seen a series of people’s eating places. In a typical Tunisian restaurant, we dined on tasty Tunisian cuisine, 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 at the Essaraya Restaurant – one of the topnotch restaurants in Tunis. In a royal-like fashion we feasted on the epitome of Tunisian food in a Moorish-style former palace, adorned with filagree and vividly coloured tiles. As we relished the mouth-watering dishes, the haunting oriental music of the Malouf – brought to Tunisia by the expelled Andalusian Muslims – created a feeling of relaxation and contentment. The sumptuous-tasty meal, seductive music and the beguiling aura, created by the colourful decor was truly a fitting end to our journey into the Medina’s world of inexhaustible delights.