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Tunisia's Andalusian Heritage Still Lives on

posted on: May 10, 2022

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

It was back in the mid 1980s and I had driven to Qalcat el-Andles in search of the remains of the Spanish Muslims who had been forcefully evicted from the Iberian Peninsula.  Stopping our auto, I asked a passerby, “I want to speak to someone who knows the history of this village.  Is there anyone?”

The man looked at me inquisitively.  “Go to the town’s coffee-house and ask for Sidi al-Bakr al-Andalusi.  He is the historian of our village.”

In a few minutes we were in the coffee-house talking to al-Andalusi, a professor of literature in the University of Tunis.  I was excited as I introduced myself, then continued, “I have come to search for traces of the Arab-Andalusians in this country.  Do you know of anything that has remained pointing to these Muslim Spaniards?”

As Sidi al-Bakr talked a smile crossed his face, “Note my name and the name of this town.  Are they not indicative of that past?  Look at the people around you.  Do they not exhibit strains from the north?  Although in the last few years many of our people have moved to Tunis and other Tunisians have moved here, as you see, the majority still appear as if their fathers came from al-Andalus (the Arab name of Moorish Spain) only yesterday.”  He continued, “If you search the root of their family names you will find they are as Spanish as any Spaniard.”  Pointing to a woman passing by, he went on, “Look at that woman’s attire!  Note how it differs from other Tunisian dresses!  I believe this is the clothing once worn by the Arab women in Andalusia.”

Al-Andalusi was not romanticizing about the influence of the Andalusian Muslims left in Tunisia, but only relating historic facts.  As the Christian armies, little by little, occupied Arab Spain, many Andalusian Muslims, rather than live under the Christian yoke, fled and settled all the way from Morocco to Tunisia.

In that era the Arab Muslims who were fleeing Spain, were scientifically, economically, and intellectually more advance than both the Christian West and Muslim East.  A great number of these fleeing refugees came to Tunisia and enriched the country with their introduction of capital, refined way of life, and new technologies in the fields of architecture, manufacturing and agriculture.

In The History of the Maghrib, Ralph Mantheim states that the Andalusians introduced court etiquette, formalism, and diplomacy into North African society.  Also, they revolutionized the whole concept of politics, relaxing its ties with society and religion.  Unlike most Muslims of that time, they regarded religion as a private concern – a far cry from the view held, at that time, in the countries of Christian Europe and the Muslim East.

From the time of the fall of Cordoba and Seville in the middle of the 13th century until 1609, the Spanish-Arab Muslims came to North Africa in unbroken waves.  As many as 150,000 of these refugees, I the span of 350 years, made Tunisia their home.  However, only the educated and wealthy could afford the hazard of such a long trip to rebuild their lives in a new domain.

In 1609, when the Spaniards expelled all the Moriscos (Spanish Christians who were former Muslims, but not trusted by the Church) approximately 80,000 came in a single year.  Unlike the previous exiles these new refugees were mostly peasants who, although they were at that time the best farmers in the world, were only semi-literate.  After one hundred years of forced conversion and persecution they had lost much of the refine way of living enjoyed by their ancestors.

They came to Tunisia, skipping Morocco and Algeria, at the invitation and with the help of the ruling Dey who was having problems with his neighbours.  He wished to make his country strong, knowing that the Andalusians’ advanced farming methods would enrich his land.  When they reached his domains, he settled them along the Medjerda River, in the most fertile land of Tunisia.  Both the earlier and this later immigration were responsible for devastating the intellectual life and the prosperity of Spain, but on the other hand, helped Tunisia to prosper and flourish.

These Arab Muslims of Spain, even though they were Arabic-speaking, did not melt into Tunisian society, but retained their separate identity.  They established themselves in separate quarters in the cities and built their own villages.  According to Jamil M. Abun-Nasr in A History of the Maghrib, the 17th century Muslim-Andalusians in Tunisia were organized as a distinct community under a leader of heir own, entitled ‘Shaikh al-Andalus’.

Today, these quarters and villages, although not exclusively inhabited by the descendants of the Arab-Andalusian refugees, are still known as the Andalusian quarters or Andalusian villages.  In the countryside, especially along the northern coast and on the banks of the Medjerda River, the towns established by the last wave of exiles, can, to some extent, still be identified as being of Andalusian origin.  Any knowledgeable tourist driving through that part of the country will find that many of these towns, now surrounded by modern urban areas, still retain, in their older sections, some of their former Arab-Andalusian character.

In most of the cites of Tunisia, the first waves of Spanish-Arabs built charming palaces and planted beautiful gardens and orchards – replicas of the ones they had lost in Andalusia.  Ambitious, these exiles excelled in, and sometimes took over, certain trades.  The manufacturing of the Tunisian fez, known as the chechia, which in former times was worn by every male is still, to a certain extent, under the control of their descendants.  Also, the fine artisan products today’s tourists find in the souks of Tunisia are still, in many cases, fashioned by the hands of heir offspring.

In the countryside, especially along the Medjerda River, the Muslim Andalusians who had created in southern Spain one of the wealthiest nations on earth, made Tunisia boom.  The advanced method of agriculture, which they had developed in their former homeland, flourished in their new nation.  The famous Arab-Andalusian gardens of the Iberian Peninsula are still alive today in every part of the country where these unhappy refugees settled.

As a result of the Spanish Muslim impact, Tunisia experienced a renaissance in all forms of art.  When the Andalusians made Tunisia their home, they introduced into their new land the refined art of their former country.  The art of al-Andalus merged with the previous austere Tunisian art to form a new Tunisian style.

Throughout Tunisia this new style flourished.  Mosques, palaces, schools, and homes decorated with colourful tiles, became a common sight.  As was the case in Muslim Andalusia, the colours of these tiles contrasted pleasantly with the higher white lacework of plaster and the ceilings, usually painted olive green or blood-red or sometimes a mixture of other bright colours, were a carbon copy of those which once saturated Andalusia.

To complement these palaces and gardens the Andalusians introduced the famous Arab-Andalusian music.  Through the following centuries, this music, brought by the last wave of refugees in the 17th century, did not die out but evolved to become the national music of Tunisia.

Today, in the city of Tunis, the Rashidiya, an Arab music conservatory established in 1934, is the only centre in the world where Arab-Andalusian music is preserved and studied in its pure original form.  A type of this music, the Malouf, with its 14 modes (noubes) is heard and enjoyed in most Tunisian homes.   There is no question that nearly every type of Tunisian song and dance shows traces of Andalusian tradition.  An informed observer can easily detect that the folkloric music and dances of modern Andalusia relate closely to the song and dances of this North African land.

A strange phenomenon in Tunisia, today, is that the people who are descendants of the Spanish exiles, have preserved their identity.  They still, to some extent, marry from among each other and, in many cases, their children have blond hair and blue eyes – a remnant of their Spanish heritage.  Even after all these centuries they are proud of what their exiled forefathers had developed in Arab Spain.

At the turn of the century in year 2000, I again travelled to Qalcat el-Andles, seeking Sidi al-Bakr al-Andalusi, but alas, he was not in his favourite haunt.  The owner of the same coffee house told me that he was in Tunis.  I was truly disappointed.  During my first trip he had been a fountain of knowledge when it came to the Muslim-Andalusians who had settled in Tunisia.   I had never forgotten the invaluable information he had given me.  He had been the ideal person to consult with about his country’s Muslim-Andalusian heritage.

In our conversation during my first trip, he had verified the fact that the last wave of Arab-Andalusians in the 17th century had carried to Tunisia invaluable knowledge in the field of agriculture but having lived for a hundred years in terror under the Spanish Inquisition, they had lost the intellectual abilities of their fathers.  Hence, they had left no records of their achievements.

Al Andalusi’s town, Qalcat el-Andles, is a fine example of the towns built by this last wave of refugees.  Even though, like in all other parts of the country where they settled, they made the land bloom, very little is known of their history and accomplishments, even by the Tunisians.

Arab villages were established by these Arab-Andalusians all through the north of Tunisia.  In the countryside around Bizerte there are still some old Andalusian villages which carry characteristics of Arab Spain.  Rif Raf, with its Andalusian-type needlework and El Alia, a Spanish type village of white houses, are an example of these towns.  Even though they are now encompassed by modern structures, their hearts still retain the aura of Al-Andalus.

The older sections of these Andalusian villages are built in an attractive style.  Usually, they are laid out at right angles in the same fashion as the ones the Arabs built in Spain.  The minarets of the mosques, in the majority of cases, are of baroque style and consist of three parts.  These minarets are laid over a foundation of stone and constructed with Andalusian type red bricks, then surfaced with delicate relief-work and majolica tile.

Also, the window shutters found today not only in the Andalusian villages but all over Tunisia, are of Arab-Andalusian origin.  The descendants of the Spanish refugees are still fashioning these shutters, especially in the Andalusian quarter of Bizerte.

Along the Medjerda River, Testour is, perhaps, the best example of these villages.  This small city, 80 km (50 mi) west of Tunis, is filled with sentimental recollections of its Arab-Andalusian past.  With its setting, tiled homes, and streets named as if Testour was a part of the Andalusia of the past, it appears as a truly southern Spanish town.

The great mosque, in the same fashion as had the Spanish Muslim mosques, has two courtyards.  In the inner courtyard an attractive sundial catches the eye of the visitor.  Its newly renovated minaret incorporates both Arab and Spanish design and is covered with attractive tilework.

Another jewel of Arab-Andalusian handiwork is the zawiya (shrine) of Sidi Nasir bin cAlam.  The delicate plaster artwork is by itself worth a visit.  However, the mosque and zawiya are but samples of the visible ties with Muslim Spain.  Every summer in July-August, a musical festival of the Andalusian ma’louf is held in the city.  The architecture and this cultural event will, without doubt, remind a traveller interested in history, of an Andalusian village which has been transplanted to Tunisia.

Other villages built by the Arab-Andalusians, although not preserving their heritage as well as Testour, nevertheless, still show some signs of Arab Spain.  Soliman, in Cape Bon, a picturesque Andalusian farm village developed by the Spanish Muslims, is noted for its 17th century Muslim-Andalusian minaret decorated with Spanish type tiles; Slugiya, is famous for its zawiya which has superimposed Andalusian arches; the old section of Mejez El Bab, overlooking the Medjerda River, still has homes built in Andalusian fashion; and old Ariana, now a suburb of Tunis, is filled with the atmosphere of Muslim Spain.

Other so-called Andalusian villages are:  Gerrish el-Oued, Sacida, Jdeida, and Tebulla – towns established by the Arab Spanish refugees who must have longed for their lost homeland.  When describing these village built by the Andalusian exiles Jacques Berque in his book, French North Africa, writes:


“Let us take a walk through the streets of Ariana.  On the terraces you see a barn of a sort unfamiliar in the Maghrib, the mestureq; it is peculiar to these Andalusian villages.  A donkey driver passes, armed with a kind of double fork on which agricultural instruments are carried to the fields, and which bears a curious and evidently Romance name: ‘shalamush’.  When my guide and I leave Ariana and reach Qalcat el-Andles, we are taken in hand by the representative of the municipality, whose name is Shbila, clearly reminiscent of Seville.  In the village we find other Spanish names:  Batalius for instance, Beris (Perez), etc.  A sort of Romance Middle East is disclosed to us as we pursue our enquiry.  Many customs, in these villages, go back to that period of their history.

…A whole series of practices are known as ntac Jeddu (one’s grandfather’s way); said with reference to an observance or a way of preparing food, it implies the persistence of Andalusian custom in spite of everything.  Thus, banadesh recalls the Spanish empañadas, while baspan corresponds to our marzipan.”

Besides Jacques Berque, many other authors have written, some bemoaning, but mostly praising, the Arab-Andalusians’ impact on Tunisia.  However, no matter what historians or travellers write, it is an uncontested fact that the Muslim-Andalusians had a great role in the development and subsequent formation of the whole of North African culture.  There is no doubt that Tunisia is richer today because of tis impact.  Walking through the beautifully haunting town of Sidi Bou Said during my first journey to Tunisia, I can still hear the words of the young lecturer at the University of Tunis.  “Without the Spanish Muslims, you would not hear the captivating ma’louf or see the rich farmlands and beautiful buildings of this country.  We are proud of our Andalusian heritage.”