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Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

posted on: Jan 7, 2021

Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer

Tunisia is a country well-known for its beautiful scenery, culture, and being a pioneer for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to those facts, Tunisia is also home to quite a few historical sites, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The country boasts seven UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites, and then one UNESCO World Heritage natural site.

Amphitheatre of El Jem

Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the Amphitheatre of El Jem is the largest colosseum in North Africa and one of the largest in the world. It is located in the small town of El Jem. The amphitheater itself can hold up to 35,000 people. It is on the coast of Tunisia, right next to the Mediterranean. The Romans built it in the 3rd century (around 238 AD). The amphitheater is an architectural feat: stone blocks make up the entire structure, which doesn’t have a foundation (so it is freestanding), isn’t built into the side of a hill or a mountain (so it is on flat ground), and a complicated system of arches support the entire structure. These characteristics make the amphitheater similar to the Coliseum in Rome, but not the exact same.

Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

In addition to the impressive architecture, the amphitheater is well-conserved without much changes to the structure. Although there has been restoration work on the monument, none of the work alters the original amphitheater. According to UNESCO, the only threat to the amphitheater is the buildings going up around the site, altering the integrity of the site as a whole.

Archaeological Site of Carthage

Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Located in the Gulf of Tunis, the archaeological site of Carthage became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Phoenicians founded Carthage in the 9th century BC. By the 6th century, it was a major trading empire in the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians defeated the Romans and occupied some of their territories. Then, in 146 BC, the Romans finally won and defeated Carthage. At that time, the Romans destroyed and built a “second” Carthage on top of the ruins of the first.

Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Because of Carthage’s role in the trading empire, it was home to many cultures (sometimes not present in the city at the same time). For that reason, the architecture and ruins of the city have different styles, such as Roman-style architecture and Arab-style architecture. The biggest parts of the ruins of Carthage are the acropolis of Byrsa, the necropolises, the Punic ports and Tophet, the amphitheater, basilicas, theater, the Antonin baths, the residential area, the circus, the cisterns, and the archaeological reserve.

The site itself is mostly maintained and has most of the integrity of the original site. Although there are urban threats to the site in the form of construction, Tunisia effectively protects the archaeological site as a part of the Carthage-Sidi Bou-Said Park.

Dougga/Thugga

Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The Dougga/Thugga site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The reason why the site has two names is because it was two cities: the first name was Thugga, when the city was the capital of a Libyco-Punic state. However, then the Romans changed the name to Dougga when they conquered Numidia. It is located in north-west Tunisia. Under Roman rule, the city was booming, but then the city declined in power and influence during the Byzantine and Islamic periods. Thugga/Dougga is big, covering 75 hectares. The ruins of the city show the interplay of different cultures through architecture, with Numidian, Punic, Hellenistic, and Roman architecture scattered throughout the city.

Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Today, UNESCO considers the city very well-maintained, with the integrity of all of the structures preserved. Even with the restoration projects, the original architecture of the buildings remains, with one exception: the Libyco-Punic mausoleum was completely reconstructed from 1908-1910, although there is a debate if the building has its own historicity.

Kairouan

UNESCO declared Kairouan a World Heritage Site in 1988. Kairouan is in the center of Tunisia, an equal distance from the mountain and the sea. The Aghlabid Dynasty founded the site in 670 AD, and it flourished under the same dynasty in the 9th century as the capital. In the 12th century, though, they moved the capital to Tunis. At that point, Kairouan remained the Maghreb’s primary holy city. Within it, there is the Great Mosque and the Mosque of Three Gates. The Great Mosque is notable for its marble porphyry columns, while the Mosque of the Three Gates is famous for being the oldest sculpted façade of Muslim art. In addition, the city has a magnificent open-air reservoir that gave water to the city. There is also the medina inside the city, totaling 54 hectares, plus the residential area, which adds another 20 hectares.

Centuries later, the integrity of the buildings is still intact. The only exception to that is that some of the houses in the residential area have been rebuilt for modern styles with modern materials. However, the monuments remain completely as-is.

Medina of Sousse

Ribat in Medina of Sousse

Another site from the Aghlabid period, the Medina of Sousse was a significant and important commercial and military port. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and is located on the Tunisian coast. The Medina of Sousse is from 800-909 AD. Some of its distinguished parts are the kasbah, the medina, Bu Ftata Mosque, and the ribat. All of these buildings have such outstanding architecture in the style of Arabo-Muslims combined with coastal structures.

As the medina is still inhabited, the balance of keeping the history and original architecture is tough. There are the current needs of the inhabitants, but the history of the city makes it hard to change any structure. Other than that, the medina is maintained and the monuments are conserved.

Medina of Tunis

In 1979, the Medina of Tunis has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tunis is currently the capital of Tunisia and is on the coast of Tunisia. Founded in 698 AD, the Medina of Tunis is one of the first Arab-Muslim cities in the Maghreb. When the Almohads and Hafsids had power from the 12th to 16th century, Tunis was a powerful and wealthy city in the Islamic world. In total, there are about 700 monuments in the medina. These monuments include palaces, mosques, madrasas, fountains, and mausoleums.

When it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they estimated that around 50% of the historic buildings were in disrepair. Now, there is a buffer zone to better protect the buildings. Most of the historic monuments are conserved, although some dwellings have been reconstructed and rehabilitated to fit the current needs.

Punic Town and Necropolis of Kerkouane

Officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, the site is also located on the Tunisian coast. The Phoenicians built the city, but they abandoned it in the First Punic War in 250 BC. It was not rebuilt by the Romans after the war, making it the only Phoenicia-Punic city to survive. Historians use it as a primary example of town planning for the Phoenicians. When archaeologists discovered the site in 1952, they were able to excavate and date parts of the city back to the 4th century BC. They also found testimonies dating it back to the 6th century BC. The buildings in the city are mostly the same as they were when they were destroyed by Regulus in 255 BC, and the necropolis contains well-preserved tombs.

As people never re-inhabited the site, the authenticity and integrity of the city remain. The city is in ruins, but the modern supporting wall preserves them by preventing the sea from eroding the site, its only big threat.

Ichkeul National Park

The only non-historic site on this list, the Ichkeul National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. Ichkeul National Park is home to a lake and wetlands, providing a home for hundreds of thousands of birds, with species of ducks, storks, flamingoes, and more. Each of these species is migratory, so the birds flock to the lake and wetlands in the winter. At one point, the lake was a part of a chain across North Africa. Although now all of the other lakes in the chain have dried up. The reason why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is because of the diversity of the birds and animals, as well as plants, some of which need protection from extinction or near extinction.

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