The Wonderful World Of Tunisian Ceramics
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
As we walked through Nabeul, Tunisia’s ceramic capital, I could hardly believe my eyes. Everywhere I looked, colourful ceramics and unglazed pottery filled the shelves inside the countless shops, and spilled onto the sidewalks. Bowls, ewers, jugs, plates, tiles and innumerable other articles of every description, coming in a myriad of colours, fascinated us with their appeal. It was a prelude to my daughter and me struggling back to North America with suitcases full of superb ceramics. Now, these articles beautify our home – always a reminder of the traditional Tunisian master craftsman busy at work turning out these ceramic gems.
It is believed that the Sumerians invented the manufacture of simple pottery in the mist of history. Builders of later civilizations further developed the trade. From among these were the Canaanites, better known as Phoenicians, but who later took on the names of the Punic people and Carthaginians. After they established the city of Carthage, located in modern day Tunisia, the art of the manufacture of ceramics and mosaics became a flourishing industry in North Africa.
Subsequently, the Punic artisans in the Carthaginian lands evolved the manufacture of natural pottery and ceramics into new forms like glossy black and red plates and amphorae with small pointed tops, excellent for transporting olive oil and wine by sea. Also, the Carthaginians invented the earliest true mosaics in the world. Some of these can still be seen in the excavated section of Kerkouane – the only Carthaginian city that was not built over by later civilizations. The Romans, who, centuries later became famous for their mosaics, no doubt, inherited this craft from these Punic artisans.
After their occupation of North Africa, the Romans further enhanced the art of the manufacture of ceramics. Exquisite products were produced by the adornment of glazed pottery and tiles with flowers and mythological relief. With the coming of Islam, the manufacture of earthenware evolved further. Thereafter, Tunisian ceramics became known for their richness of form and fantastic decoration.
The manufacture of pottery in Tunisia was further embellished in the 17th century after the arrival of skilled earthenware craftsmen exiled from the Iberian Peninsula. Their distinctive ceramic heritage include among others, the swirling floral designs in blue, green and yellow, separated by thin black bands. Today, the majority of Tunisian ceramic artisans who still follow the Andalusian traditions have not forgot their legacy.
In modern Tunisia the manufacture of earthenware products are found throughout the country, but there are two main centres where the ancient craft of ceramics is still carried on, on a large scale – in Nabeul on the Cap Bon Peninsula; and Guellala on the island of Djerba. Most of the attractive ceramics and fine pottery, which visitors see exhibited in the shops and homes throughout Tunisia, are produced in these two towns. The traditional regional designs of earthenware manufacture in both centres is handed down, century after century, from father to son and from mother to daughter.
Through the centuries Guellala eventually became the chief pottery and ceramic centre in southern Tunisia. From here, some potters in the Middle Ages moved to Nabeul. In the ensuing years, this town became the chief ceramic centre in the north of Tunisia.
Guellala, today, is filled with dozens of small potters’ workshops and factories. In and around town, there are more than 300 kilns and at least 500 artisans producing all types of pottery. With talented hands, they will create for customers made-to-order earthenware articles of every description.
For centuries the town’s potters have been famous for the manufacture of large earthenware terracotta amphoras. Every family once owned several of these jars to store their year’s supply of cereals, olives, olive oil and water. Another speciality of these artisans are the magic camel jugs which do not spill water, even when turned over, and the pottery articles enamelled in dark green or yellow – distinctive colours of the potters in Guellala.
The pottery and ceramic trade is even more important to the inhabitants of Nabeul – considered to be the national centre of ceramics. Here, where their manufacture is the largest industry after tourism, pottery and ceramics are king. The unofficial town symbol is a giant evergreen thuya – a member of the conifer family growing through a large jug.
Dazzling panels of coloured tiles, a Nabeul specialty, which are seen throughout the country, always catch the eyes of tourists. However, this is only one of the many other ceramic products the town has to offer. Glazed plates inscribed in Arabic, bowls and plates in many shapes and forms, couscous sieves, kneading troughs, jars, jugs, Moorish type wall tiles, imitations of Chinese and European plates, mostly decorated with hand-painted traditional floral and other motifs, fill the shops. Here, the imagination runs wild – there is no limit to what one can buy from the vast assortment of ceramic products.
Craftsmen workshops or small factories, many featuring wood-burning ovens, are found throughout town. They are open to travellers and offer an authentic view of the art of pottery and ceramics. Visitors can watch potters, oven attendants and ceramic painters at work. They can admire the artisans’ range of talents as they fashion the sophisticated traditional, yet, modern Tunisian ceramics.
It is a medieval world that has ensnared the modern tourist in its trap. In the majority of cases, ceramic souvenirs are what visitors to Tunisia take back home. However, their suitcases usually do not have enough room to accommodate what they want to purchase. Tunisian ceramics must be the most reasonably priced earthenware products in the world.