Tunis Medina is a fascinating place. Although it is supposed to be the easiest to navigate medinas in all of North Africa, I couldn’t figure out where one souk started and where the other ended. Technically an old city ‘within a city’, Tunis Medina hails from the 9th century. Originally it was surrounded by walls and 12 babs (gates), although nothing of the fortification except for 5 gates can be seen anymore. It was constructed in an oval form with a Kasbah, the seat of government, at its center. The old city was built around the religious center of the Grand Mosque Ezzaitouna. From the center, an array of lanes bifurcated into sections that held space for public meetings, official buildings, caravanserais, residential areas, souks, and artisans’ workshops. Most private residences were located around the souks and they opened onto narrow winding lanes.
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The maze of the Medina
Today, a lot of this medieval Medina remains the same and almost 2,000 people call it home. It is an incredible sprawling maze of ancient streets and alleyways. Numerous covered souks are located inside the Medina and they sell everything from shoes, clothes, chechia hats, carpets, to sheesha pipes. The labyrinthine back lanes are home to many artisans’ workshops and the residential sections are marked with grand brightly painted doorways. Tunis Medina is studded with historic palaces, mosques, hamams, and madrassas, many of which are beautifully decorated with tiles, carved columns, and wooden latticework. Tea shops punctuate the entire Medina with a steady regularity and here and there are some excellent garden restaurants serving the local food.
A delightful old rich city
Architecturally and from the urban planning point of view, Tunis Medina is suitable for the local climate. The narrow streets stay cool in the scorching summers and in winter, they retain warmth. One of the most interesting parts of Tunis Medina is the existence of above-the-street-level vaults in many lanes. It is believed that since there was a shortage of space within the fortified walls of the Medina, the residents started constructing vertically. They built upwards, constructing vaults and rooms above the streets and these vaults were often high enough to fit a loaded caravan of camels. Tunis Medina indeed was a delightful rich old city.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
However, its glory waned in the 19th century, when the French developed the Ville Nouvelle (now Centre Ville) thus shifting the city’s seat of power. Most of the best and the richest families began to leave their ancestral homes, preferring suburban seaside mansions over the old city homes, and the importance of Medina declined. Over the years, modern housing slowly encroached over the Medina, and in the 1930s and 1940s, large parts of the northern section were demolished to clear the slums and improve vehicle access. Thankfully, several conservation groups rallied forth to protect the medina, and due to their joint effort, Tunisia retains its crown jewel. The Tunis Medina became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 and it has over 700 monuments dating back to the Almohad and the Hafsid periods of Tunisian history.
The notable buildings within the Tunis Medina
- The Great Mosque (including the Muslim University and library)
- Aghlabid Ez-Zitouna Mosque (“Mosque of the Olive”) – It was built in 723 by Obeid Allah Ibn-al-Habhab to celebrate the new capital.
- The Dar-al-Bey, or Bey’s Palace – It represents combinations of architecture and decorative styles from many different periods. Bey’s Palace is believed to be constructed upon the remains of a Roman theatre as well as the tenth-century palace of Ziadib-Allah II al Aghlab.
Tunis Medina in a nutshell
- The Souks: Souk el Attarine (perfumers souk), Souk des étoffes (fabrics souk), Souk des Tapis (carpet souk), Souq des Chechias (traditional wool caps souk), Souk des Orfèvres (jewellery market), Souk El Berka (slave market), Souk Es Sabbaghine (dyers market), Souk El-Leffa (Linen fabrics market), etc.
- The Mosques: The Great Mosque of Tunis is universally known as the Jamaa Ezzaitouna “Mosque of the Olive Tree”. It is the largest and most venerable sanctuary of Tunis. Founded in 732 on the site of a temple to Athena, Zaitouna Mosque was enlarged and restored many times over the years. It is believed that the outer wall used stone taken from the ruins of Carthage. This mosque is open to visitors every day except Friday. The tour costs a few dinars. Visitors are allowed to climb the stairs to an arcade facing the central courtyard. The prayer hall is to the left, through a horseshoe arch crowned with a white dome. The square minaret is a 19th-century addition. Entry to the prayer room is prohibited for non-Muslims.
- The houses and palaces: Some houses in the medina were built during the past centuries. These are now open to the public. Once jealously guarded by their rich owner, these beautiful mansions now house associations and public institutions. Some of these houses are Dar Hussein, Dar Lasram Dar Romdhane Bey, etc.
- The Tourba and Zawiya: The Turks introduced the tradition of building luxurious memorials, called türbes or Tourba. Zaouïa is a building usually placed under the invocation of a holy person who in most cases is buried there.
- Rue Jemaa ez Zitouna: It is Medina’s main street. It is lined with craft shops and souvenir stalls. Fragrant incense and exotic perfumes compete with the mouth-watering smell of roasting mutton and the aroma of freshly ground coffee. The tap-tap-tap of silversmiths’ hammers and the scuff of sandaled feet on paving stones almost drown out the muezzin’s call to prayer. The street disappears into a dark tunnel to emerge at the steps below the door to the Zitouna Mosque.
- Mosque and Tomb of Hammouda Pasha: Built in 1655, this monument has a pretty pink marble facade and a Turkish-style octagonal minaret with a gallery.
- Bardo National Museum: Located in a 19th-century Beyical Palace in the western suburbs, Bardo National Museum is home to many of Tunisia’s greatest archaeological treasures. It houses relics from every period of Tunisia, from Carthaginian times to the Islamic period. The museum’s main attraction is its superb collection of Roman mosaics on the first and second floors. These mosaics range in age from the 2nd century BC to the 7th century AD and come from all over Tunisia, with the best examples hailing from Sousse, Dougga, and El Jem. The building itself is very interesting and is a curious blend of traditional Moorish architecture, with slender columns and arcaded courtyards, and European classicism, with gilded colonnades and marble staircases.
The beautiful souks of Tunis Medina
- Souk el Attarine (Perfumers’ Souk): Situated along the north wall of the mosque, this market is dedicated to perfumers. Today, only a few genuine scent-makers remain, their expensive creations being displaced by cheaper modern toiletries. Here you can buy a vial of a ready-made scent or have one blended to suit your taste.
- Souk des étoffes (Drapers): This is one of the quietest souks. Shops displaying cascades of cloth, kaftans, and blankets line the narrow alleys and it is frequented mostly by the locals.
- Souk des Tapis (Carpet Maker): This souk has the highest concentration of rug and carpet sellers.
- Souk des Orfèvres: This section is a rabbit warren of tiny streets and alleys crowded with goldsmiths’ and silversmiths’ shops. Shop windows display glittering ornaments made with gold, coral, pearls, and precious stones.
- Souk de la Laine (Wool Market): This houses some traditional tailors and weavers who work on handlooms.
- Souk des Femmes (Women’s Souk): It is mostly frequented by women who come to buy the white or cream fabric used in making veils.
- Souk el Berka: This was the original site of the Tunis slave market, which closed down in 1841.
- Souk des Chéchias: This is the most photogenic souk of Tunis Medina. Dedicated to the local hats, each outlet of this souk is a shop-cum-workshop of chechias, the tasselled hats that were once worn throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Each shop has wonderful window displays and you can even see the craftsmen at work.
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