The Medina of Tunis

Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, in the north of the country, is quite shunned by tourists. It has kept the imprint of its colonial past, as evidenced by the major avenues Haussmann and the old center. Tunis is a place where everything mixes, East and West, young and old, tradition and modernity. The city also hides one of the most beautiful medinas of the country. Tunis is a city where you really have to spend a few days, it is not only about tourism and it is nice to see Tunisians live their everyday life.

Wonderful location

The city of Tunis is built on a set of hills, culminating at forty meters above sea level and descending gently towards the lake of Tunis but presenting a steep slope in the opposite direction (above sebkha). These hills, which follow the slopes of Ariana and corresponding to the places called Notre-Dame de Tunis.

Historical Framework

Arab Tunis was not a new creation, it succeeds in an older city dating back to Berber origins. Formerly a small Berber town ( Tunicense) is one of those privileged sites that geography favored and that history has elected. Nothing at first predestined her to succeed to the powerful Carthage, her neighbor established in front of the sea, then to Kairouan protected inland and finally to Mahdia also facing the sea and its dangers.

However, we will have to wait until the middle of the 11th century for the Berber village and then the military city of the Arabs (8th-9th century) to become the chief town of a local principality, the Banou Khorassane and finally the capital of the kingdom of Hafsids (from 1229 to 1574).

In the autumn of 1573, Don Juan of Austria drove the Turks out of Tunis and left an army of eight thousand men, who built a new fortress, Nova Arx, between the city walls and the shores of the lake.

In 1574 the Turks came to lay siege to La Goulette and Tunis and forced their garrisons to surrender. After this conquest commanded by Sinan Pasha, Ifriqiya became a province of the Ottoman Empire administered by a governor bearing the title of Pasha.

During the first years of the eighteenth century, an officer of the militia who assured the victorious defense of the country, invaded by Algerians, Hussayn Ibn Ali, is brought to the supreme magistracy with the title of Bey and succeeds in transmitting his office to princes of his lineage, and thus founded the Husseinite dynasty.

The year 1881, which is the year of the establishment of the French protectorate, marks a turning point in the history of Tunis, the city enters an era of rapid changes that transform it deeply in two or three decades. Remained for centuries contained behind its fortifications, the city spreads rapidly, it doubles as an old city populated by the Arab population and a new city populated by newcomers and different in structure with the Arab city.

Tunis is also the subject of major works that endow it with water supplies, natural gas and electricity, public transport, and social amenities. To the traditional economy is added a capitalist economy of the colonial type.

Today the visitor can still admire its unique urban fabric and its historical monuments: mosques, mausoleums, pious foundations, public monuments that testify to the considerable growth of the Arab-Muslim civilization and the constant renewal of its architectural style.

October 26, 1979, The medina of Tunis is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

City map

The medina of Tunis was presented in an oval form, surrounded by a continuous wall and dominated by a Kasba, seat of the government Almohado-Hafside. It is built around the religious center of the Great Mosque Ezzaytouna, opening on a large esplanade serving at the same time market, place of public meetings, and place for the military parades, in the vicinity of which were ordered the Souks of the merchants and artisans. Around these souks rise private dwellings with their narrow streets.

The route of the arteries of the city is far from straight. It often drifts to the right and to the left to give birth to narrow streets and cul-de-sac in large numbers. This gives the impression by traversing the medina and its suburbs that no precise regulation has intervened, since the conquest of Hassan Ibn Noname (698), in the alignment of the streets and the construction of the houses.

In fact, Tunis has developed without any plan. The houses are aligned on the edge of the limits or the so-called builder’s limits and not on those of the public domain, most often inaccurate, hence the creation of winding streets, often ending in a cul-de-sac.

The ramparts and the gates

Tunis has become a real crossroads. Traffic needs have also dictated the orientation of the city’s gates. The first enclosure (that of the central Medina) was counted as seven gates, while the second enclosure (suburbs) contained ten gates (five for the northern suburb and five for the southern suburb). Gradually, the enclosure of the medina fell into ruin, to disappear completely between 1860 and 1890. As for the second, it is still visible, from Bâb-El-Khadra to Bab-Gorjani, through the Kasbah.
These ramparts were doubled by a ditch dug at a distance, thanks to this double fortification the access of the city, in case of attack was made more difficult. Among these doors, we quote:

  • Bab EL -Bahr (sea ​​gate): So-called for its location on the side of the lake and the sea. This gate is called by the European “Port DE France” name that began to spread around 1890. This door goes back, certainly, to an older period of the history of Muslim Tunis. It has been the subject of continual reworkings through the centuries.
  • Bab carthaginna (Carthage gate); So-called because it gave access to the land route that led to Carthage, and disappeared well before 1881. In the Arab era, the Carthage road was mainly used for the transport of building materials that were removed from the ruins of the old Roman city.
  • Bab Souika (market gate): where the sale and purchase of goods came mainly from Bizerte, Beja, and Kef.
  • Bab EL Menara (the door of the lantern): Name reported by tradition, because of a lighthouse that surmounted the ancient palace of Beni Khorassan. According to another hypothesis, it is a large oil lamp which was placed in a niche of one of the pillars of the door and lit at night to light the caravans along the road ramparts.
  • Bab Al-Djazira (gate of the peninsula): It was one of the oldest gates in Tunis, oriented towards Cape Bon and gives passage to travelers who went to Kairouan. She debouched at the street of the dyers.

The axes of the city

Tunis is an original creation of the terrestrial route that passed through the narrow isthmus where the city originated. The functions of a relay, passage, and transit that is ensured from the dawn of history and that the intervention of the emir Hassen Ben Nomane reinforced, seem to have ordered the orientation of certain transverse streets of the medina which connect Bab-Souika to the north and Bab El Djazira to the south between the two suburbs.
Next to this axis, two main arteries parallel the gate of the sea, one to the Ezzaytouna Mosque (today called the street of the Great Mosque) and the other to the Kasbah. The North-South axis is the main urban route that ran Bab Souika, Bab Al Djazira and took the streets of Sidi Mehrez, Souk-El Hout, Souk -El Grana, Sidi Saber and the street of the dyers, without this route having absolute value, given the current entanglement of Arab streets. 
An outward journey took the path that ran along the ramparts on the lakeside and which was to give birth to Bab Souika, Bab Cartagena, Maltese, and Al Jazeera streets in modern times. 
A second outer path along the ramparts to the west, less used because it was necessary to circumvent the obstacle of the hill: The Kasbah. 
These four main roads each lead to an open door in the ramparts and thus share the city in four large neighborhoods.

Since the sovereign Aghlabite, Ibrahim II had decided to leave Kairouan, in 893 to settle in Tunis, the Kasbah has become a decisive place of power. Designed as an independent city, powerfully fortified and separated from the medina by a wall, it was substituted for the city in the political and military fields.
Kasba is the oldest barracks in Tunis. Originally, it was a citadel whose ramparts were leaning against those of the Medina. 
This place outside the city was strengthened (in 1235) by the construction of a mosque, which was originally called Mosque of Almohades (built by the founder of the Hafsid dynasty Abu Zakaria I).

The Souks History which continues

Most of the Tunis Souks were built from the 13th century. But it is certain that the craft life existed well before this date which marks the arrival to power of the Hafsid sultans. Only the noble souks causing no nuisance, noise, or bad smell rub shoulders with the great mosque (Ezzaytouna Mosque) which constitutes the heart of the medina.

  • Souk El-attarine (Souk of the perfumers): In the 15th century, Anselme Adorne noted that “perfume shops sold their long decorated bottles to a large clientele, and they were the last to close each evening”.
  •  Souk El –koumach (souk fabrics): Along the west side of the Grand Mosque, Souk El Koumech was founded by Sultan Abu Amr Othman in the 9th / 10th century. It consists of three aisles separated by two rows of columns. The central alley designed for walking and traffic is wider than the side aisles on which give the shops where they sell clothes, typically Tunisian, and fabrics. Covered with longitudinal cradles, these paths are lit by skylights piercing the central vault. The same system of skylights allowed the natural lighting of shops
  • Souk Ech-chaouchiya Chechias Souk or woolen hats: The chronicler Al-Wazir Al-Sarraj says that in 1691-92 Muhamed Bey ordered the construction of three Souks of Chechias. These Souks occupy the area of ​​those near the government palace, between the Sidi Ben Arous street. Kasbah Street and Souk el Bey. 
    At the beginning of the 17th century, the Moriscan immigrants gave the crafts of the Chechias such impetus that this manufacture became, for a long time, the first industry of the country.
  • Souk EL Berka slave market: Built at the heart of the commercial center of the city, Souk El Berka is perpendicular to the Souk of the Turks, at the height of Souk El Bey, and close to the government palace. It was built (under the Turkish) by Youssef Dey in 1612, for the sale of slaves (activity defended in 1841) and booty. 
    Currently, it is assigned to the auction of gold and silver jewelry.
  • Souk Es-Sabbaghine (market of dyers): Located in the street of the same name which leads to Bab El Djazira, in the South-East district of the central Medina, Souk Es-Sabaghine is known for the concentration of dyers. 
    This technique involves dyeing, especially, cotton and skeins. In navy blue. Souk Es-Sabbaghine, and his artisans, although their technique is not so widespread, still exist in the same place.
  • Souk En-nessa (women’s market): This Souk is located south of the Ezzaytouna Mosque, perpendicular to the Wool Souk. It was so named because, preferably, women came to buy and sell products of the family industry: lace and women’s clothing, veils, etc. This specialization has disappeared and many old clothes have fallen into disuse.
  • Souk Blaghjïa (slippers): Souk dates back to the time of Sultan Hafside Abu Zakariya (in the 13th century). Because of the existence of the Ech-chammaïya Madersa in this Souk, the latter was known as the Souk Ech-chammïyn (manufacturers of candles). 
    With the Mouradites, the Souk became a market of the manufacturers and merchants of Balgha (slippers in yellow leather used as a market for men) and Chebrella (slippers for women, made of goats leather with a yellow outline). 
    In 1890, there were 800 Balgha manufacturers in 150 shops, assisted by 175 master craftsmen.
  •  Souk El-Leffa (Woolen Fabric Market): Like Souk En-Nessa and Souk El Attarine, Souk El-Leffa is located in the vicinity of the great Ezzaytuna Mosque. 
    It is also called the “Djerbian market”(ie traders from the island of Djerba) who sell woolen garments and blankets woven in Djerba or from other sources especially Djerid, Tozeur and Gafsa. There are also craftsmen making the Safsari, a veil in which the wife.

The strength of religion

If an Arab city revolves around its medina, the medina revolves around its mosque. Unquestionably, the Zitouna Mosque pumps the blood through Tunis’ veins and has been doing so since 732 A. D

  • The Great Mosque EZ-Zitouna
    The Grand Mosque of Tunis is universally known as Jamâa EZ-Zitouna “Mosque of the Olive Tree”. It is the largest and most venerable sanctuary of Tunis. 
    Located in the heart of the city, its foundation merges with that of the city (698j.c), by the governor Omeyyade Hassan Ibn Noomane, inside even of a Byzantine fort.
  • The mosque of Youssef Dey
    A historical inscription that overcomes the axial entrance of the prayer room indicates the date of the beginning of the construction of the building: 13 Nov 1614 and the date of the end of the same work 14 Oct 1615. 
    Located on the neighborhood close to the Kasbah in the street of Sidi Ben Ziyad, it is bordered on the Northside by shops belonging to the Souk Bashamkiyya (Sellers of leather mules). 
    From an architectural point of view, this mosque is an influence Eastern Ottoman.
  • The Mosque of Hamouda Pasha
    The Hamouda Pasha Mosque is located not far from his home and the Bey palace. Its construction dates back to early January 1664. 
    It is one of the most beautiful mosques in Tunis, was part of an architectural ensemble that was organized around it.
  • Mesjed EL-Koubba
    The interest of this monument is due mainly to its history. For four years, the great Abderrahmane Ibn Khaldun taught there. 
    This historian-philosopher born in 1332 (whose family from Seville came to Tunis during the first Andalusian emigration) was the most famous of the Muslim world. Five centuries in advance, he laid the foundations of history and modern sociology.

Mansion and palaces

Some houses of the Medina, built in the past centuries, are now open to the public.
In Arabic, they are called Dyar. Formerly, jealously guarded by their rich owner, these beautiful homes now house associations and public institutions.

  • Dar Hussein The bulk of the building was built by Ismail Kahia, minister and son-in-law of Ali Bey (1758-1781). 
    At the beginning of the 19th century, Youssef Sahib Et-Tabaa, a favorite minister of Hammouda Pasha, undertook the enlargement and embellishment of this palace for his wedding with Princess Fatma (sister of Hammouda Pasha).
  • Dar Lasram Hamouda Lasram, a wealthy landowner and military official, had a palace built in the 19th century, which housed his descendants until 1964. In 1968, after being put up for sale by the heirs of the Lasram family, it was acquired. By the municipality.
    This palace consists of three levels, a first floor occupied by the common, a raised ground floor including the main house, and a floor reserved for the house of the guests.
  • Dar Romdhane Bey, It is a rich house, located in the middle of the junction formed by the streets Ben Nejma and Sidi Mefrej, at the end of the street Sidi Ben Arous. 
    Its door, which opens in the street Ben Nejma, inscribed in a double frame of stone Kaddhal and Harsh characterized by a horseshoe arch that surmounts a large lintel paired. We enter the courtyard by a Driba, forming, thus, a sound and visual isolation between interior and exterior spaces.

The Medersas: Knowledge

  • The Al-Shammaiya Madrasah
    Founded at the beginning of the 13th century by the founder of the Hafside Dynasty Abu Zakariya I, was the first in North Africa.
    It was intended to spread the Sunni orthodoxy: Ibn Tûmurt’s Unitarian ideas, and to form competent and devoted officials.
  • Madrasa El Mouradia
    The building stands on the edge of the Cloth Souk, facing the great Zitouna Mosque. It is a foundation of Mourad II (son of Hammouda Pasha), also known as Medrassat Al-Tawba. The date of completion of its construction being 1673. 
    The El Mouradia Madrasa (or Madersa de Murad II) is the first institution built by a representative of the Ottoman power, assigned to the Malikite legal school.
  • Slimania Medersa
    The construction of this Medersa was ordered by Ali Pasha in 1754.
    It was dedicated to the memory of his son Soliman, who was poisoned by his own brother. In order to attract the sympathy of the local population, he assigned the work to the Maliki students. 
  • El-Bachiya Madrasah
    According to the inscription which surmounts the door of the main entrance, the building is built in 1752 by the founder of Bachiya, Ali Pasha.
    It reproduces the classic plan of a Madrasah. Individual rooms for student accommodation open on all three sides of the central courtyard, while the fourth side is occupied by a Masjed: prayer room, but also a classroom and library to teach according to the Hanafite rite.

Where to Stay in Tunis for Sightseeing

We recommend these great hotels in Tunis with easy access to the Medina’s top sites :

  • Palais Bayram: luxury boutique hotel, steps from the medina, exquisitely restored 18th-century building, spa with traditional hammam.
  • Hotel Belvedere Fourati: 4-star hotel, near Belvedere Park, modern decor, fitness center, free breakfast.
  • Ibis Tunis: affordable rates, sleek decor, friendly staff, free parking.
  • Hotel Metropole Residence: budget hotel, near the medina, friendly staff, clean rooms.
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