Multiple and teeming, the Medina of Tunis, is multi-faceted, like its long history and enriching influences various. It has been listed as World Heritage by Unesco.
Throughout the end of the Middle Ages, Tunis was one of the major cities of the Muslim world. Today it has one of the largest and most beautiful medinas in the world, rich in monuments that number in the hundreds, and in its urban fabric characteristic of Arab cities.
Tunis in the Middle Ages
Its oldest monument is the Great Mosque, known as ez-Zitouna (Olive Mosque). Built in its current form in the 9th century, shortly after that of Kairouan – which was then the capital -, it is very similar to it.
In its prayer room stand 184 ancient columns which support the roof; Most of them taken from the Carthage site, they found a second life here.
Outside, the harmonious decor based on red and white niches and arches gives the mosque its own character.
The ez-Zitouna mosque
It was with the Almohad dynasty that Tunis definitively assumed, in the 12th century, its role of capital. Capital, first, of a province of their empire; then center of the new empire formed in the following century by their heirs, the Hafsids.
These Berber rulers enlarged the Almohad citadel, the Kasbah, which has now disappeared. Their reign lasted more than three centuries.
Tunis then welcomed many Andalusians fleeing Spain; one of them, the ceramist Sidi Kacem, was also a holy man whose pyramidal-roofed mausoleum is representative of the Hafsid style and its Andalusian influences.
It is to the Hafsids that the medina owes most of its current configuration.
Under the Ottomans
But many features of the medina betray the influence of the Ottomans, who in turn integrated Tunisia into their empire from 1574..
Around the Great Mosque, which they surround on all sides, the central souks are covered markets dedicated to the most noble activities: tailors, perfumers, booksellers, jewelers, divided by corporation.
The souk at-Truk met the clothing needs of the Turks; the Souk des Chéchias – a few shops of which are still in operation – took care of the finishing touches and the sale of these red felt caps, a specialty of Tunis, which were sought after throughout the Ottoman Empire.
The souk el-Attarine (perfume souk)
The Turks built specific mosques to practice their Hanafi rite. Unlike traditional mosques in Tunisia, these buildings include the tomb of their founder; they are also recognizable by their octagonal section minaret, crowned by a balcony and a lantern.
The first of these mosques is that of Youssef Dey, next to the Kasbah, built in 1616. Slender and better decorated, the Hammouda Pasha mosque reflects the prosperity acquired by the city forty years later.
However, only one Ottoman mosque in Tunis is modeled on the Hagia Sophia or Sulaymaniya in Istanbul: the Sidi Mehrez mosque, topped by a large dome surrounded by smaller domes.
In Ottoman Tunisia, power was first held by the Deys, leaders of the Janissary militia; then, quickly, by the Beys, at the head of the army charged with crisscrossing the country to collect taxes. The latter took the title of Pasha (governor), then largely freed themselves from the tutelage of Istanbul.
From this period date superb madrasahs, religious colleges intended to train lawyers and civil servants. One of the most beautiful is the Madrasah es-Slimaniya, with its patio with elegant arcades, its ceramic bouquet panels in the Ottoman style, its domed ceiling decorated with delicate arabesques.
Many zaouïas were also built, religious foundations, such as that of Sidi Ibrahim er-Riahi with the exuberant decoration of sculpted plaster. From the 18th century, the members of the Beylical family were buried in a vast funeral complex surmounted by domes, Tourbet el-Bey.
Most of the palaces hidden behind beautifully decorated doors also date from the Ottoman era. Their rooms are organized around patios surrounded by arches and lined with ceramic. Carved stone, woodwork painted with bouquets or arabesques, basins, ceramic panels and marble marquetry… their decor harmoniously combines the traditional style with multiple Turkish, Spanish and Italian influences.
The Dar Husseïn palace
Abandoned in the twentieth century in favor of new districts, the medina of Tunis has retained its most beautiful monuments and its own atmosphere. It is a world apart where the luxurious and the popular, the ancient and the modern, the religious and the profane come together; a place where the strength of a thousand-year-old tradition combines with openness to the world.
Twin sister of that of Kairouan and built at the same time, the Great Mosque ez-Zitouna is a vast sanctuary occupying 5000 m2 in the heart of the medina. Its exterior appearance owes much to the decorative elements added in the 10th century: arches with red and white keystones, juxtaposed niches, stone marquetry in alternating colors.
The Kasbah Mosque (13th century) was part of the Hafid citadel, which has now disappeared. Its minaret with a square base and diamond decoration is inspired by the Koutoubia of Marrakech, capital of the Almohad dynasty; it is now the oldest minaret in Tunis. It was used as a model during the reconstruction of that of the Great Mosque, in 1894.
Dar Othman is one of the oldest palaces of the Ottoman era. Its sumptuous exterior facade in white and black marble, its ceramic and sculpted plaster panels, its horseshoe arches supported by Andalusian capitals are remarkable in Tunisian art from the beginning of the 17th century..
The Hammouda-Pasha Mosque (named after one of the largest Beys in Tunis) reflects the prosperity of the city in the 17th century. Its octagonal minaret, typical of Turkish mosques, is thin and slender; an elegant marble marquetry adorns the sovereign’s mausoleum, which adjoins the prayer hall.
The Mohamed-Bey mosque (late 17th century) is also known as the Sidi Mehrez mosque. It is the only one in Tunis to respect the plan of the great mosques of Istanbul: a square room surrounded by the courtyard on three sides, and surmounted by a large central dome complemented by smaller domes. The unfinished building, however, lacks minarets.
Beys’ second dynasty, the Husseinites, built a private funeral complex in the heart of the medina called Tourbet el-Bey. It is a collection of richly decorated courtyards and rooms, surmounted by domes, sometimes round, sometimes oval. The male tombs are surmounted there by a Turkish headdress or a turban carved in marble.
Texte : © G. Mansour, “Tunisie, patrimoine universel”, Dad Editions, 2016
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