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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 13 of 30: Monastir - the Ribat and Bourguiba’s Mausoleum

photo by MAW

Ribat

We spent an afternoon at Monastir from Kairouan as we wanted to visit the Ribat. Not only is it one of the best preserved in Tunisia it was also used as a film set in "The Life of Brian."

Driving up the coast from Mahdia the town is dominated by the pale golden walls of the Ribat, which glow in the sunshine. The original fortifications from 796AD were built as part of the coastal look out system to defend the Muslim coastline against incursions from the Christian north. It is one of the oldest and largest of the military structures built by the Arabs in North Africa. It was reinforced and surrounded by an additional wall in the 9thC & 11thC.

The ticket office is in the foot of one of the towers. Entry is 5TD + 1TD for a photo permit. It leads to a corridor flanked by former guardrooms which now house display panels in French and Arabic. Beyond is a massive courtyard with the smaller courtyard of the women's ribat beyond. A very tall lookout tower (Nador) in one corner has a very narrow and steep spiral staircase winding anticlockwise to the top. Passing people on the staircase is difficult and there is little space at the top. The views from the top make it worth the effort. The 360˚ vista includes the Great Mosque with ruins in front, marina, and cemetery with Bourguiba's mausoleum.

A series of steps and ramps lead to the top of walls with a walkway and more views.

There is a small museum in what was Prayer Hall. The information is mainly in Arabic with a little French. There are carved stone steles, glassware, pottery, coins, old sundial, pages from the Koran, old textiles...

President Bourguiba is held in great respect and love by the Tunisia people and his mausoleum is a bit of a pilgrimage place for them. Monastir was his birthplace. Habib Bourguiba’s Mausoleum is an impressive building built in 1963 which dominates Sidi el-Mezeri cemetery.

A ceremonial walkway leads to the tomb. At the start of is the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier, a symbolic grave for all Tunisians who fought for the freedom of Tunisia. The walkway is impressive with a decorative pavement with lamp posts and trees. It is a pity about the stalls selling footballs, balloons and tatty children's toys and the horse drawn wagons touting for business.

The entrance to the mausoleum is marked by two tall gold topped pillars and the pattern on the walkway changes. It is an imposing building with a golden dome above Habib Bourguiba's tomb and smaller green domes on either side over the tombs of family members.

We used the side door into the building and visited the tombs of family members first. These are simple marble slabs set in the floor with inscriptions on the wall above. There are two exhibition rooms about Habib Bourguiba with information and old photographs. A larger room behind the tomb contains his office furniture and some personal effects, including his spectacles.

The tomb is a massive marble structure in the centre of a large circular room with two stories above with walkways round. His white painted chair is in front of the tomb and there is a massive chandelier hanging above it. It is very impressive.

We didn’t have time to see anything else of Monastir. What we did see we weren’t over impressed by. The drive out of the town on the way back to Kairouan is very scruffy with a lot of rubbish dumped round the edge of the town. Tunisia doesn’t seem to have discovered recycling and rubbish disposal is a major problem. It seems to be solved by dumping the rubbish along the road side and occasionally trying to burn it. Polythene blows everywhere.

It was an interesting afternoon and we enjoyed the Ribat. Given the choice again we would spend time in Mahdia rather than Monastir.

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