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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 14 of 30: A Day Round Sfax Medina

photo by MAW

Sfax

Sfax is the second largest town in Tunis and the traffic is scary. Roads were busy and traffic rules don’t seem to exist. There is a free for all at junctions and roundabouts and no one pays much heed to the few traffic lights. Motor bikes thread their way through the traffic. Everyone is jostling to be first.

We spent two nights at Hotel Borj Dhiafra, a very stylish hotel in the outskirts of Sfax surrounded by high rise housing. The room was excellent with a large comfortable bed. Meals were generous, well cooked and reasonably priced. There was plenty of choice on the menu. Service was attentive and quick. We can fully recommend this hotel.

We spent a day exploring the Medina, one of the best preserved and most authentic Medinas in Tunisia. Apart from a few tourist stalls around Bab Diwan, it is still a working medina where people live and work. It gets very few tourists. This means it is hassle free compared with Tunis and Kairouan.

Large areas of the New Town were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. The area outside Bab Diwan and the Medina walls is a pleasant open grassy area with palm trees.

There are three large modern gateways through the walls at Bab Diwan which still have heavy wooden doors which can be closed at night. The walls are made of stone and stand to their original height with crenellated tops. There are stalls selling a wide variety of bread in the passageway through the walls, a good place to buy lunch.

Immediately inside the gateway is Alouzin Mosque with a tall narrow minaret and decorated doorways and windows.

We walked down rue Borj el Nar, a narrow paved street running parallel to the walls. It has a central drain way and is lined with houses with plain whitewashed walls and doorways leading to upper floors. We missed the alleyway leading to Borj Ennar and were stopped by a very determined but very nice Tunisian woman with no French who was insistent we go no further. (We think we may have been heading into the red light district.) She took us back to show us where to go and made sure we went in the right direction. There was a small sign on the wall and the instructions in Lonely Planet are accurate.

There is not a lot to see in Borj Ennar, a small 17thC tower built at the corner of the walls to protect the south east corner of the Medina. Beacons used to be lit on here for signaling. It is now the headquarters of the Association de Sauvegarde de la Medina. We went into the office and asked for a map of the Medina. After much rustling in a drawer, one was produced which marked a tourist route. (This is the route described in Lonely Planet. We found the Rough Guide map the easiest to follow.) There are small signs on the walls pointing out the route.

We headed to Dar Jeliouli through the residential area of narrow streets. Many houses have small workshops on the ground floor with shoe makers, tailors etc. and also barbers shops. There was some work being done by the men but also a lot of sitting and talking. Many of the houses are looking run down. Some are derelict and a few are being restored.

Dar Jeliouli houses the Museum Of Popular Arts And Traditions. It has a splendid carved doorway in the centre of a lime washed wall with no windows. There is a small panel on the side of the door with opening times. Through the doorway is a small dark vestibule with the ticket office (4TD + 1TD for photo permit). There is no brochure and they don’t sell post cards. There are labels in Arabic, French and English throughout the museum and a few paintings illustrating daily life.

Beyond is a dark hallway with seats which leads into the beautiful courtyard with decorative tiles and a wooden balcony round it. There is a well in one corner and very steep steps in the opposite corner lead to the underground storage area and cistern. Drainpipes from the roof have a small bowl for collecting water before it drains into the underground well.

The rooms off the courtyard are designed to give the impression the house is still lived in. A large T shaped room on the left hand wall is furnished as a living area described as the "Tithkitha on Qbou salon" with cushioned benches round the centre of the room and a small table. Above are pictures and a painted wooden shelf which was used to display precious belongings. At one end is an alcove with a traditional bed with a small storage chest and a carved wooden screen in front of it. On the wall next to the screen is a peg which looks as if it could have been used to hang up a turban or other head dress. At the opposite end are display cabinets with women's head dresses, shoes and perfume vials. It is a very high room with windows at first floor level and a painted ceiling.

In the corner of the courtyard steps lead down to the kitchen area which has a display of measures, bowls and dishes used for cooking, a still for extracting oils from flowers and a small traditional fire with a cooking pan above. Water color paintings show how these were used.

Next to this, opposite the hallway is a narrow room set up to demonstrate wood working techniques from the area. There is a foot operated spindle for carving wood and examples of decorative bed screens and chests to store valuables.

The room on the right side of the courtyard is a long narrow room with a painted ceiling with a traditional bed and screen at one end and a display case at the other with guns, powder container tamper etc. In the small recessed T area there is a small table with paintings and decorative shelf above.

The room next to the hallway contains different examples of pottery storage jars from huge ones to store water to smaller ones for olive oil. These include a beautifully decorated yellow and green glazed jar with a fish and bird design which was used to store olives.

Stairs lead to a first floor corridor (with very dodgy toilet on the wall next to the roadway) and another set of stairs leads to the second floor balcony which runs round all four sides of the courtyard. The rooms up here are much simpler and have display cases with examples of traditional dress, jewelry which includes a splendid head dress hung with coins and shawls worn by the women. One room has a display of Arab calligraphy and old paintings. There is a delightful pictures of the tomb of Sidi M’Hamed Ben Aissa guarded by “dangerous animals” which included lions, snakes and scorpions. It was a very well worth while visit and for most of the time we were the only visitors.

We continued to follow the tourist route past more workshops and souks (mainly selling clothes and shoes) to the large market outside the Medina walls. There is a very large fish hall at the back with men shouting their wares. There was the usual selection of fish including a lot of octopus and squid. The butchers area had insides hanging up as well as skinned sheep’s and cow’s heads. We were glad to be back in the fruit and vegetable area with piles of peas, artichokes, onions, carrots, cabbages, herbs, oranges, lemons, strawberries...

Back inside the walls we walked along rue des Forgerons with a knife sharpener and other small workshops making cooking pots. We walked past the wall of the Great Mosque with a few shuttered windows and no view of the minaret to Sidi Karray Mosque which has splendid doorways and windows. We were now in the area selling tinned goods and woven baskets as well as more clothes and shoes.

The area towards the Kasbah Mosque is residential. Plas de la Kasbah was full of stalls selling second hand clothes. The Kasbah is in the south west corner of the Medina. It was built in 1849 and became the governor’s residence and HQ of the town militia. Now it is restored as the Museum Of Traditional Architecture.

Entry is off Plas de la Kasbah, through a splendid stone archway with a wooden door. There is a large open courtyard with a small ticket desk. (4TD + 1TD photo permit.) Steps lead up to the ramparts which give views along the Medina walls. Rooms in the walls have exhibitions about the Kasbah and traditional houses including house plans. In part of the courtyard there is a display showing the different types of columns from different periods in history. Another display shows how the walls were built with strengthening tree trunks in them. There is a colonnade which shows the different types of ceiling construction from arches to palm and citron wood which was popular as it didn’t rot.

The Medina sees few foreign tourists. There were a few bonjours from the shop keepers but no hassle or requests to look. There were no carpets or panoramic views. In fact there were few carpets and those were synthetic. It is a refreshing change after Tunis and Kairouan.

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