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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 5 of 30: Tunis Medina - Attractions

photo by MAW

Dar Othman

We spent a morning with a guide hitting the high spots of the Medina. Top of the list was the Great Mosque. This is also known as the Zitouna Mosque as it stands on the site of the olive tree where Hassan Ibn Nooman first taught the Koran. The first mosque on the site was built 7thC but rebuilt 9thC using two hundred columns salvaged from the ruins of Carthage for the Prayer Hall. The courtyard is 14thC, the entrance portico to the south 17thC, the arches around the courtyard 18thC and the minaret 19thC.

It is in a cramped site in the middle of the Medina surrounded by souks. From the outside little is visible apart from the massive blank walls. The best view of the Minaret is from rue Sidi Ben Arous. Gateways lead from the Souks into the Mosque. There is no ceremonial wash area as the men wash before coming to the Mosque.

Non Muslims are not allowed to enter the Mosque. By the main gate is a small ticket desk and non Muslims are only allowed into one side of the courtyard where there is a wooden fence stopping you from going further. It is surrounded on three sides by simple arcades with the Prayer Hall is on the fourth side.

The University based in the Mosque was one of the greatest in the world with students coming to study from across the Muslim world. The library still contains one of the world’s greatest collections of Arabic literature. Tradition had it that each teacher had his own column where he sat with his students around him. It was a place of higher education until the 1950s when the Universities took over and theological students moved elsewhere.

We could see the covers of the water tanks which collected and stored drinking water for Tunis. There was a sundial with carved stone next to it. There is a reasonable view across the courtyard to the 9thC prayer hall which had its doors open but was too far away to see into.

This was the first Mosque we went into in Tunisia and we were frustrated that we could see so little of it. If you are intending to visit Kairouan where you have access to the courtyard then give this one a miss.

Tourbet El Bey is the burial place of the reigning princes of the dynasty Husseinite who ruled Tunisia from 1705 to 1957. The different rooms contain the tombs of their wives as well as some ministers and faithful servants. It is a large sandstone building with green tiled domes.

The entrance hall is very attractive as it is covered with tiles with bird patterns. There is a small ticket desk but they have no information about the mausoleum and do not sell post cards.

This leads into the main courtyard with an orange tree and lined with rooms containing the tombs. The rooms were often more impressive than the tombs with brightly colored, patterned tiles and carved white stucco ceilings. The graves are covered with marble boxes. Some are simple boxes with a marble slab at each end with a poetry description mourning the death of the deceased. The tombs of the princes have a column with either a turban or fez on top. Each had the date of death in the Muslim calendar on the pillar. The tombs of the royal princesses were separated from other tombs by a wooden screened area. In the room housing the oldest tombs there are smaller tombs belonging to children and in one corner a wooden tomb housing a Sidi (revered holy person). The rooms with the later tombs were congested with tombs crammed in to fill every available space.

I had seen pictures of this on the Internet before we visited but felt the reality didn’t live up to the images we’d seen. This applied to many of the other tombs and Zaouias we visited. If you are only planning to see one, this is possibly the best.

Several of the houses or palaces belonging to wealthy merchants or government officials have been restored and are now used as offices. Several of these are open for visitors. Entry is free and it does give you chance to see what is inside the plain wall facing the street.

The best one to visit is Dar Lasram in the north east part of the Medina. It is one of most lavish palaces in the Medina, being built in the 18thC by a rich landowner and high ranking officer whose family provided the Beys (i.e., chieftains) with scribes. It is now the offices of Association de Sauvegarde de la Medina, who oversee Medina conservation and anyone can go in during office hours. There is just a small plate outside the building, with no mention of opening times.

The doorway leads into a black and white painted entrance hallway. Rooms off this have beautifully tiled walls and painted wooden ceilings. There is a huge central courtyard with marble pillars robbed from Roman sites and a carved white stucco frieze above. Opposite is a large T shaped room with tiled walls, carved stucco frieze and painted wood ceiling, which had chairs and tables is now used as a lecture area. Steps lead up to the first floor with more tiled rooms.

Dar Othman is in the south west corner of the Medina near Tourbet el Bey and Dar Ben Abdallah Museum, which was shut for restoration in March 2012. These are in rather a rundown area of the Medina and there is litter blowing around. Dar Othman is one of oldest palaces in Medina dating from the 16thC. We got lost trying to find it and after going round in circles were eventually taken to it by a kindly local who didn’t expect a tip. Like all the houses in the Medina, it is a plain building outside with a decorated doorway. Entry is into a passageway with decorative tiles and carved stucco above. You are only allowed into the small courtyard with palm trees and plants. This is lined with an arcade of slender columns supporting round arches with black and white marble decoration round the arches. Again the pictures on Google look better than the actuality. We were disappointing and felt it was not worth the effort we had put in to finding it.

Dar Hussein near the Great Mosque and Place du Gouvernement belonged to a senior government official and was later the seat of the French Military Command. It was built in the 18thC on the site of a 12thC house. This is an interesting area to explore. It is very quiet with few visitors and there are a lot of very old buildings. Again you are only allowed into the courtyard, which is covered with a glazed glass roof. There was a sign in one corner pointing to ‘cafe’ but we were stopped from going any further. Perhaps this is just for the use of people working for the National Institute of Arts and Archaeology.

The courtyard is splendid with a wooden first floor balcony which was painted green and brown and had white ribs underneath to support it. Again there were decorative tiles around the walls with carved white stucco above.

Nearby is Dar el Haddad which houses the National Heritage Institute but was firmly shut.

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