Text and photos by Pamela McCourt Francescone


A Daedalus of alleyways and narrow passages that meander and ramble, seemingly without end.  Ancient palaces, low houses built around shady courtyards, arches and  passageways that throw shadows upon shadows, the rustle of unhurried footsteps, enigmatic glances, wooden doors in vibrant colours with heavy studs.  The Medina of Tunis, founded by the Arabs in the 8th century, shone at its brightest under the Hafside dynasty in the 13th century.    After a decline in the 16th century under the Ottomans and the Spaniards, it flourished again two centuries later, becoming the commercial and artisan hub of the city.  Today little is left of the old encircling walls which made the Medina (the name means city in Arabic) an impenetrable fortress, but the open markets – the characteristic souks – and the residential areas are an extraordinary testimonial to the coexistence of two ancient civilizations: Mediterranean and Islamic. The Medina, is on 270 hectares, has 700 monuments and 100,000 inhabitants, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 for the “homogeneity of its urban structure,” and is one of the most densely populated Muslim cities in the world. In the ‘60s the integrity of this old quarter was threatened by the construction of new high-speed roads.  Then, in 1967, the ASM, l’Association de Souvegarde de la Médina, was founded, with the aim of studying the rehabilitation of the old city, protecting its identity, and supervising restoration on its buildings and monuments.  “One of our aims is to conserve the Medina as a coherent entity, to stop it from becoming a marginal quarter of the modern city. We also hope to turn it into mirror of the age-old history of the capital,” says  Messaoud Yamoun, one of ASM’s founders.  “In the Medina there are mosques, palaces, hamman (Turkish baths), zaouia (santuaries) and medersa (colleges) of inestimable architectonic and historical importance.  Some have been restored, preserving old artisan trades like stone sculpture, ceramics and nakch hadid, the art of engraving geometric motives on stucco.”


In recent years public investments have gone into projects to preserve the Medina.  Unfortunately they have not been very many, but they have allowed numerous buildings to be restored, preserving their historical characteristics and giving them a new  lease of  life in a contemporary context. “Each time a new workshop or a new commercial activity opens in the Medina it is an important step towards conserving the quarter’s ancient identity,” says Yamoun.  “And now, in the wake of the January Jasmine Revolution, and with the Nouvelle Tunisie, we hope the Medina can benefit from new projects to develop and preserve the artistic and cultural heritage of Tunis’s historic centre.” The demanding visitor, the traveller who likes to scratch the surface of a destination to discover its heartbeat, will enjoy the  itinerary called Les Architectures de la Médina which leads away from the busy shopping streets of the Grand Bazaar that start at the Bab Bhar gate and are crowded with locals and tourists at all hours of the day and  night.  This architectonic-historical itinerary takes about three hours, calls for comfortable walking shoes, and leads to some of the most intimate parts of the Medina:  the souks here herbs are sold, where tailors work, where brass is fashioned and where goldsmiths ply their trade, the Zitouna Mosque which is still used today, the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, handsome residential palaces like the Dar ed-Haddad which is one of the oldest in the Medina, Turbet el-Bey, the large mausoleum where many of Tunis’s beis – who once ruled the city -  are buried, the  Medersa Bir Lahjar,  and streets with evocative names:  Treasure Street,  Martyrs’ Street,  Judges’ Street, Richman’s Street.    


The doors of the Medina are one of its peculiarities, illustrating as they do the philosophy and way of life of the residents.  Simple doors, double doors and doors with small under-doors called hkoukha, which were introduced by a Spanish princess to oblige her husband’s Muslim subjects to bow down before their monarch.  Each colour has a meaning.  Yellow is the colour preferred by God, green the colour of paradise and blue, introduced in more recent times, is the colour of the doors in the picturesque little coastal village of Sidi Bou Said.  Then there are doors in three colours – white, red and green – for the dynasties that preceded the Hafsides.The doors are decorated with nails of varying sizes which design symbols and geometric forms like the tanit for the goddess of fertility, the cross of David, the Christian cross and the mihrab  (the part of the mosque devoted to prayer), the moon, the eye and the fish.  Century-old relics and, like all the monuments in the Medina, treasures to be admired and jealously conserved. In this delicate moment for the country it is now up to the municipal and post-revolutionary authorities to make available the means, the skills and the funds to support the ASM and other groups and concerns that are doing what they can to ensure, both in the short and in the long term, that the priceless beauties of the Medina be safeguarded and preserved. A precious heritage that belongs not only to the people of Tunisia, but to the world at large.