Restoring the glory of Medina

By | Category: Travel destinations

walking through Medina

Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tunisia, is a jewel in the crown of the country. It is a magical maze comprising of layers and layers of cultural integrity and a rich legacy of an ancient civilisation.

The old city of Tunis flourished and developed in the light of Islam at the end of the seventh century in 698, eighty four years after the Hejrat of Holy Prophet Muhammad, when the first stones of the Zitouna Mosque were laid. Over the centuries, the urban quarters and souks have sprouted around the mosque and those early settlers, newly converted Muslims, gathered around the mosque to worship and perform their ritual prayers.

The Medina is built on the coast of the Gulf of Tunis, which in turn opens out on to the Mediterranean Sea. The Bab el Bhar, which means the Sea Gate, was the portal that led from Medina to the old Tunis marina and thence to the sea. The city itself is surrounded by hills and the peaks of Jebel Ghaoues in La Manouba and Ed Dourat in L’Ariana.  The suburbs of Tunis spread out along the coastline and link La Goulette, Le Kram, Carthage, Sidi Bo Said and La Marsa.

Today, the urban complex of the Medina is an amazing mish-mash of architectural and it is a miracle that such a living museum has survived wars, natural disasters and crude political ambitions.

My visit coincided with Ramadan so the people were celebrating the holy month by fasting when I arrived to take a short tour of the Medina.  I had visited it on previous visits but just fleetingly. This time I wanted to immerse myself in the vibrant authenticity of the old city.

Visitors should be aware that there aren’t many accommodation options if you stay here rather than in the rest of Tunis. The eighteenth century Palais Bayram, for example, belonged to the Hanafi Muftis of the Kingdom and was built on several levels. It is an example of the type of houses that were designed very conservatively to maintain the privacy of the household by keeping the inner parts hidden from the guests. The courtyard of the house decorated with colourful tiles and a wooden balcony is surrounded by several rooms and apartments. One guest was quoted as saying that staying in the Palais Bayram was like sleeping in a friendly museum.

a panoramic view of Medina

Into the Medina I went in search of the unknown essence of the place, the spirit that put this entire city together. I could sense the magnitude of the strong domination of Arabic tradition and deep Islamic cultural influences in the city, but there are also inspirations from the Romans, the Ottoman Turks and Europe. I strolled through the winding, narrow and cobbled alleys which nestled under curved decorated arches and I could envisage the past glory of Medina. In some places I could see the stone columns and arches of the roofed passages, a sure sign of a rich neighbourhood.

But some of the stone work and the plastered walls have not been maintained and have slowly deteriorated over the years.  In places where there had been little decay, you could still see the colours and patterns all of which left me feeling that I was back amongst the ancient tribes of Arabs and Berbers.

yet to be refurbished area

The Medina, which once upon the time was one of the wealthiest and most prosperous cities in the world, has been in decline since the abolition of the monarchy in 1957. Many members of the court, the rich aristocrats and traders from the noble families who used to have palaces and mansions left the Medina. A number of significant historic buildings all decorated with colourful tiles replete with Islamic texture and calligraphy were abandoned and left uninhabited for many years until the Arab Spring of December 2010.

In the troubled days of revolution in the country, some families from villages and countryside around Tunis moved to the city looking for work. Being homeless they squatted in some of these buildings.  This has made restoration efforts more difficult for the government.

As an outsider, I had mixed feelings about the Medina. Seeing it partly and beautifully restored in places I can see what might be possible. But to restore the full beauty of the Medina needs to involve artists, artisans, painters and sculptors to lift it up to its former glory.

a welcome to Medina

The souks in the Medina are in a world of their own; they are hectic, colourful and full of buzzing humanity. There are over seventeen different souks offering a variety of crafts and accessories as well as selling items such as perfumes, jewelry, fabrics, textiles, handicrafts and traditional headwear.

The restoration of the Medina was led by ASM Tunis (the Association for Safeguarding of Tunis Medina) which was founded in 1976. At that time the forgotten neighborhood of the Medina was considered old fashioned and was low down on the political agenda. Many saw it as an obstacle to the country’s modernization. There was even a plan by the government to demolish part of it in order to build a highway and extend Avenue Habib Bourguiba through Bab Bhar in the east to Palais du Government in La Kasbah. Fortunately the efforts of ASM Tunis succeeded in their international campaign to save the Medina and have it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It has continued to play an important role in preserving the cultural heritage of Medina to the present day. Zoubeir Mouhli, the general director of ASM says, ”I want the Medina to keep its strong identity and be an easy-going place with a mix of inhabitants including the younger generation…a traditional place which is opened up to modernity, with a nice atmosphere while keeping its authenticity.“

visiting shops

Leila Ben-Gacem, an activist and entrepreneur moved to Medina from Beni Khalled, some sixty kilometers from Tunis. She is one of the active campaigners working to lift the spirit of Medina. She bought and restored one of the old houses – a 200 year old family property built in seventeenth century – and converted it into a seven-room guesthouse called Dar Ben Gacem. She says “Medina was the hub of the country, the royal court and the centre of Government. It was the place for making all decisions and the centre of education, art, craft and trade. The people who were looking to study and educate themselves and learn new skills, all looked at Medina.”

How does she see the future?  “Medina today is an urban space with a lot of hidden heritage which is underestimated and under exploited. It needs to regenerate itself. My passion is to make Medina vibrant again, attracting young people through new opportunities and possibilities,” she responds.

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

For more images of Tunisia, click here or go to http://www.amirinia.com/tunisia/

Getting there: At present Tunisair fly from London (Heathrow and Gatwick) to Tunis 6 days a week.

From London Victoria and London Bridge, both Gatwick Express and Southern have services to Gatwick but Southern is cheaper and the journey time is only a little longer. 

For more information about Tunisia, click here or go to http://www.discovertunisia.uk.

 

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