Chechia market in Tunis keeps unique Andalusian legacy alive

While Tunisia’s chechia industry struggles, the souk remains a beautiful site to explore the history of the medina.
Saturday 26/10/2019
A Tunisian artisan displays traditional woven hats, known as chechias, at his shop in Tunis. (AFP)
A Tunisian artisan displays traditional woven hats, known as chechias, at his shop in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - The alleys of the medina whirl like a maze, taking visitors on a journey through its vast neighbourhoods and souks. Its hidden gems are not obvious on a first visit but every stroll through the medina is bound to yield a secret, unveil a hidden corner or reveal a piece of history that makes up the story of the old city of Tunis.

On the way from Kasbah Square, visitors often encounter small shops displaying colourful, festive chechias, semi-spherical hats made of wool, usually red. Tunisians often wear chechias on special occasions, including religious holidays and weddings. Some young people wear the hats to make fashion or identity statements.

This quarter of the medina is known as Souk Ech-Chaouachine, a market designated for the traditional Tunisian hat.

Neighbouring the famous Zitouna Mosque and the first ministry building, Ech-Chaouachine Souk includes Hafsi Souk, Souk Sghir (small market) and Souk Kbir (big market). The area is composed of stone-ceiled alleys with shops on the sides selling various styles of chechias.

Founded in the 17th century, the souk was once a gallery for all types of chechias that were sold in all colours and shapes. It testified to the glory of the Hafside era when chechia trade thrived and served as an important part of the economy.

While the shops in the medina today are mostly family businesses, their original owners were the moors who escaped Andalusia.

The souk was built in 1692 by Mohamed Bey Al-Mouradi after the arrival of Moorish immigrants, many of whom specialised in making hats. Historians describe the chechia as an Andalusian legacy brought by Moors fleeing Spain.

“The market is unique for it has small shops that function as distribution points and also a workshop. The Moorish immigrants who came and settled in different parts of the countries founded the market,” said historian Mohamed Azizi. “Since many families settled in different towns, the production of the chechia takes place in different towns.

“Many of the Moorish families resided in Zaghouan, which became a location for one of the essential phases of making the chechia. It is in Zaghouan that the chechia is usually dyed that crimson colour.”

Strolling down the market, one immediately notices the beautiful colours and decorations of the shops. The Hafsi Souk faces the Kasbah alley while the big and small souks are between the alley of Sidi Ben Arous and Souk El-Bey. Passers-by can see plenty of artisans decorating chechias or negotiating prices with prospective buyers.

Chechia shops are full of decoration. Beautifully detailed, they often feature colourful ornaments with symbols indicating the artisans’ family names. Artisans’ status and wealth are indicated by the level of detail in ornamentation and wooden facades. The wealthier the artisans are, the more sophisticated such details are.

Azizi said the market in Tunis is the only place that is both a workshop site and selling point.

“Other towns might have a shop or two but not a full market,” he said. “The medina of Tunis is the only Tunisian medina that has a market dedicated to chechia.”

“Of course, because of globalisation, many shops closed. Not many people still wear the traditional outfit on a daily basis,” Azizi said. “In the past, the souk also used to export chechias to different countries in the Middle East and to Turkey, Egypt. The decline of the chechia, of course, resulted in the closing of many shops.”

While Tunisia’s chechia industry struggles, the souk remains a beautiful site to explore the history of the medina.

One can also enjoy sipping coffee or tea in one of the oldest cafes in Tunisia, the Cafe of Ech-Chaouachine. The cafe, in the heart of the souk, offers traditional drinks against the backdrop of traditional tunes.

The cafe hosts Sufi shows during Ramadan and Malouf music shows that are popular attractions with young people. The cafe adds a vibrant touch to the souk, bringing to life its shops and workshops.

Traditional woven hats, known as Chechia, on display at a store in Tunis. (AFP)
People tour in the medina in the old city of Tunis with the minaret of Zitouna Mosque in the background.(Reuters)
A tourist tries on a Tunisian chechia in a shop at a bazaar in the medina of Tunis.(AFP)