El Kef, Tunisia’s mountainous town with a view

Friday 04/03/2016
The Basilica

El Kef - El Kef, about 40km from the Algerian border, is Tu­nisia’s mountainous town with a view.
The north-western Tu­nisian town and the mountainous region around it offer panoramic views of green landscapes from an elevation of 780 metres. It also offers eclectic culture and boasts thousands of years of history.
El Kef has been influenced by Pu­nic, Roman, Numidian, Byzantine and Arab civilisations. During the second world war, the town was the provisional capital of Tunisia and later served as a command centre for the Algeria’s National Liberation Front during the Algerian war for independence.
“The town of El Kef is one of its kind as it is built on the cliff of a mountain that is part of the Atlas mountains. It is the balcony of Tu­nisia in the sense that it oversees green land beneath,” said Moham­ed Tlili, a Tunisian historian who specialises in the history of El Kef.
El Kef is known as a spiritual place. The name of the town dur­ing Roman times was Sicca Veneria, which means “the sacred spot”, showing that the town was a tem­ple site. At the time of the Roman empire, Sicca Veneria was known for controlling the road to Carthage.
“El Kef used to be known by the Romans as the shrine of the god­dess of love and beauty, Venus, from which it gained its spiritual importance,” Tlili said. “Later it hosted Sufi groups such as al Qadi­riya. El Kef became the hometown for all the Sufi groups. It still plays this religious spiritual role today.”
The baths and the adjoining un­derground cisterns are all that re­main of the Venus shrine. Today, one can enjoy the mixture of Ro­man and Arab scriptures on the walls of the town while strolling in the alleys of the kasbah.
The kasbah, or the old city of El Kef, was built in 1612 on the site of a previous Byzantine fortress. The kasbah witnessed a succession of civilisations that adorned with the edifices and imprints.
Today the kasbah is an open-air theatre hosting events such as the Jazz Festival of El Kef. Scattered ca­fés dot the streets near the fortress.
Tlili added: “The most impor­tant part of the town is the kasbah, which summarises its military and cultural functions. The landscape of the town is structured in an al­most amphitheatre-like style. The higher you go, the better look you have of the surroundings of the town.”
Not far from the Roman remains, there is the dazzling white minaret of the Sidi Bou Makhlouf‘s mosque and shrine, one of the most visited attractions in the town. Made up of two ribbed domes, the mosque has a magnificent octagonal minaret. The white walls contrast with the interior decoration of finely carved green stars and crescent moons.
The Sidi Bou Makhlouf shrine includes the tomb of the founder of the Sufi Aissawiya Brotherhood in Tunisia. For over two centuries, Sidi Bou Makhlouf has been consid­ered the patron saint of the town.
Beside the many Islamic sites, there is a well-preserved Roman basilica dating to the fifth century dedicated to St Peter. The town also has a synagogue.
The old town has the Jewish neighbourhood known as el Har­ra, which includes the shops and houses owned by Tunisian Jews. The neighbourhood is believed to date to 1740.
“El Kef musical tradition could be traced to this exchange of cultures between Jews, former slaves and Algerians who settled there,” Tlili said.
In addition to music, the town is known for being the birth place of a theatre movement that dates to the early years of the 20th century.
“Mohamed Bourguiba, a Tuni­sian theatre figure, started a the­atrical movement during the first world war. Along with a group of actors, he created the theatrical scene of El Kef. They were pioneers of theatre back in 1918, ” Tlili noted
El Kef each year celebrates an event, during which shows are per­formed non-stop over a 24-hour period.
In addition to shows and concerts in the kasbah, a visit to the museum of popular arts and traditions is a must. At the end of the road down from kasbah, the museum provides a glimpse of the nomadic and Ber­ber communities.