Mahdia: A serene Tunisian fishing town full of character and history

Despite being a low-key destination, Mahdia, 200km south of Tunis, is steeped in history.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Fishing boats are moored in the harbour in Mahdia. (Ministry of Tourism)
Fishing boats are moored in the harbour in Mahdia. (Ministry of Tourism)

MAHDIA - A hidden paradise of the Mediterranean, the town of Mahdia rests peacefully on the central-eastern coast of Tunisia, offering visitors a retreat from the bustle of the world. With mesmerising sun-kissed beaches, a magnificent sea line and a beautiful old section, the quiet fishing village is the perfect destination for those seeking serenity and calm.

Despite being a low-key destination, Mahdia, 200km south of Tunis, is steeped in history. In 920, it was the capital of Fatimid-ruled Tunisia, from where the founder of the Fatimid Caliphate Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah ruled the Maghreb.

The legacy of the Fatimid era lives on and can be seen in the intricate Islamic architecture of the old town.

Mahdia’s charming alleys are full of life, with merchants showcasing a tapestry of colours of traditional clothing and pottery. To enter the old town, visitors must pass through a magnificent 33-metre-tall gate, Skifa Kahla (“black gate”). Dating to 916, that gate was part of the fortress surrounding the Fatimid town, making it an important architectural monument.

“One of the ways in which the town of Mahdia is different from other Islamic town is that the old town is hosted in the same location of the Fatimid town with the principal gate still standing till today testifying to the important role the town played during the Fatimid rule,” said Mohamed Houas, the curator of the museum of Mahdia.

“The founder of the Fatimid caliphate, Abdullah al-Mahdi, wanted to build a military town from which he could launch his conquests to the east as he was bringing the Shia sect to the rest of the Arab world. He found in Mahdia’s strategic location a suitable site to build his town, especially that the town had an already present port dating to the Punic time. Mahdia was the place where the Fatimid rule started, which gives it a unique historical value. “

The landmark gate is a must-see monument in Mahdia and it is connected to the town’s museum.

“The museum has a significant value in the town of Mahdia as it displays a rich collection of both the historical and cultural heritage of the town,” said Houas. “The town is known for diverse cultural heritage and unique traditional outfits as well as a history that dates back to the Punic times.”

He added: “In addition to the Islamic civilisation present through the Fatimid heritage, (there are) artefacts dating to Punic and Roman times as well as mosaics. All of this shows the richness of the town of Mahdia and the region surrounding it.”

The great mosque of Mahdia is a testament to the renowned architecture of the Fatimid Era, which, in contrast to other religious sites, served as a refuge for Shia Muslims as well. Dating to 921, the mosque was attacked and damaged but was restored in accord with the original model.

Courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Mahdia.(Ministry of Tourism)
Courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Mahdia.(Ministry of Tourism)

“The mosque is unique. It was meant to be like the temples of the Roman Empire being a place of worship and meeting of people,” said Houas. “Unlike the Sunni mosques, which use floral decorations, this mosque displays decorations that are abstract and geometric to resemble the architecture of Roman temples.

“The founder of the Fatimid caliphate wanted to have a mosque that could also host all the people of the town and create a mosque that gives value and glory to the town. It is one of those communal places that displays the grandeur of the architecture and also bestows a social value.”

Around the medina, the fortress of Borj El Kebir (“the big tower”) is visible along the seafront side from the great mosque. Built in 1595, the fortress is on the highest point of Mahdia, making it the most recognisable attraction for visitors.

Mahdia offers a fascinating fishing port that has kept its traditional feel. From there, one can enjoy a coffee or mint-flavoured tea while watching boats go in and out of the port, as fishermen and merchants sell fresh fish, a main source of livelihood for locals.

Along the coast, visitors can explore a fascinating underwater archaeological site: the Mahdia shipwreck. Discovered by Greek sponge fishermen in 1907, the shipwreck, which dates to 80BC, contained sculptures and artefacts that are displayed at Tunis’s Bardo National Museum.

Whether one is strolling the alleys of the medina, climbing stairs to the tower, enjoying the sea or watching the port, Mahdia is full of charm, serenity and history.