Monastir: A Tunisian city combining modernity and heritage

Sunday 15/05/2016
Monastir’s Ribat overlooking the sea.

Monastir - The town of Monastir, on the eastern coast of Tuni­sia, is a gem of the coun­try’s Sahel region with its beaches and oasis-like palm trees.

Monastir is known for its histori­cal richness, dating to Phoenician times, and as the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern Tunisia.

Monastir was founded on the ru­ins of the Punic-Roman city of Rus­pina, the site of battles between Ju­lius Caesar and his enemies. Visitors can get an insight into the period at the Lamta Archaeological Museum, which features a mosaic of Venus, a mosaic floor from a Byzantine church and other artefacts.

“The present-day name of Mo­nastir is derived from Monastrium, which means a monastery… During Islamic rule, many mosques were built and the city hosted many re­ligious thinkers, which added to the sacredness of the place,” said Mahmoud Salah from the Associa­tion for the Preservation of Monas­tir.

One of the main attractions in the city is the Islamic fortress known as the Ribat, which dates to 796AD. The fortress, expanding over the coastline, is the oldest in the Maghreb. It boasts Islamic ar­chitecture and scripture. The towers provide a panoramic view of the city and the Islamic museum contains a collection of ancient Islamic writing and pottery.

The Ribat — fortress — served as the centre of the first neighbour­hoods of Muslims in the town as it grew into a regional commercial and trade centre. It primarily played the role of a military front to guard against invasions from the sea.

“The Ribat was built by the Ab­basids to protect their towns from the invasion by the sea… Muslim rulers often feared attacks through the sea,” Salah said.

The fortress has served as a film location for Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and other productions.

The medina of Monastir invites visitors to take a long walk through its alleys to discover shops offering traditional costumes and pottery. The colourful markets revive the spirit of the old city from days gone by.

Monastir hosts monuments com­memorating Bourguiba, including a mosque that features 86 marble pillars, a magnificent example of Is­lamic architecture.

Near the mosque, is the Bourgui­ba mausoleum, with three domes and two minarets. The mausoleum contains the graves of Bourguiba and his family as well as artefacts, including documents, clothes and photographs that belonged to Tuni­sia’s first president.

“Celebrating the memory of Bour­guiba became a tradition, especially during the last years for the purpose of commemorating the life of the founder of modern Tunisia on the anniversary of his death. The cel­ebration became of a great impor­tance and is officially recognised by the state,” Salah said.

Monastir’s crystal clear water and sandy beaches are renowned. Cafés and restaurants line the beach area and water activities — from fishing to boating — lure tourists and locals.

The town is best visited during spring and summer to enjoy the warm weather and beaches.

“This is an ecological city that­works on maintaining the ecosys­tem and protecting the environ­ment. If you ask anyone, they will tell you that they enjoy life in the town as it is peaceful and clean,” Salah said.

Monastir also offers bike tours and rides in traditional horse carriages.

Only two hours from Tunis, Mo­nastir is accessible in a variety of ways, with trains offering a thrill­ing journey though the Tunisian landscape. There are also taxis from downtown Tunis. Monastir has an airport, which is used mostly by charter companies.

The city has more than 25 hotels, notably Delphin El Habib, Caribbean World Monastir, Marina Cap Monas­tir and Regency Hotel and Spa. Mo­nastir has a number of guest houses offering visitors the experience of staying at an authentic Tunisian house. Swimming pools, sporting facilities, clubs and spas are avail­able in most hotels.