Sfax: An architectural gem steeped in history and culture

October 01, 2017
A view of the municipality building in Sfax. (The Ministry of Tourism)

Sfax - Visitors to Sfax are first overwhelmed by the buzzing scene of motor­bikes, cars and hurrying pedestrians. A second look at the Mediterranean port town reveals more.

Located 270km south-east of Tunis, Sfax is Tunisia’s second-biggest city and boasts an array of impressive monuments and land­marks and a well-preserved tradi­tional medina.

Sfax has a rich history that in­cludes a succession of several civilisations: From the Punic to the Byzantine to the Roman and Islamic. During the Roman era, the town was known as Taparura, a place that has transformed into a modern suburb.

“In the books of history, you al­ways find Sfax referred to as the guarded town or ‘al-Mahroussa.’ This is because the walls of the fences surrounding the medina of Sfax remained intact through the centuries,” historian Wahid Lotfi Mokni said. “From afar, the medi­na of Sfax always looks guarded and shielded.”

The walls are among the city’s most majestic and captivating hallmarks. Built in 850 during the rule of Aghlabid Prince Abu Abbas Muhammad, they make up what is believed to be one of the oldest forts in the Maghreb.

Made of clay and stones, the medina has two main doors: Bab Jebli, facing the northern lands, and Bab Bhar, facing the sea. Other doors were built throughout the years — some during the Ottoman rule, others during the French co­lonial era. The originals of the 12 gates, however, remain the most fascinating with their displays of beautiful Arabic inscriptions and artwork.

“The most important hallmark of the town of Sfax is its medina as it is one of few medieval cities that still preserve their original de­sign and architecture,” Mokni said. “These walls are the only ones that are still completed.

“The walls of the Medina of Tu­nis, for instance, were destroyed and only some gates remained but the Medina of Sfax has remained almost intact and is one of the only remaining examples of the plan­ning of el-Koufa, the first Arabo- Islamic city.”

It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.

At the heart of the medina lies the Great Mosque of Sfax, which dates to the foundation of the city in the ninth century. Built with clay and stone, the mosque has two domes and a 12-metre tall minaret displaying Islamic geometric pat­terns. Mokni said that the mosque has maintained its original fea­tures despite being bombed twice during the second world war.

Not far from the mosque is the Kasbah of Sfax, with its military towers and artillery.

The Medina of Sfax is famous for its traditional markets, which un­like those of other old Tunisian cit­ies, have retained their authentic­ity and continued to host artisans. One of the medina’s famous souks is the Blacksmith Market, where scenes from the 1996 movie “The English Patient” were filmed.

“People used to come to the markets to watch the artisans of wood and iron working. Other old cities became touristic but the shops in the medina of Sfax are still the same,” Mokni said.

Artisans can still be observed working when visiting Dar Jellouli, also known as the Museum of Arts and Folk Traditions. The museum offers an insight into the town’s unique culture and is a beautiful piece of architecture, constructed by a Muslim Andalusian refugee who fled religious persecution in Spain.

Named after its owner, wealthy merchant Mahmoud Jellouli, the house became a cultural centre in the 20th century, when it show­cased scenes from daily life in the 18th century.

“Dar Jellouli is a must-see,” said Ahmed Charfi, president of the lo­cal NGO Sfax Mezyena. “It is one of the elements of the medina that cannot be missed for it offers a unique glimpse into the lives of our ancestors.

“It shows the daily lives of wom­en as well as the rituals of artisans and their artefacts.”

Beyond its historical and archi­tectural significance, Sfax is a great destination for bird lovers. The Salina of Sfax, which has beauti­ful scenery and hosts many bird colonies, is one of the most beau­tiful manifestations of the region’s ecosystem.

“The Salina is the destination of migratory birds,” Charfi said. “You can observe amazing types of birds. It has one of the biggest colo­nies of laird birds in the world.”

Steeped in history, Sfax is a town that displays beautiful architecture and scenery and a unique ecosys­tem. It is easily accessed by train, bus, car or plane and is well-con­nected to neighbouring towns and Tunis.