Testour, Tunisia’s symbol of religious coexistence

Sunday 28/05/2017
A Tunisian vendor arranges pomegranates during the Pomegranate Festival in the small town of Testour. (AFP)

Testour - Few places in Tunisia dis­play religious coexistence the way Testour does. The town was a refuge for thou­sands of Muslims and Jews fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century and its monuments bear elements of all the religions that contributed to its history.
Perched on hills overlooking the Medjerda River and surrounded by a vast green tapestry of fields and riv­ers, the town was originally named Tichilla — meaning “green grass” — by Berber tribes in the region. It re­tained the name until the arrival of the Muslims and Jews from Spain in the 17th century.
“It (Testour) is built on a hill sur­rounded by mountains and nearing three rivers,” said Rachid Soussi, president of the Association of the Protection of the Medina of Testour. “Tribes fought over the town be­tween the 13th and 14th centuries. Eventually, it became a capital for these tribes.”
When wandering the streets of Testour, one notices the unique structure of the city that resembles the architectural style of the Moors.
“The town of Testour exhibits the influence of Andalusian archi­tecture as many of its inhabitants came from Spain,” said Soussi. “They brought architectural tra­ditions from Spain. Built from scratch, all the roofs are decorated with brickwork that is unique to Spanish houses.”
The heart of Testour consists of a peaceful, Western-like plaza, with blue and white on the sides of its main street. Its Arabic style is dis­played through arches, ornate tiles and doorways.
Soussi said the town was estab­lished as a home for religious com­munities that were expelled under Spanish King Phillip III in 1609. “For decades, they only spoke Spanish with each other and practised Span­ish traditions,” he said, adding that they instilled Andalusian culture and architecture in the area.
The old town of Testour dates to the 17th century, making it one of the oldest towns in Tunisia. A walk down its streets takes visitors into the world of Andalusia. Past the al­leys of the old city lays the Grand Mosque, which exhibits a complex combination of architectural styles and serves as a symbol of religious tolerance.
The 17th-century mosque, built by Spanish immigrant Mohamed Tagharinu, is known for its lack of windows, elaborate domes, semi-circle arches and wealth of deco­rative inscriptions. It also has a 22.5-metre-high minaret.
“The mosque was built using Ro­man rocks to create the court of the mosque as well as pillars,” said Soussi. “All these are built using Roman pieces. Inside the mosque, we have Andalusian arches. It has no windows. The roof is decorated in different shapes that do not re­semble any other. You could spend hours contemplating the ceiling.”
For many, the mosque is an em­blem of religious tolerance, as its minaret incorporates an unusual combination of Islamic styles from different Muslim sects and a Star of David on the top, acknowledging the Jewish community that helped build the city.
Soussi said the mosque’s mes­sage of tolerance was unlike any others built during its period.
It was meant to communicate that all were “welcome in the mosque,” said Soussi. “That it is a mosque for everyone. The dome is also known for having the Star of David on two sides, which dates to 400 years ago.”
The Grand Mosque of Testour has several interesting features, includ­ing the typically Spanish rubble stone façade surrounded by rectan­gular bricks. Yet its most impressive feature is an ornate clock resting on the south-western side of the mina­ret.
The numbers on the minaret clock are symbolically placed back­ward. It is one of only four func­tioning clocks in the world with such features. The clock, famous for running counterclockwise, was restored in 2014 through the efforts of Abdel Halim Koundi, an engineer whose ancestors were among the Andalusian families who sought refuge in Testour.
“This clock is the only one on a mosque in the world,” Koundi said. “The Andalusians brought the idea back maybe to combine the aspects that reminded them of their home­towns in Spain.
“The second important thing is that this clock is counterclockwise. “There are three [other such] clocks — one in Florence, Prague and the third one in Germany.”
The Testour clock is unique in that its numbers face the centre and runs counterclockwise. Some say it was crafted this way to have the numbers point west and remind locals of their heritage. Others say it was set backward to express their wish to go back in time to the days of Andalusia.
“The numbers are all facing the centre of the clock. Six would be read as if it were nine…At the time, the clocks all were directed towards the centre. The other three clocks use roman numbers but the one in Testour has Arabic numerals,” Koundi said.
“Our ancestors believed that the clock points to the west so that they are reminded of their hometowns in Spain whenever they look at it for time.”
In addition to the town’s beauti­ful scenery, consisting of vast green fields, Testour is known for the Ma­louf Festival, a musical event that, every June, celebrates the town’s Andalusian and Moorish heritage.
“Visiting Testour sometimes feels like a trip back in time to the world of Andalusia. It is not just the architecture but the traditions and the music that throw us always to that time of history,” Koundi said.