The unique vistas of Tunisia’s Sidi Bou Said
Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia - Following a maze of alleys, ornamented with blue doors and stone-covered path, the blue sky meets the sea at the top of the hill as the jasmine-selling man passes by leaving a trail of scent beckoning travellers to venture inside. This is how Sidi Bou Said welcomes visitors.
Overlooking the Mediterranean, the town of blue windows and doors and whitewashed walls is on the hill overlooking the harbour. Sidi Bou Said is a jewel of unique architecture and mesmerising views offering serene beauty.
Located 20 kilometres from Tunis, Sidi Bou Said offers a picturesque view of the sea, the harbour and Jebel Boukornine, enabling visitors to savour a glimpse into the layers of the town’s scenic attractions.
Sidi Bou Said history boasts a diversity of cultures and celebrates the spirituality that has graced the location. Built on the mountain of M’nara (Minaret), which later came to be known as the mountain of Sidi Bou Said, the town has served as a minaret to observe the sea and guard Tunis since the Punic period. During Punic and Roman times, a fire was in place at the lighthouse to guide boats.
“It is a small town that is distinguished from other towns with its architectural uniqueness. It displays an antiquity of characteristics ranging from Phoenician to Arab- Andalusian origins. The latter has graced the town with a particular identity as it is a town that was built as a pilgrimage destination. The first inhabitants were those who used to come to attend to the shrine of Sidi Bou Said,” Raouf Dakhlaoui, mayor of Sidi Bou Said, stated.
A leading figure of Sufism, Sidi Bou Said El Beji settled in the area. Born at Beja in 1156, he studied and taught religion at the Zitouna mosque in Tunis. After a long journey, he retired from the world to meditate. The mountain of M’nara was his sanctuary. After his death, his mausoleum became a place of pilgrimage. The shrine still exists.
“It has a spiritual aspect as the shrine of Sidi Bou Said resides there. He is one of the leading figures of Sufism in the country, and one of the four saints protecting the capital of Tunis,” Dakhlaoui said. “The Sufi season is celebrated every year with their rituals as the followers of the Sufi order through festivities.”
The town became popular among Tunisians for its scenery and spiritual status. The municipality was created in 1843. In the 18th century, the Husseinite Bey and later the wealthy of Tunis built residences in the town. During the 1920s, Rodolphe d’Erlanger, a painter and orientalist who settled in the town, applied the blue-white theme. His home, Ennejma Ezzahra, is a cultural centre and museum.
“The town became quite popular among the families of Beys who used to come to enjoy the serenity of the place and started building houses here. Its architectural characteristics and its geographical placement have brought the attention of many artists and writers who were inspired by the beauty of the town. Since the 1920s, the town became a destination for people,” Dakhlaoui said.
Sidi Bou Said also has a reputation as a town of artists. Artists such as Paul Klee, Gustave-Henri Jossot, August Macke and Louis Moilliet have visited or lived in the town. Sidi Bou Said artists Yahia Turki, Brahim Dhahak and Ammar Farhat came to be known as the founders of the painting school of Tunis. The town was also the home of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who lived there for a number of years while teaching at the University of Tunis.
The town’s beauty stems from the alleys that are intertwined into a puzzle of paths, with each leading to a unique view of the sea. Strolling the alleys, visitors realise that this village is meant for walking as it enchants the wanderers to a myriad of old artisan shops and cafes with a panoramic view of the blue Mediterranean. Those who seek solitude are also greeted by the village to peaceful corners where only the sounds of the feet touching the ground can be heard ascending on a harmony of silence and echoes of music playing from a distance.
The alleys made of old stones carved into the paths are a treat to those with explorer souls as they offer the visitors a labyrinth for exploring the scenery of the city.
Streets are busy with visitors at art galleries and shops of artisans. Sidi Bou Said offers serenity and beauty.
“Sidi Bou Said lives on the touristic appeal it has, and the cafés scattered on the sides offering tea and coffee. During the summer, it welcomes over 10,000 visitors almost every day,” Dakhlaoui said.
With sites such as the Ennejma Ezzahra palace, the town remains vibrant despite the current absence of the usual lively tourist wave.
“Today, however, the town has been struggling with some economic issues as the tourism sector. Yet the town is a cultural hub. We have cultural festivals of art, literature and music. We host one of the biggest institutions of music, the centre for Arabic and Mediterranean music. These cultural events keep the town alive despite the touristic crisis,” Dakhlaoui said.
Once in Sidi Bou Said, one cannot leave without savouring the mint tea and taste Fatayer , a local delicacy made of sweet dough and immersed in honey. The cafés are a signature of the town with their artisanal seats and the view of the sea from the top of the hill beckoning the visitor to be immersed in the haziness that unites the sky and the sea.