Cultural Program

Tunis in a few words

Tunis, Carthage, Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa, the souks and the museums are amongst the many magical places to discover.

Tunis El Medina

The visit of El-Medina (old city) is of particular significance. It is the occasion of a voyage in time which introduces, step by step, and through a maze with the subtle compositions of shades and lights, in the historical heart of the town of Tunis. It is necessary that one knows how to discover this venerable place with an attentive glance before he can be conquered by its charm.

By its geographical and human importance, its architectural style and its typical special organization, this city represents a complete model of urban Arabic civilization in the land of the Maghreb. It has been declared a cultural heritage of humanity by the UNESCO and henceforth its safeguard concerns the world community.

It was founded thirteen centuries ago on a narrow strip of land separating the Sejoumi Lake from the Tunis Lake, on the site of a rural market where main roads of Roman Africa converged. It was in this favored place for the meeting and trading of men that Hassen Ibn al-Nooman, conqueror of Byzantine Carthage, chose to build the al-Zitouna (olive tree) mosque with such an emblematic name. The construction of this sacred monument decided the future layout of the city which replaced Kairouan and Mahdia by assuming alone the role of the capital in all its multiple functions: religious, residential, political and economical. The city is a closed space, encircled with boulder walls and communicating with the outside world via gates.

The city shelters residences, palaces, cemeteries, mausoleums, hammams, schools, madrasas, furnaces, warehouses, gravers of craftsmen, plazas and gardens. Placed under the protection of its chief Sidi Mahrez, crowned with white domes, terraces and slender minarets, the Medina develops in a tight screen of constructions assembled in bunches and traversed by a dense network of streets, lanes and dead ends. The planning of the city obeys the rule of safeguarding the intimate space, Haram, and the separation between residential districts and commercial activity. Thus, the initial shopping area settled around the mosque, consisting of a quadrilateral where the noble trades: booksellers, perfumers, silk traders, chechias manufacturers, embroiderers, tailors, jewellers, storerooms, delicatessen are gathered. The noisy and polluant crafts are pushed towards the periphery of the city. As a live body, the Medina preserves its mystery and its charm while knowing how to be welcoming.

A brief history of Tunis

Rebuilt on the old site of Tounes at the time of the Arab conquest of Ifriqiya (7th centery), Tunis was very quickly furnished with harbour equipments. For the short period of the Aghlabid dynasty (894-905) it was still the capital of Ifriqiya. Before making Mahdia and Kairouan their respective capitals, the Fatimids and the Zirids also reigned in Tunis (909-1057). In 1160, the Berber sovereigns Almohades (al-Muwahhidun) continued to use it as the capital. Tunis knew its golden age from 1228 to 1574 under the Hafsides, which is a Maghribine dynasty resulting from Almohades, who also took it as the capital of their kingdom. Taken by the Ottomans in 1574, it lost its status as the capital and experienced a commercial boom thanks to its commercial communities and to piracy (it is the golden age of the "business"). Under the Husseinids (17th-18th century), Tunis knew an intense architectural activity and acquired the aspect which it preserved.

Suburbs of Tunis

1- Carthage

Destroyed not less than three times, during the times of Punic, Roman and after the departure of the crusaders of Saint Louis, nevertheless, Carthage still exists. Admittedly, only a little of the vestige remains: the Punic Ports, Tophet, the thermal baths of Antonin, Antiquarium of the hill of Odeon and the Museum of Carthage. These treasures record this high place of history. It is from the hill of Byrsa that the gulf of Tunis, where Djebel Boukornine appears floating on top of a motionless and blue water, should be admired. Many painters of the "School of Tunis" were fascinated by this astonishing marriage of the mountain and the sea, and they immortalized it.

 


2- Sidi Bou Said

Protected site, established on the sides of the Djebel El-Manar, overhanging the coast of Carthage and the gulf of Tunis, the old village maraboutic of Sidi Bou Said is a small paradise with the colors of the Mediterranean. With a wire of paved lanes, the visitor discovers the tangle of houses covered with white lime broken by the blue of the windows with moucharabieh, balconies made out of wrought iron. The heavy studded doors open on papered and girded secret ceramic bougainvillea gardens.


3- Bardo Museum

Today, Bardo museum is one of the most significant museums in the world. Its reputation is due to the quality and the variety of its archaeological parts, jewels resulting from a rich Tunisian history of several millenia and civilizations. However, the building itself does not lack interest. Built in the second half of the 19th century, this space was built to function as a palace rather than a cultural space. However, it became a museum in 1882, baptized the Alaoui museum after Ali Bey (1882-1902), the sovereign of the time. It knew a happy transgression of use which made of it a high place of culture and civilization. In 1899, the authorities of the time associated a second space with it, the small palace which from now on was going to shelter the collections of Islamic art. From their architectural quality, today these two palaces are an integral part of the national museum. To accomodate their new functions, these buildings were rearranged. However, they preserved their initial, original seal. Drawing from the guns of architecture "tunisoise" --mixing various influences, in particular Maghrebin, Turkish and Italian-- Bardo comprised many rooms with different functions, as many spaces which are characterized by their convenience and originality from their ornamentation. These rooms include:

  • A reception room with its large sixteen-side dome made of wood, painted with beautiful colors on gold background; 
  • A large covered patio and its ceiling from which four glosses fixed on pendentive covered ornaments moulded out of plaster hang; 
  • A music room with its ceiling decorated with floral designs and with its two platforms, one reserved for women (princesses) and the other for musicians;
  • this one being supported by fine white marble posts and encrusted with red marble rods; 
  • Private apartments where mural decorations made of finely-cut plaster coatings detail interlacings, meanders, nodes, like many of the designs carried out according to the technique known as "nakch Hdida"; 
  • The earthenware tiles which cover various walls, true tables admirably carried out, etc.

Thus, from its design and decoration, the museum of Bardo is also historic. Let us now talk about the collections and splendors placed and exposed in these spaces. Some of them are unique and exceptional. Let us consider the mosaic. Admittedly, it is the most significant collection in the world: history, mythology, religion, everyday life, as many topics and scenes which are hustled in a great shimmer of colors and tones.

Here is Virgile writing Eneide, there is Ulysses attached to the ship. The rhythms, those of time (four seasons or signs of the zodiac), those of the men (scenes of the everyday life, work, hunting, leisures, combat of gladiateurs, circus games, etc.) and those of the culture.

  

Of course, Bardo conceals many other collections and other parts which concern the Tunisian material culture combined from all periods: from prehistory to our days. All are proof of an open, versatile and reconcilling Tunisia. There, the history is carved out with a collection of numerous works: from the 40,000 years old hermaion of el-Guettar to the ethnographic collection relating to everyday life in modern Tunisia.