Did I say music was the great unifier? That was not my thinking at 0645 this morning. Every hotel guest was on his or her balcony bleary-eyed in disbelief because nobody had ever heard music that loud at that hour. It turned out there was a free concert that night by Clotaire K, a big music star in the Arab world, and for reasons unknown, the roadies were testing the sound equipment at ear-splitting decibel level.
I had arrived in Sousse, ‘Pearl of the Sahel’, by train from Tunis – a 2-hour ride and a relaxing way to see some of the countryside. Before Ibn B left Tunis the Haj caravan was organized and he was nominated by the Masmouda Berbers from his home country to be the qadi or jurist of their company. (The Masmoudas gave the world the Almohads, a puritan dynasty originating in Morocco’s High Atlas whose rule spread throughout Southern Spain and North Africa in the 12th century, defeating the Almoravids – mentioned below.)
“We left Tunis in the last days of the month of Dhu’l-Qada (early November 1325), following the coast road and came to the township of Susa, which is small but pretty and built on the seashore, forty miles distant from Tunis.”
Once again, another city given fairly short shrift by our traveler – and Sousse is in fact about 85 miles (135 kilometers) from Tunis. This lack of information is the norm until he arrives in Alexandria and probably had much to do with conditions in these parts at the time. Although there was nominal rule from Tunis extending from Bejaia to Tripolitania, governors of some cities were often more or less autonomous within the sultanates. It was only within cities that the rule of law was applied, and outside the city walls the situation could be anarchical as is attested to by Ibn Battuta who mentions several times the dangers of attack from nomadic, marauding tribes. Nowhere was this more evident than in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica as we shall see.
Sousse is a summer resort for Europeans in search of the sun. It has come a long way from its beginnings as a Phoenician port in the 9th century BC, one of the oldest in the Mediterranean. It continued to prosper under the Romans with some ups and downs under different Emperors, and was a major center of Christianity by the early 4th century, evidenced by the catacombs as well as Christianized Roman tombstones. In the 9th century AD it became the port city of Kairouan under the Aghlabid dynasty.
Situated next to the ribat, the corner towers and general fortified aspect of the 9th century Mosque indicates that it was probably originally part of Sousse's fortified area or kasbah.
At least three main buildings within the walled medina – another of Tunisia’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites - would have been standing when Ibn B passed by; the ribat, the Grand Mosque and the Kasbah. The 11th century Kasbah has been turned into a museum housing an outstanding collection of Roman mosaics. (I came across a mosaicist at work in the museum who can make a copy of any mosaic or design a new one upon request.) The ribat was built in the 9th century; the usual English translation of ribat is ‘fortified monastery’. Although Islam has no monastic tradition and the verb ‘rabata’ in Arabic means “to be garrisoned”, the architecture of a ribat is austere, (there is another a short distance down the coast in Monastir) and while they were originally built as a series of defensive forts against external threat from the sea, later it seems they did become a retreat of pious men who lived a life of prayer and good works and who depended on the charity of benefactors. The root word ‘rabata’ also gives us the word “almorabitoun” meaning ‘people of the ribat’ which was anglicized to become ‘Almoravid’ – the dynasty from the Western Sahara that swept to power across the Maghreb and Southern Spain, and founded their capital at Marrakech in the 11th century. (The word marabout or ‘holy man’ is also from this root word and while Islam has no tradition of saints and holy men either, there are thousands of them across North Africa.)
The more traditional face of Sousse, this austere ribat was one of a series of such fortified buildings all along the coast - see Monastir's ribat only 15 miles away. Much renovated, the Mediterranean would once have lapped its 9th century walls, now it is several blocks away.
The ribat and the next-door Grand Mosque have both been heavily restored - Sousse like other coastal Tunisian towns was badly bombed in WWII. The climb to the top of the minaret is rewarded by views over the entire medina from the Kasbah at one end to the sea at the other. Nowadays the medina mainly caters to tourists with stalls of associated knick-knacks, but a wander through its narrow streets reveals glimpses of the past. Walking from the ribat to the Kasbah, I came across a small Hanifite Mosque, instantly recognizable by its octagonal minaret. There are four schools of canonical law in Sunni Islam; Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi and Hanbali. Tunisia like the rest of the Maghreb and Libya follows the Maliki rite, their minarets are square and solid. The Ottomans followed the Hanafi rite and when they took control of North Africa they built their own Mosques, introducing the octagonal minaret. (This incidentally is historic, new minarets are built without such limitations and are propelled purely by the design of the architect/builder.) Just by the perfumers’ souk, is the 11th century Khalouat al-Koubba, ‘the domed retreat’, now an ethnographic museum featuring traditional Tunisian wedding customs. The external chevron-ribbed dome is extraordinary and unique in North Africa.
Before leaving Sousse I visited an early 20th century courtyard house, Dar Essid, situated just inside the rampart walls of the medina and now a museum, Not really a part of my mandate, I decided to take a quick detour anyway. The ground floor had three main rooms grouped round a central tiled courtyard; one was the principal wife’s bedroom, the others were second and third wives’ quarters. The first wife’s quarters consisted of a sitting room, a marble bathroom, a small bedroom for children under the age of ten (the bed was long and children slept head to toe), a narrow bed for the wife, and the marriage bed - all were canopied and draped with cashmere curtains. Custom held that after sex the wife went back to her own bed, the couple did not ‘sleep together’. Further on this theme was an interesting little remnant from Roman times placed in a niche next to the marriage bed; a Roman terracotta oil lamp decorated with an erotic image. Legend has it that the lamp had to remain lit during the entire lovemaking session but the man could not take his pleasure until the lamp had gone out. We are assured by the museum literature that the lamp was used as late as 1938….
The house, which until recently was lived in by the owners, has a tall tower the purpose of which was to determine when Ramadan began, i.e. when the new moon of the ninth month of the Hegira (Islamic lunar) calendar was first sighted. Everything inside the house belongs to the owners including some ancient Arabic manuscripts, marriage contracts and deeds thus giving an intriguing look at medina life for the upper middle classes in the not too distant past.