And so to Tunis. Ibn Battuta had no border issues to contend with but there were roving bands of marauding tribes and
“we…traveled light with the utmost speed, pushing on day and night without stopping”.
The only concern I had to contend with was traffic – and the hotel receptionist in Annaba having offered to drive me to the border for a fee, price accepted we set off. We established after much discussion that I would cross the border at Oum Togoul on the Algerian side and Maloula on the Tunisian side, there being several borders between the two countries in the vicinity. From Algerian Immigration and Customs, the 10 km drive though No Man’s Land (in fact it is Tunisian territory) is through beautiful cork-oak studded hills to the Tunisian Immigration authorities at Maloula. (Wild boar hunted in those hills is found on menus in Tunisia.)
This is probably the route Ibn B would have taken, bypassing Tabarka, a Mediterranean town formerly a center of coral and a Genoese trading port – one of their castles still sits sentry on a hill on an isthmus protecting the harbor.
“So at last we reached the town of Tunis and the townsfolk came out to welcome the shaikh Abu Abdullah az-Zubaidi…….On all sides they came forward with greetings and questions to one another, but not a soul said a word of greeting to me since there was none of them that I knew. I felt so sad at heart on account of my loneliness that I could not restrain the tears that started to my eyes and wept bitterly. But one of the pilgrims, realizing the cause of my distress came up to me with a greeting and friendly welcome and continued to comfort me with friendly talk until I entered the city where I lodged at the college of the Booksellers.”
This was the one and only time that Ibn B acknowledged homesickness and the loneliness of the road. No such tears awaited me thanks entirely to Zuhair M’Barek and his team at Batouta Voyages, firstname.lastname@example.org who looked after me so splendidly in Tunisia from border to border. Named for the ‘Prince of Travelers’ himself, they organized my hotels and transport, in addition to setting up a meeting with Jamila Binous, a writer, historian and academic specializing in the medina.
Tunis Medina; A typical street in Rue du Pacha in El Hafsia, a more residential part of the medina where at one time there was a large Jewish community. The medinas always had a principal mosque or 'masjid jami' for the 5 daily prayers as well as the communal Friday prayers. However each quarter of the medina also had a local mosque for the residents for the 5 daily prayers. The mosque at the end of the street is one such mosque.
The medina in Tunis is classed a UNESCO World heritage site and is a marvelously intact example of urban planning in North Africa from the 10th-18th century. The main reason I wanted to visit was to find out where Ibn B’s college of the Booksellers was as there is no madrasa of that name now. Jamila thought there were two possibilities; a madrasa located in a tiny impasse off the souk des attarines, or perfume souk, or the Madrasa Shamaiyah built in 1273 and one of the oldest in the Maghreb. It now houses a school of artisanal trades where pupils take 3-year courses to learn leatherwork, glasswork, embroidery etc.
This is all that Ibn B mentions of the medina with the exception of the Zaitoun Mosque itself; begun in the 7th century, and rebuilt by the Aghlabids in the 9th century, the courtyard (built on a slope to collect rainwater for ritual ablutions) was built in the 17th century, while the current minaret dates back only to the 19th century, although the lozenge design is Almohad, 12th century. Only the courtyard can be visited and even for Muslims, prior permission must be obtained before you can enter the mosque which is closed outside the hours of prayer. Both inside and outside the prayer hall, the builders made liberal use of Roman columns and capitals probably taken from Carthage. Tradition had it that mosques were to be surrounded only by “noble trades” and thus booksellers, perfumers, wool and silk merchants, jewelers and candle makers had their shops against the mosque walls while other guilds were organized peripherally so that at the furthest extent were the least desirable, such as leather dyers and tanners. This is still visible in the names of the streets which reflect their former trades or guilds; the street of the dyers, the spice souk, the fezmaker street etc.
It is impossible to discover the medina in one visit and there are at least 4 different routes one can take based on one’s interests. We started at the Place du Gouvernement; the Prime Minister’s office was formerly the guest palace of the 18th century Husseinid Beys, walked past 18th century Aziza Othman Hospital (still functioning), through the fezmakers souk, where there is an atmospheric little café, and on to the Three Madrasas, near the Zaitouna Mosque. From there a quick visit to the house where Tunis’ most famous son, Ibn Khaldun, was born in the 14th century (philosopher and social scientist) and then to the tomb of the Beys – Tourbet al-Bey, and some of the medina’s most beautiful 17th century houses; Dar Ben Abdullah now a museum of Traditional Arts, and Dar Othman, the home of a former pirate turned politician - some things never change….
Jamila has authored a book about those stunning houses and a visit to this enduring part of Tunis with her makes it come alive. Several of the courtyard houses have been turned into restaurants; I can recommend Dar el-Jeld and Dar Essaraya, and do not miss staying at the exquisitely, charming 12-room Dar el-Medina (email@example.com), a typical courtyard house.