There is so much more to explore in Tunisia than in Tunis. From the coast along the Mediterranean to the desert, it has a rich history, unique culture, and beautiful scenery – at a relatively low cost that attracts tourists all across Europe. Here’s a list of the best places in the outskirts of Tunis that travelers can visit, either as a day trip or a short getaway.
Kairouan, or Qayrawan or “Kairwan”, is a UNESCO World Heritage site – it is regarded as an important center for Sunni Islamic scholarship and Quranic learning. Many Muslims consider this place of pilgrimage, after Mecca and Medina. The city was founded by the Umayyads around 670, in the period of CaliphMu’awiya. Legend has it, this location was chosen when a soldier was tripped by a golden grail and water sprung out from the ground.
An expedition team was sent to the mountains and brought water to the city. There are fifteen reservoirs (basins) that supply water to the citizens, and as matter of fact, the locals developed the technologies by using 64 rocks to purify the water.
Great Mosque of Kairouan
The Great Mosque of Kairouan, also known as the Mosque of Uqba, is the heart of the city. As it was built at the time of the Arab conquest of the Maghreb in the middle of the 8th century, the Great Mosque of Kairouan is today the most ancient monument in both the Muslim Occident and Spain. It is also a masterpiece of Maghreb’s Islamic architecture. Venerated, as it was, following the murder of its founder Okba Ibn Nafi by a Berber, it has been maintained and restored regularly. In 836, and with the advent of Aghlabids, the first independent dynasty of the country, it underwent its greatest transformation. Later restorations hardly modified the 19th-century aspect of the monument. However, and because of the foundation of the town of Sabra in the western part of Kairouan, tradesmen and craftsmen were forced to move to this new settlement, and, therefore, the citizens of Kairouan themselves moved westward, which left Sidi Okba’s Mosque in an eccentric position.
The mosque played more than one role in the life of Kairouan and Tunisia as a whole. In addition, to its initial function as a place for prayer, it was a school and a forum for the theological discussions that had for centuries animated the different religious tendencies. It also played the role of the court and of the venue where governors were appointed. It was from this mosque that “Malikism” triumphed in Tunisia and in the Maghreb.
At first sight, the monument looks like a dilapidated fortress. Its very high curtain wall, almost eight meters, which is marked out with different buttresses, includes a surface larger than 8,000 square meters.
The area is separated into two parts: For the courtyard, it was originally deprived of the narthex gallery. On its eastern and western sides, the courtyard was bordered by coupled aisles that show some later restorations, most of which go back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The northern face is interrupted by the minaret. It is the most ancient minaret in Tunisia, in the Maghreb, and one of the oldest minarets that have survived. The minaret is composed of three, each one of them is adorned with crenelated parapets. The general aspect, as well as the building materials and techniques used, reveal a defensive role played by this Mosque.
For the oratory, it is covered with a flat roof supported by overstepped semi-circular arches topping diverse and antique columns. It contains 17 naves and 8 bays. The chief nave, the one in the Mihrab axis, as well as the south bay are wider and higher than any other. Thus, the Evoque has a basilical layout. The importance of the chief nave was reinforced by both the existence of pairs of naves delimiting it and the building of two domes at its two extremities. The dome in front of the Mihrab represents a masterpiece in the Aghlabids art. It is a ribbed dome in which the transition between the hemispheric calott and the octagonal tambour was achieved by means of shell-shaped squinches. All this is registered under flowered and epigraphic ornamentation. This very dome model is to be adopted afterward in the Sousse Mosque and in the Zaytuna in Tunis.
The Mosque was lit by means of luster and oil lamps. A civil servant known as Waquad was meant to take care of the light. One of the lamps, nowadays exhibited in the Raqqada museum, goes back to the 11th century; it bears the name of the Emir al Moizz ibn Badis.
Among the curiosities of the Mosque, it is worth mentioning the Mihrab which dates back to the 9th century. The marble slats that decorate its lower part, as well as the painted in cul-de-four, constitute a decoration repertory of the beginning of the Middle Age. As for the enamel tiles brought, according to the tradition, from Iraq, they represent rare samples of an industrial technique that is still enigmatic.
Apart from its architectural aspect, the monument boasts some other masterpieces and particularly the Minbar. It is the most ancient in the Moslem world. It was made at the beginning of the 9th century. The Maqsura, made in the 11th century. is also another piece of art in this Mosque. The quality and fine workmanship of the wood in these two masterpieces are really striking. Both of them give an idea about the high level reached by cabinet-work in medieval Tunisia while associating ornamentation repertory, largely varied and in which the flowered, geometrical, architectural, and epigraphic ornamentations are to be found.
Abou Zomaa Al Balawi
This mausoleum was built to the memory of the holy journeyman of the Prophet Mohamed, called Abo Zomaa al-Balaoui or Sidi Sahbi, who succumbed in 655 during a battle against the Byzantine army. His body was interred on the future site of Kairouan, and it seems that he had in his clothes some hair of the Prophet: hence the appellation “the barber”.
In the 15th century, the mausoleum appeared in the form of a simple dome at an octagonal base surrounded by a wall. It was enlarged by the governor Hammouda Pacha who built a school “medrassa” in 1663, then renovated by the erudite by Mohamed Ben Mourad, in 1685.
In fact, the complex is constituted by the following ships: A warehouse located to the left of the entrance, which serves to store products yielded by the “habous” of the Saint and donations. Apartments, called “Alwi”, meaning the perched, which welcomed formerly the employee in the collection of local taxes then later, the distinguished guests.
In the northeast angle, draws up an elegant minaret of Spanish-Moresque style in the uneven niches similar to those of the minarets of the Koutoubiya to Marrakech, also to the big mosque of Tlemcen and to the mosque of the Kasbah of Tunis.
The access to the mausoleum itself is made by a door supervised by white and red marble of Italian style. The attraction is constituted by the grave of the journeyman. The architecture of the monument reflects the Turkish, Andalusian, and Italianist influences in touch with the European revival; the group is harmoniously done in the traditions of the architectural school of Kairouan.
Abou Zamaa al-Balaoui, or Sidi Sahbi, is considered the boss of the city of Kairouan and where he enjoys particular worship. His mausoleum is the most visited by the Tunisians who stream to it particularly during the commemoration of Molded which commemorates the birth of the Prophet. On this occasion, we celebrate the ceremonies of marriages and circumcisions.
Hammamet is a coastal city with beautiful beaches, attracting locals and tourists to come here and enjoy the sun, swimming, and doing water sports. It is one of the primary tourist destinations in the country and it also features a number of resorts with leisure facilities – a great area to have a weekend getaway. If you are there during summer, you might be there for the Hammamet International Festival.
El Jem, or El Djem, is a town about 200 kilometers away from Tunis and it’s about two hours driving there. The town has a small population yet it is home to some of the most impressive Roman remains in Africa. The Amphitheater of El Jem is an iconic and striking landmark that is well-preserved, and one of the most important in North Africa.
El Jem has almost an elliptical shape. Thanks to its size of 149 meters in length, it could accommodate a great number of people of about 30,000 persons. The Roman Colosseum would welcome 43,000 with a surface covering a perimeter of 527 meters. The spectators, who came as many from the town as from its surroundings, could sit on the marble tiers, each one according to his rank. The steps rose in the first stair and corridors system made it easy for the spectators to have access to the theater and to evacuate it without overcrowding.
Shows took place in the arena which lays on an underground space intended to shelter the fawn and the gladiators. Besides, a mobile floor facilitated the passage from the wings to the stage and added a touch of surprise to the shows. The spectacle consisted of fights between gladiators, professionally armed combatants, who put their lives fighting with wild animals and capital executions.
Sfax is about 270 kilometers south of Tunis and it’s founded in 849 on the ruins of Roman Taparura. It is now a major port and the second-largest city in Tunisia after Tunis, featuring beautiful buildings in the city center, and a lot of them are also painted in blue and white, with intricate architectural details. Enjoy the view at the top of the Kasbah. The Kasbah is a desert fortress located at the corner of the medina.
Sousse is about 140-kilometer south of Tunis, and it is a popular getaway among the locals as a vacation destination. While we were there, we spotted a number of resort hotels lined up along the waterfront, including a few international hotel chains like Movenpick. While the complex is still under construction, we saw signs of sushi and teppanyaki restaurant, and we were kind of excited to try them if they were already open.
However, some of them in a prime location right by the water looked abandoned and I was not sure if it was due to a drop of international travelers, as I knew the city was a stop of many Mediterranean cruises. The hotel we stayed at has a balcony overlooking the ocean from the suites, and it’s only a short walk from the city’s most popular market. To me, Sousse does have the potential to be developed as Africa’s Havana or Cancun, not many international brands have set foot in the city yet it has a small-town charm at the market. We visited a roof-top cafe that has a panoramic view of the town center, and the market looks vibrant with stores selling local products and souvenirs. Have a bite of date, or local kebab, explore a local bakery. I felt quite safe walking in the alleys and people are generally friendly, drivers stop and let us cross the road when we were waiting to cross, and while it’s a Muslim community, not all ladies wrap their heads on the street. I wonder what are ways the government can do to boost tourism?
Pirates and Tunisia
Hayreddin Barbarossa (1466 – 1546)
North African piracy had very ancient origins. It gained political significance during the 16th century, mainly through Barbarossa, who united Algeria and Tunisia as military states under the Ottoman sultanate and maintained his revenues by piracy. He was named the “greatest pirate that has ever lived, and his death was a sigh of the greatest relief”. He was the inspiration of Hector Barbossa, played by Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.
In fact, he was born in the Ottoman Empire back in the 16th century and while he was in the Ottoman Navy, his victory secured Ottoman dominance over the Mediterranean at that time. He was appointed with multiple accolades during his service and conquered Tunis in 1534, founding a decisive victory over the Holy League at Preveza in 1538. Since the conquest of Tunis, Tunis was captured as a strategic port of La Goulette the same year.
Jack Ward (1553 – 1622)
Another pirate, interestingly, operates in Tunis after Barbarossa, is Jack Ward, or Birdy, or Yusuf Raïs, an English pirate who was active in the 17th century. He became the famous Barbary Corsair operating out of Tunis during the early 1700s. Their predation extended throughout the Mediterranean, all the way along West Africa’s Atlantic seaboard and into the North Atlantic as far north as Iceland. To learn more about this legendary pirate, you may find a book that was kept in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Besides, you will also find a statue of Jack Ward at Istanbul’s pier as a representation of peace and luck to every ship that sails across the sea.
So, one of the must-dos in Tunisia is hopping on a pirate cruise and appreciating the sceneries of the city like Sousse from the Mediterranean Sea. The scenic cruise sails in a loop at the harbor and usually it has more to it. Once the cruise stopped, performers put on a show to entertain and we were lucky to have a beautiful day that we get to see the entire city from the water, including the landmark Sousse Ribat.
The Ribat was built around 778 and it is one of the most ancient Islamic monuments in Tunisia. For its construction, various antique materials, brought from ancient Hadrumetum, were re-employed. The building has a square plan with four corner towers and consists of a ground floor and two upper stories. The southern side of the first story is occupied by a prayer hall, whereas the cells located on the other three sides are exclusively dedicated to the Murabitun. The second upper floor is dedicated to the defense and watching activities. The high cylindrical look-out tower, whose visit is highly recommended, was completed in 821. In addition to its military function, the ribat is also a religious institution aimed at spreading Islam, particularly among prisoners of war. It could also be used as a refuge in case of outside attacks, as much as a coaching inn or an accommodation quarter for travelers and tradesmen.
Monastir is located in the Sahel area, about 20 kilometers south of Sousse and it’s traditionally a fishing port. Today, it is a city with a number of tourist resorts as the population rose to over 90,000. While you are there, drop by the Ribat in Monastir that was built in 796 and it is the oldest ribat built by Arab conquerors during the conquest of the Maghreb.