It is early morning in the Souk el Attarine. Hundreds of people jam the narrow cobbled thoroughfares of this huge market in Tunis as they hurry toward the daily auction of materials, brightly colored silks for which the capital of Tunisia is famous.
The vaulted tunnels leading to the auction place are lined with hutch-like stalls casually displaying their owners' wares. Here a cross-legged cobbler fashions a pair of belghas, heelless North African slippers of soft creamy leather. Across the way a silversmith shapes a jewelry box of Byzantine design, while his neighbor sits dreamily atop a pile of pastel-striped blankets from Djerba. A smiling vendor hawks the beauties of carpets from Kairouan. Another bargains with a customer interested in a vase from Nabeul.
Two or three hundred years ago the scene might have been the same, and it is likely that the merchandise so colorfully offered for sale would have varied little.
Tunisia, located on the northern tip of Africa just across the Mediterranean from the Italian island of Sicily, has been the crossroads for a series of great civilizations.
First the Phoenicians established their settlements of Phoenicia and Carthage in the twelfth century B.C. A thousand years later the Romans invaded and set up a rebuilt Carthage as their second city after Rome. The Moors settled in Tunisia after the fall of Cordova in 1492, and Arab occupation began in the seventh century. It lasted until Turkish rule in the sixteenth century. Then came the Italians and the French. One by one the civilizations played out their destinies on Tunisian soil.
Aside from the magnificent ruins that dot the Tunisian countryside, these traces are most evident in the arts and crafts of the country.
Perhaps the best-known of Tunisian handicrafts are the carpets of Kairouan. The city was founded in 668 by Okba ibn Nefaa and was the residence of Omayyad and Aghlabite governors for centuries. Kairouan supplied the caliphs of Baghdad with a yearly tithe of 120 carpets.
Kairouan is one of the few places in Tunisia where the women do the weaving, chatting gaily as their deft fingers ply the shuttle. They turn out two types of carpet—pile and short-nap. The latter are subdivided into mergoums, which have a diamond pattern worked into a neutral ground, and klims, formed by alternate strips of natural-colored wools. Most sought after are the zerhiyas, which are pile rugs. Their traditional design of a central motif bordered by an arabesque pattern is largely responsible for the widespread appreciation of Kairouan carpets.
Wander into one of the ateliers in Nabeul where pottery is made and the setting may remind you of the ancient Roman mosaics in the Bardo Museum near Tunis. The men at the pottery wheels look remarkably like their forebears.
In nearby Dar Chaabane, practically every man in the village is a stone sculptor. Tunisians prize the local art of nakch hadida, and many homes have carved lintels, doorways and patio arches of this delicate white stonework. The carvers work in soft sandstone, suitable only for dry climates, for rain would soon wash away the designs. The pattern is stenciled on the stone with damp charcoal and the sculptor follows the marks with his chisel, turning out cobweb-like lacework distinguished by a Moorish feeling.
On the island of Djerba, known to readers of Homer as the spot Ulysses called "the Isle of Lotus Eaters," a number of unique arts and crafts are practiced. For centuries the potters of Djerba have molded baking jugs and water jars whose pure forms recall classic Greek amphorae.
Lambs' wool and camels' hair from the island and silk from the continent are woven into fine cloth. Looms are simple but the weavers use them with speed and agility. Carpets from Djerba are less sophisticated than those of Kairouan. Highly colored and uncomplicated in design, they resemble loosely woven wall hangings or blankets.
Spanish Muslim influence can still be seen in the elaborately inlaid leather saddles made in the suqs of Kairouan and Tunis. But the Moors brought to North Africa an even more traditional craft—the manufacture of chechias. A close-fitting red skull cap, the chechia begins as a long hand-knitted white woolen tube. Submitted to a series of dippings in spring waters and ancient dyes, which gradually shrinks the tube, the chechia is then dried, pressed and given a nap by teaseling with a bulrush.
At Cap Bon, descendants of the Turks produce finely netted silken curtains. In Sidi Bou Said, Byzantine birdcages with filigreed domes and minarets are lined up for market. Chebka lace made with Irish thread in Bizerte, carved wooden utensils from Sfax, wrought-iron tables from Nabeul and engraved copper plates from Sousse are among other handicrafts that, although very old, bear the stamp of Tunisian individuality.
Tunisia is a land of arts and crafts. Almost 500,000 people make their living from handicrafts, either on a family basis or in small enterprises. Their work is protected by the Government's Office de l'Artisanat, which maintains standards of quality and has begun to introduce mechanization into some of the less creative steps of craft production.
The Tunisian artisan, renowned throughout the world for his traditional designs and careful workmanship, has little need to change the techniques of his ancestors.