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Volume 43, Number 5September/October 1992

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A Study in Blue and White

Written and photographed by Charles O. Cecil

From the rising promontory of Sidi Bou Said, on the western flank of the Bay of Tunis, you could have watched the Roman destruction of Carthage, a few kilometers away, in 146 BC. In 19 BC, you could have observed the arrival of 3000 Roman colonists, dispatched by a decision of the emperor Augustus to rebuild the city.

From your vantage point near the top of the hill in AD 1270, you could have viewed the entire army of Louis IX of France camped on the shore, its tents stretching toward Tunis in the distance, as the king lay dying of a fever. Was it perhaps a lingering memory of these and other images of the ebb and flow of temporal power that led pious men to seek these heights as a retreat for meditation, to be able to contemplate the ways of the world from the physical and spiritual viewpoint they named kursi al-sulh - the seat of reconciliation? It's best to visit this Tunisian village yourself and let your own sense of history provide the answer.

Set on the uppermost point of the headland guarding the entrance of the Bay of Tunis, this village only 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Tunis itself has a distinct, traditional character and an architectural style that have been protected since 1915 by local ordinance. A strong community spirit, with a little persuasion where necessary from the municipal authorities, ensures that houses are painted as needed to maintain their fresh appearance. Brilliant white facades, with doors and some grillwork a striking, near-turquoise blue, or the darker, deeper "Sfaxian" blue, draw the eyes as well as the feet up the hillside toward the minaret of the village mosque.

This site was first settled more than 2000 years ago, but as suburb and fortress rather than as a principal urban center. Vestiges of Punic settlement dating to the fifth century BC have been found, corroborated by texts referring to the area as a wealthy suburb of Carthage. It is said that the house of Hamilcar, father of Hannibal, was on this hill, though there is no actual evidence of this. Since today's settlement covers the highest and most desirable part of the hill, it is likely that any confirmation of the site's early history will be revealed only slowly, as it is almost certainly underneath the present dwellings.

As the importance of Carthage declined, even after its resettlement by the Romans, and as the city of Tunis grew from the ninth century onward, Sidi Bou Said became too distant for those seeking nearby escape from a bustling urban environment. Settlement was reduced to small farmers and herdsmen, who used the land at the base of the hill. Some Tunisian authorities believe that because of its strategic importance overlooking the entrance to the bay, there must always have been a fortress of sorts on the promontory. But for centuries, settlement was limited.

Thanks to the respect accorded Abu Said al-Baji, a local religious leader who died in 1236, the site became a place where Muslims might visit, learn and pray. Abu Said, from whom the village takes its name, lies interred at the base of the minaret of the mosque. toward which thousands of tourists annually make their way, but more to photograph the narrow, picturesque streets and to bargain for souvenirs than to pay their respects to the Muslim teacher. Indeed, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the' mosque - one of the few restraints on foreigners in tourist-conscious Tunisia. Two coffee shops adjacent to the mosque, with others beyond, soothe the disappointment.

Some say that it is Saint Louis himself who is buried in the mosque, rather than Abu Said al-Baji, but there is enough historical evidence on both sides, Christian and Muslim, to refute this folk belief.

It was, perhaps, the increasingly military nature of the encounters with Europe which led the Hafsid ruler Abu al-Abbas (1370-1394) to construct a defensive fortification at Sidi Bou Said. The area nevertheless appears to have continued to serve primarily as a gathering point for pious retreats, with some sparse rural habitation, until the Hafsid fortress was captured by Charles V in 1535. It was then occupied by the Spanish until 1574, at which point it passed to Turkish control.

It is to the Turks that we owe the present mausoleum in which lies the body of Abu Said, now called Sidi (a term of respect) Bou Said, and the present-day village traces its origins to the period of Turkish hegemony. The mausoleum's principal entrance was later closed and a portion of it was transformed into the café which today is the goal of most tourists, particularly in the summer months.

As Tunis expanded in the late 18th century, princes, ministers and senior officials began to take a new interest in Sidi Bou Said. They sought escape from the cramped, urban conditions of the capital, which - because of its low location between two hills - suffered from high summer temperatures and still air. By the middle of the 19th century, Sidi Bou Said had acquired its character as a desirable retreat for the upper classes, who availed themselves of its pleasant breezes and cooler temperatures. Many extensive palaces and country residences date from this period.

Within 50 years of this 19th-century construction boom, the ordinance of 1915 stabilized the village, stylistically if not structurally, at something resembling its present appearance. Although many houses fell into ruin with the passing of the era of the Ottoman upper classes, others were adapted to new, modern uses as restaurants, cafés, and hotels, profiting from the village's growing reputation as a picturesque site that captures, in cameo, the atmosphere of the Tunisia of the 19th and earlier centuries.

An example of this is the budget Hotel Abou Faris, which holds the coffin of the Hafsid Sultan Abou Faris Abdulaziz (1394-1434) in one of the dozen rooms opening off its interior courtyard. Another is the Café des Maures, actually another mausoleum, which offers one of the best vantage points for looking down on the site of Carthage, the Punic Ports, the Bay of Tunis and the capital beyond, while enjoying a soft drink or a cup of tea. After a half-hour here, in this beautiful site, one understands the origin of the name, "seat of reconciliation."

One of the pleasures of walking the streets, narrow and cobblestoned, and enjoying the many pleasant views of the village and the bay, is that Tunisians themselves are likely to be as numerous as foreign visitors - and they give the coffee houses at least as much business. A dozen varieties of candy, the local doughnuts, called bambaloni, or cups of sweet tea with pine nuts floating on the surface are all for sale, tempting families of any nationality out for a pleasant afternoon or early evening walk. Except at religious sites, where non-believing visitors are generally considered out of place, the Tunisian tolerance of tourists, their cameras, and their dress demonstrates the general open-mindedness of the people toward foreign ideas and presence.

With 3000 years' experience in dealing with the Mediterranean economy and its various cultures, Tunisians have concluded that they know how to profit from such exchanges. Sidi Bou Said is only one of the features of modern-day Tunisia which demonstrates that the foresight to preserve one's own culture and tradition assures benefits, material and intangible, to both present and future generations.

Charles O. Cecil was director of the U. S. Stale Department's Arabic Language Field School in Sidi Bou Said. He is now assigned to Abidjan. Cecil is required to state that "the opinions and vieivs expressed are the author's own, and not those of the Department of State."

This article appeared on pages 8-13 of the September/October 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1992 images.