My two weeks in Tunisia left me with a lasting impression of the warmth of its people – where family ties are particularly strong. A country where a lot of emphasis has been placed on the status and equality of women – not particularly common in the Arab world. A country of greater tolerance and moderation than most of its surrounding neighbours, as the government doggedly pursued a secular political agenda since independence in 1956. A country where desertscapes and some architecture were so otherwordly, that it was deemed bizzare enough to be the set of many Star Wars films.
From my experience, I found Tunis to be one of the most liberal cities in the Middle East & North Africa. It’s quite normal to find some daughters in the same family wearing a headscarf and others not. They choose. The Personal Status Code of 1956 is still seen as revolutionary in the Arab World. This banned polygamy and divorce by renunciation (a husband saying “I divorce you” three times to divorce his wife). This code also gave women the right to vote, refuse arranged marriages and run for political office. While the vast majority of the country is Muslim, the other minorities I saw live alongside in harmony. Perhaps in part owing to the strong secular Tunisian identity that was created post-independence.
This was the old and original heart of the city. A charming, maze-like old town was once all Tunis was – everything centred around its Great (Zaytouna) Mosque, with a labyrinth of alleyways and glittering souqs. Everything either leads towards or from this mosque. Surrounding the mosque are several ‘medersas’ – schools for the study of the Quran. For me, getting completely lost in the maze of alleys was the best way of absorbing the medina’s beautiful architecture. There is method to the madness in which the souqs within the medina were organised. The more ‘refined’ trades historically were closer to the Great Mosque while the ‘dirtier’ businesses like blacksmiths stayed on the edges. When the French came along, they built the Ville Nouvelle (new town) in the 19th century. As a result a lot of people left their family homes and migrated closer to the sea. The medina then went into decline and became primarily the place where rural people settled when they moved to Tunis. Some say its original vibrance and charisma faded after that.
The Tunisian experience is not complete until you’ve ‘scrub a dub dubbed’ in a hammam – the ancient, atmospheric public bathhouses of Tunisia. Their iconic candy-striped red and green doorways are dotted throughout the medina. El Kachachine is one of the medina’s oldest functioning hammams. It’s still for men only and you need to enter via a barber store. The experience is only complete apparently after you’ve been steamed and scrubbed down by one of the hammam’s elderly masseurs. I went during a weekday morning, expecting just to find retirees at the hammam. To my surprise the people there ranged from early 20s to late 60s. Clearly fondness for a good steam has been passed on through the generations.
Food I will always remember from Tunis? Chamia – a sweet paste of sesame seeds that have been toasted and ground. A perfect spread on warm, freshly baked baguette. Ideal for breakfast 🙂
#AdminTip: Tunis has a very efficient tram system, confusingly called the métro léger. A oneway ticket into the town centre = 0.35 dinar ($0.12)
Carthage: a great ancient city that inspired poetry and legends. In its heyday, the city was famed for its navy and was home to the military mastermind, Hannibal. Its harbours were a big driver of its wealth and firmly placed Carthage as a big power in the Mediterranean. However, Carthage was later trashed by the Romans and then by the Vandals. Sadly, only small pieces remain as a reminder of the city’s epic past. Today, Carthage holds the status of Tunis’ most exclusive suburbs, with not only many a snazzy villa but also the President’s Palace.
#AdminTip: To get to Carthage, take the TGM – a suburban train connecting Tunis with several northern beachside suburbs. Cheap, fast and convenient, one way tickets to Carthage are 0.7 TND. Duration: 30 min. Stay on the same train for longer to arrive in Sidi Bou Saïd.
This Roman amphitheatre built in the 1st century was once the largest in the whole empire – capable of seating an incredible 36000 people! Sadly only the oval of the stage remains today, with weeds merrily growing everywhere. So it requires a little imagination to think of the might and the majesty this theatre once had. Wasn’t hard for me since flash backs of the Roman Colosseum and the movie Gladiator came to mind almost instantly as I was walking around. I also went down to see the sinister underground passages and cells which are now exposed. Apparently it was in these passages under the arena where the theatre’s victims once stood shivering with fright before coming out onto the stage.
The Punic Ports Two ancient, legendary ports that were once the crux of Carthage’s prosperity. They are a largely as a result of the city’s founders – the Phoenicians (from today’s Lebanon) – who were astute business people, credited with inventing trade resulting in Carthage’s dominance in the Mediterranean. The commercial port had direct sea access and the naval port was located slightly further interior – giving it a superior advantage. However, after Carthage was destroyed in 146 BC the ports were filled in and then in the 2nd century the Romans used the port as a means of sending wheat back to Rome. Long gone are its powerful days – since the end of the 6th century, the harbour has fallen into disuse. Today, it’s just a place where people come for a quiet walk when the weather is nice.
Sanctuary of Tophet: A Dark Secret
A shocking discovery awaited French archaeologists in 1921 over here. They unearthed a site where it is believed Carthaginian children were sacrificed to the gods, although some controversy exists about the site’s interpretation. The name ‘Tophet’ means place of burning in Hebrew and originated from biblical references to child sacrifice. It’s a truly haunting experience to walk through a field of stellae, some hidden in caves, underneath which urns carrying ashes of newborns to young children were found dating back to 4th century BC.
Antonine Baths – the largest bath complex outside Rome
Even though just the foundations of this 2nd century complex remain, it’s not hard to get a sense of its historic grandeur. I was tickled by the names of all the rooms – the caldarium (hot room), saunas, tepidarium (warm room), frigidarium (cold room). There were even ‘palestras’ where people could engage in frisky sports like naked wrestling 🤼♀️ 🙂 The baths were sadly destroyed by the Vandals in AD 439 and much of the remaining stone was used in the construction of Tunis by the Arabs.
Sidi Bou Saïd
If you stay on the TGM train a few more stops beyond Carthage, you reach the pretty, whitewashed village of Sidi Bou Saïd – perched on a clifftop with panoramic views of the ocean.With winding alleyways, cobblestone streets, and white houses with handsomely crafted blue doors and windows, it almost felt like walking through a story. My favourite spot was the vantage point up on a hill near the old lighthouse. From here, you can see a beautiful panorama of the whole village, the sea, and the sun slowly setting over the horizon.
Dar El-Annabi, Sidi Bou Saïd
While walking around Sidi Bou Saïd after lunch, I took a sneak peak into a traditional Tunisian house in classic Arabic style. Dar El-Annabi (along with a few other houses) is open for visitors to come in and take a look for a small fee. What attracted me the most about the whole design was the amount of natural light everywhere, which automatically made me feel happier.
My two favourite elements? The family library, which had a cosy cushion corner: perfect to curl up in with a good book and warm coffee; and the Andalusian inner courtyard with a fountain, jasmine trees and flowering bougainvillea: a great place for friends and family to gather as the sun goes down when the evenings are warm. Perfect dinner party venue!