Part 4 of 6
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Thanks to Tunisia’s position, at the meeting point of Africa and Europe, the country is steeped in history and has no less than eight UNESCO world heritage sites. Much like Jordan in the Middle East, a number of these ruins are better preserved than their equivalents in Europe.
For instance, the amphitheatre in El Jem, North Africa’s largest colosseum, in the centre of the country, is comparable in size and stature to Rome’s Coliseum, but in better condition and far more open. The remains of the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage, spread across a huge 600-hectare site, atop a hill overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, are also easily accessible.
Tunisia also has a rich Islamic heritage with many beautiful mosques and one of the holiest cities in Islam in Kairouan. However, you will be able to see minarets and hear the call to prayer in any town and city in Tunisia.
Tunisia’s long history has provided a fantastic selection of historic sites to visit. If you’re struggling with where to start, here are the ones my boyfriend and I visited during our short stay in the country.
Once Rome’s major rival, Carthage was the city of the seafaring Phoenicians forever memorialized in the Punic Wars. The ruins are extensive but spread out, and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit ancient city sites such as Ephesus in Turkey or Volubilis in Morocco, which are well-preserved, Carthage can seem quite underwhelming at first. But these UNESCO World-Heritage-listed remnants are hugely important historically, and any tourist interested in North Africa’s ancient past shouldn’t miss a visit here.
Right by the entrance to the ruins is the Acropolium of Carthage. This Roman Catholic church was constructed in 1890 when it was known as Cathedrale Saint-Louis de Carthage, or Saint Louis Cathedral. The cathedral has not been used as a place of worship since 1993. It is now a venue for public events and concerts. It is also a popular tourist attraction.
2. Kasbah (fortress) of Hammamet
Constructed of rocks and stones, this square castle dates back to the 9th century, but was extensively restored in the 14th century as the seat of the city’s governor, and adapted for storing firearms in the 16th century, and was under military use until the 19th century.
Stroll around the walls of the kasbah for sweeping views of the city’s intertwining lanes, or get some of the best views of Hammamet and enjoy a breathtaking panoramic view of the bay, or visit the kasbah’s small museum with historical exhibits and some interesting Tunisian artifacts.
Once you’ve finished your tour of the kasbah, make sure you stroll around Hammamet’s maze of narrow and winding lanes within the town’s medina (old town) as it hosts a wealth of well-preserved traditional Tunisian architecture and is surrounded by its original15th-century walls.
Unfortunately, we didn’t find this town a very relaxing place as we were constantly harrassed by the traders in the medina, who we found to be extremely pushy and would not take no for an answer. Apart from that, we were also grossly overcharged by one of the coffee shops on the beach for what was obviously bottled orange juice rather than the freshly-squeezed ones we had expected.
The entry fee to visit inside the walls is a little steep at 8 dinars (around €2,50) per person), especially considering that there’s not much to see inside. However, there is a good view from the rampart walls if you are tempted to pay the entry fee.
3. Ribat (fortress) of Monastir
One of Tunisia’s most recognizable monuments, the ribat of Monastir was the earliest fortress built in Tunisia during the 8th-century Abbasid conquest, and one of the earliest in the entirety of North Africa. This sea-fronting fortress is an exceptional example of medieval defensive architecture, with its main features of high crenellated walls, watchtowers, and internal courtyards.
One of the most significant historical treasures among many others in Tunisia, the Ribat of Monastir is a beacon of Islamic military history and architecture. Built in the 8th Century, when Ribats or Islamic fortresses were just gaining prominence, this one is known to be one of the oldest extant constructed during the Maghreb conquest.
Intact even today, one can see the enormous ramparts and walls of the fortress. A spiral staircase leads to the soaring watchtower which allows visitors to get sweeping vistas of the gulf and the city of Monastir. With constant efforts taken to preserve the ribat , it is, undoubtably, one of the most remarkable attractions in Monastir.
If the ribat looks familiar, that’s because the complex is a great favourite of film directors in search of accessible Islamic architecture. Many scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed here, including hundreds of Tunisian extras laughing at Biggus Dickus. Franco Zeffirelli also came here to shoot scenes for his Jesus of Nazareth.
Excellent fortress/garrison, which has great views from the top. Entry is a very reasonable 8 dinars (around €2,50) per person). Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to enter. Ah well, for next time!
4. El Jem Amphitheatre
In the small town of El Jem you will find the third largest amphitheatre in the world, after those of Rome and Capua. It is probably the most impressive Roman monument. El Jem Amphitheatre (El Djem), also known as Thysdrus Amphitheatre after the original Roman settlement in this location, stands in the midst of a quiet town in Tunisia. This incredibly large and well-preserved Roman amphitheatre is El Jem’s star attraction and, unsurprisingly, draws visitors from around the world.
Between its arches, stairs and underground rooms you can get a very accurate idea of what the circus evenings were like, with gladiators and wild beasts fighting on the sand. During July and August, the International Festival of Symphonic Music takes place. Artists like Barbara Hendrix or the Vienna Opera Orchestra have recently played in this coliseum.
The monumental bulk of the walls are a reminder of Rome’s once-mighty grip across North Africa. You can still walk the corridors under the arena, just like the gladiators did. Or, climb up to the top seating tiers and sit staring across the arena, imagining the battles that took place below.
Despite the ravages of time, El Jem remains one of the most evocative Ancient Roman Structures in the world and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. You might also recognise this ancient treasure from Monty Python’s film, Life of Brian.
You can purchase a ticket to the amphitheatre at the small booth just in front. The price is 12 dinars (around €4,00).
5. Medina of Tunis
The Medina of Tunis – the historic quarter of the capital of Tunisia – is a labyrinth of some 700 monuments and buildings, many dating to the period between the 12th and the 16th centuries.
The Medina of Tunis was founded in the 7th century following the fall of Carthage, but flourished in the 12th century under the rule of the Almohad Dynasty then the Hafsid Dynasty up to the 16th century, both being Berber dynasties. During this time, Tunis was a thriving centre of commerce and culture, the result today being an impressive collection of surviving mosques, palaces, and monuments.
The capital of Tunisia’s Medina, or old town, is a magical labyrinth. Around the Great Mosque, you will forget that time exists. The colorful markets or souks are entwined with palaces, alleys, fountains, mausoleums and small craft workshops linked through narrow passages. Want a tip? Go up to the roof of a building and enjoy the view.
Founded in 670 AD, this ancient city in the centre of Tunisia was previously the country’s capital until that function was transferred to Tunis in the 12th century. Nevertheless, it remained an important holy city and continues to attract religious pilgrims to this day.
With mosques, madrassas, and tombs aplenty, Kairouan has more than its fair share of monuments as the fourth most important city for those of the Muslim faith. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Islam’s holy centre.
The Arabic architecture here is truly inspiring, and the skyline is full of skinny minarets and bulky domes. But it’s probably the back alleys of the city’s medina that steal the show. With narrow, maze-like lanes lined with crumbling colorful houses, Kairouan’s old town has an enchanting, lost-in-time atmosphere that is a true highlight of a visit here.
The city boasts a rich architectural heritage, most notably seen in the Great Mosque of Uqba, one of the largest Islamic monuments in all of North Africa. Muslims say that seven pilgrimages to this impressive mosque is considered the equivalent of one pilgrimage to Mecca.
Tickets cost 12 dinar (around €4,00) and give you access to five other local attractions. Visitors’ clothing must be below the knee (so long shorts are ok). You can walk around the large, pretty courtyard, and can see into the prayer area, but cannot enter the latter.
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