Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Tunis Medina


Yesterday we got to venture into downtown Tunis itself to see both the European quarter and the medina, or old city. This was officially the last part of our orientation, though we also began classes on Monday. 

On our way to Tunis, we took the tram (also called TGM because it connects Tunis to the suburbs of Goulette and Marsa) in order to learn a bit more about using public transit with confidence. As we walked into Tunis, our director was approached by a plainclothes police officer who is a member of a brigade dedicated to assisting tourists. As a result, we ended up with a police escort for about a half a mile. First, we headed to CEMAT (the Center for Maghreb Studies in Tunis), a research center downtown, where we will be spending lots of time during the ISP period of the program. We visited the library there and learned all about their extensive research materials which are available to us. 
CEMAT is housed in a lovely old villa built by an Italian fascist (and named for his daughter), later resided in by a French general after World War Two, claimed in the 1950's by a newly independent Tunisia, and given to CEMAT a few year ago at their founding by the Ministry of Education. 

Lily and I were dressed the same way, down to the tortoiseshell glasses...

After visiting CEMAT, we ventured into the medina, which is built on a hill. At the top of the hill is the grand mosque, which is surrounded by streets which historically were home to various trades. The cleanest trades (perfume shops, booksellers) were closest to the mosque, while dirtier professions (tanneries) were located at the bottom of the hill, far from the mosque. 

In the Medina we also got to see the exterior of the grand mosque, though it was closed. This mosque, which also was home to the esteemed Zeitouna University, was built around the year 800 and thus is one of the oldest in North Africa. Interestingly, it was built on the same spot as an ancient Roman temple; a spot of excavation showcasing lead pipes displays this. 

Near the mosque we also got to see the former dormitory of students who traveled to Tunis to study in the university. Now the home of a variety of NGO's, the building still displays significant Tunisian traits, such as the white striped archways. 
Hayley and some several-hundred year old tile

Another interesting point about the mosque is its minaret in comparison to other nearby minarets. When built, Islam did not have a sure hold in the region and thus the minaret doubled as a watchtower and the mosque as a fortress. A nearby Ottoman mosque from the 18th century was instead much more intricate with an octagonal shape and decorative designs. 
The functional watchtower-like minaret of the large mosque.

Two different more decorative Ottoman minarets in the Medina.

We also had a chance to visit Kasbah Square (aka government square), the home to many of the 2011 protests. Still today you can see remnants of the protests, including increased police presence and barbed wire near the entrance. 

After Kasbah Square, we went to a tea shop in the medina (Tunisians love their mint tea). Interestingly, the tea shops built in the 18th century were all built adjacent to the tomb of a Sufi saint, and we could see that the wall of the tomb had been incorporated into the tea shop. 
The brick wall in the back is the tomb. 

Lily, Taylor and I enjoying the tea house 

At the end of the day, we returned via bus to the program center in order to continue to learn about transportation methods available to us. I'm looking forward to venturing back into downtown Tunis again and feel confident in my ability to do so--as long as I don't get lost in the medina!

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