Hafeth Blayech spends his days much like his father, and his grandfather did. In his small workshop in a narrow alleyway of the Medina, the old town of Tunis, he rubs red felt with a large metal brush until he is covered in small flecks of red wool.
Blayech is a maker of chechias – the traditional round felt hats that are worn, mostly by old men, in the winter. He is one of the 90% of craftsmen in a street full of hatmakers who have inherited the business from their forefathers. Although business was better in his father’s day, Blayech, 37, says that with his regular clients, and the passing tourist trade, he still earns enough to make ends meet.
Blayech’s workshop is in the souk el Chaouachine, one of more than a dozen traditional markets that are grouped according to crafts in the Medina. Most are located near the heart of the labyrinthine old city near the Al Zitouna mosque, one of the most revered and largest places of worship in Tunis.
The oldest souks date from the 13th century and boast architecture from many different periods and influences. Buildings from the Hafsid dynasty, to the Andalusian, Arab and Ottoman civilizations form a chaotic ensemble that over centuries has become perfectly tuned.
Visitors to the Tunis Medina, both locals and tourists, come mainly to shop. Within the ancient, crumbling collection of boutiques, workshops, palaces, public buildings, houses and mosques, people come to buy jewelry and perfumes, wedding dresses, spices and incense, carpets, fabrics, leather-wear and other luxury goods. They also come to buy more everyday things such as shoes, sunglasses, clothes, dried fruit, sweets, kitchenware and tourist souvenirs.
Even for many locals, a visit to the Medina will probably result in getting completely lost, something which is all part of the pleasure of the ancient city. It’s really worth visiting just to wander, take a look around and admire your surroundings. If you lose your way, the vendors, or a passer-by, will offer to help you. Some locals will offer to give tourists a guided tour, which can be expensive unless you bargain.
Apart from the souk El Chaouachine, a number of other souks are worth visiting. Some of these are easy to find, while others are hidden. The souk el Nhas (the copper souk) used to be a major supplier of kitchenware but now contains just three workshops. With the development of mass-produced items only a few loyal customers continue to shop there.
Other souks, like the souk el Birka – the slave market – have changed completely. This souk was built in the Ottoman Empire by Youssef Dey, the ruler of Tunisia, in 1612. It continued to sell slaves until Ahmad Pasha Bey abolished slavery in 1846. These days the souk has turned into a glittering market for selling gold, jewelry, and precious stones. This souk is a must for women who adore wearing gold and jewelry. The windows burdened with precious treasures will take your breath away.
The souk el Attarine, the perfume market, is located in the heart of the Medina, near the grand mosque. The profession of perfumer is considered by Tunisians to be one of the most refined. The original perfumers were noble families that came from the Middle East (Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia). In the souk el Attarine you can find colorful baskets padded with silk, which are designed to hold wedding gifts from the groom to his bride such as Henna, candles and perfumes. The shop-fronts and the shelves of these stores are made of carved wood and are witness to the antiquity of the souk.
Customers come from all over the Maghreb to buy the concentrated oils, incense and cosmetic products, all of which are prepared in traditional ways. The mix of scents, both familiar and exotic, act as a lure to visitors ready to indulge their senses.
Also near the Zitouna mosque is the souk el Leffa, where woolen fabrics are sold. This souk is also known as the Djerbian Market in reference to the island where many of the sellers come from. Here you can also see the craftsmen making the Sefsari which is a white, traditional garment worn by elderly women in Tunisia.
There are many other souks in the Medina, including souks for textiles, slippers and clothes. The best way to discover the secrets these souks hold is to walk through the medina and get lost. They’ll reveal themselves when you least expect it.