Tunisia's colonial architectural can be easy to miss. If you find yourself walking in downtown Tunis, pay attention. Each step could mean suddenly having to dodge a car, a cat, or a hawking street vendor. The narrow, puddle-spotted streets do not make for casual strolling. If you do get a chance though, when the bustle slows, to peel your eyes up from the path ahead of you, please do. The balconies, facades and rooftop designs of Tunis' centre-ville, remnants of French colonialism, will surprise you every time.
Tunis’s Medina is arguably better known and widely visited by tourists coming to Tunisia. But Zoubeir Mouhli, director of Association de Sauvegarde de la Medina de Tunis (ASM), told Tunisia Live more attention needs to be paid to the ville nouvelle, the European-inspired areas in downtown Tunis.
Here at ASM, we don’t consider our heritage to stop at the end of the 18th century, Mouhli said, referring to the rough start of construction of Tunisa’s new area.
What’s sometimes called the French city, Mouhli said, is just the continuation of Tunisia’s architectural history.
We have what we call now the recent heritage, which is the heritage of the 19 and 20 century, and we consider that to have large cultural value, he said.
Mouhli recounted the history of downtown Tunis.
Before the protectorate, some areas were forbidden to strangers, they were forbidden from coming into the Medina, he said. Tunis a Medina, like other Arab cities of the era, are walled off and built into narrow alleys with large houses, hidden but for their doors.
The medina was built with the concept of intimacy. All things were built to reinforce this concept of intimacy, Mouhli said.
These quarters, of Bab Bahar, for example, these are the oldest after the Medina, the first historic buildings outside the Medina are there. So they continue history, Mouhli said. This architecture is a continuation of our history, even if there was colonialism.
Bab Bahar, also called Porte de France, is a lone standing gate facing the direction of Tunis port, hence the name gate in Arabic. When construction started on the European city started, however, it was focused in this area and the door was called France’s door. The avenue running east from this gate is France Avenue.
With the start of the French protectorate in Tunisia in 1881, building expanded and foreigners were allowed into the Medina.
After colonization, the French, and the Italians, etc. could go inside the city and see it and they admired it. They saw the details, the motifs, Mouhli said. These architects, they were brought to Tunis but they were influenced by the local architecture, arts and styles.
Europeans coming to Tunisia, Mouhli said, mixed the neo-classical architecture style of Europe’s 1800s with what they saw in North Africa, eventually creating a look called arabisance.
We find that in this architecture from the 19th and 20th century there are treasures, very nice things, which sometimes we can’t find in the metropole in France. Because young architects, when they want to invent, to try new styles, and to innovate, they were afraid of criticism in France, so they were encouraged to try them in the colonies; in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. So we find sometimes things we dont find even in France, Mouhli said.
While Tunisia’s European-style architecture is most commonly associated with France, Mouhli said Italian workers, long present in Tunisia, left their mark as well. Wood carvers, painters and other craftspeople from Italy lived and worked in Tunisia and were assigned to a building, which still bear evidence of Italian influence, among French, Arab, Andalusian, and Turkish styles.
The blue and white color scheme, familiar to anyone who has visited Tunisia, was not the original pattern for the downtown. The color combination was copied from nearby Sidi Bousaid, which was only painted blue and white in the 1920s.
Mouhli's organization, ASM, has performed multiple renovations on colonial-era buildings downtown as well as the Medina. However, he said more needs to be done to save Tunisia’s urban heritage from developers who would tear down the old buildings to replace them with taller, modern constructions.
We are losing lots of nice things in the city and we must do something, he said.
Some are at the end of their life and they need renewal with projects and with ideas.