Tunisia has long played host to a variety of invaders, all of whom brought their ideas, histories and cultures with them. However, as colonies fade, their architecture remains, each one a living testament to the country’s long history of defense and conquest.
Phoenicians, Romans, Amazigh, Arabs, Ottomans, Spanish, French and others have all contributed in enriching Tunisia’s architectural landscape, making up for a unique mixture that’s hard to find anywhere else in the world.
We’ve collected some of the most iconic architectural styles the country has played host to throughout the ages and across the country.
Amazigh (also referred to as Berbers) are the ethnic group that originally inhabited Tunisia and the North African region.Generally speaking, Amazigh villages are adapted to more mountainous terrain and are often built either on top of a hill or carved into it, depending on the region, the style and the group. Amazigh villages built from soil and stone still exist today, though their numbers are dwindling as more families move to more urban areas.
One fairly well known Amazigh village is Takrouna, a small settlement on top of a 200-meters tall rocky hill, around halfway between Hammamet and Sousse. Due to its positioning and the surrounding lands visible from the top of the village, it has often played a strategic military role. Nowadays only a handful of families live there, with tourism its main source of income.
Different styles of Amazigh architecture can be found on the island of Djerba. Djerba is known for its religious diversity thanks to institutions such as the El Ghriba Synagogue and the island’s Jewish community. Djerba is also home to the Ibadites, a Muslim school of thought that’s said to date back to twenty years after the death of prophet Muhammad. Some Amazigh tribes adopted Islam in this original form and the buildings they made were uniquely adapted to it. Early Mosques on Djerba are noticeable through the absence of any decorations, as Djerba’s early Mosques also performed service in the island’s defenses. Architect, Asma Haddouk said that this lack of decorations is a particular sign of ibadites. “Luxury doesn’t really exist in their language. Even their bigger mosques are like that,” she told Tunisia Live.
Medenine, the Governorate that is home to Djerba, is also famous for its Ghorfas; vaulted rooms originally used to store grain. Ghorfas were built using mud and several families would build their own near one another and sometimes, due to lack of space, even on top of each other. By doing so they formed a ksar (castle in Arabic); a fortified granary that could be defended against pillagers and bandits. The Ksar Ouled Soltane in Tataouine is perhaps the most famous of its kind, and featured in the Star Wars movies.
Another distinctly Tunisian building style to feature in the Star Wars movies was the troglodyte houses of Matmata, in the southern governorate of Gabes. These Amazigh houses are dug into the ground, usually between five and ten meters. Gabes is home to a pretty featureless landscape, leaving its inhabitants exposed to both their enemies, sand and the scorching sun. Given the problems, subterranean housing became the solution. One would expect such habitations to be difficult to breathe in, but according to Haddouk “The quality of the air is miraculous. Besides, it’s always cold in summer -there are no angles in the rooms- and hot in winter.” Sometimes villagers would also dig smaller aeration holes if needed.
Dougga, located in the governorate of Beja in the north, is home to what the UNESCO considers “the best preserved example of an Africo-Roman town in North Africa.” Covering an area of 75 hectares, “These ruins of a complete city with all its components are a testimony to more than 17 centuries of history. They are an outstanding example illustrating the synthesis between different cultures: Numidian, Punic, Hellenistic, and Roman.” Haddouk says this is mostly due to the nature of the soil the city is built upon, which is rocky, contrary to other Roman ruins who were built upon muddy terrains. “Romans were inclined to favor strategic zones over geographical ones,” says Haddouk. The ruins of Dougga are a testimony of 17 centuries of Tunisian history.
Staying within the north, is the village of Aïn Draham, originally a French military base. It was one of the first Tunisian municipalities, established under the French Protectorate in 1892. As such, the houses are defined by a notable French style. Ain Drahem is located in the North West of the country, not far from the Algerian border, and built 800 meters above the soil in Djebel Bir Mountain. Unusually for Tunisia, it snows during the winter, while the beaches of nearby Tabarka are a popular summer resort. The temperature is even cooler on the mountain, the reason believed to be the cause of Aïn Draham’s popularity during the colonial period.
Moving south is the Medina of Sousse, as good a representation as any of the medinas found throughout the country and the North African region. A medina (city in Arabic) is typically walled, with a main entrance on one side and other, smaller ones on other sides, depending on its size. It has narrow streets, sometimes no more than one meter wide, which are generally pedestrian only. The Medina of Sousse distinguishes itself from other medinas by the inclusion of a ribat within it, both a religious and a military building, which served as a form of defence against pirates and the many sea invaders it faced at the time of its use. The city was built during the first centuries of Islam and it was an important port in the region between 800 and 900.
Prior to working as a journalist, Inel worked as a computer programmer. Inel is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. He writes mainly about freedoms, liberties, and minorities' rights in post revolution Tunisia. He currently blogs about films in French and writes metal reviews.