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Sfax Through the Ages

Chapter 1 - Introduction


On a headland that projected hesitantly into the Bay of Gabes rested the small Roman town of Taparura. This was not totally destroyed when the Aghlabids begin to build defensive walls around the town they would call Safaqis. In this land of mud and sand, building stones have great value; consequently, many of the stones from the Roman town were incorporated into the wall. Some of the marble and granite pillars – from what far country were these imported? – were given places of honor: incorporated into the Grand Mosque [picture], as part of the single gate at the north side of the city [picture], or later at the seaward gate of Bab Diwan, facing south over what was no longer a Roman Sea. A new era had arrived, and the last millenium would soon be less than a memory.


The Sfax we see today is not the city it used to be. During the next millenium, until the 1800s, the walls grew larger, the population increased slightly, but the outlines of the medieval city changed very little. What Roger and his crusading Normans from Sicily perceived, sounding the shallows whilst still many lengths from shore, was much the same as the French naval frigates faced and bombarded from two kilometers distance. There is an early photograph of the 1881/2 French attack (below), showing the marines’ longboats being rowed to shore in this effort to suppress the continued rebellion of the Sfaxiens. The city is very distant, but the French gunpowder was already having its impact upon the walls. No matter. What they damaged in their conquest they would rebuild – and so much more! – once the city was in their hands.


In the Aenid we can read of the founding of Carthage. The story is recounted of Elissa enclosing the Byrsa of Carthage with narrow strips from the hide of a cow, by her ingenuity acquiring a larger area of land. Sfaxiens tell a similar tale to explain the shape of their ramparts. The town is quite rectangular – much more so than the medinas of Tunis, Sousse, or other Tunisian towns – but the walls seem quite irregular as you circumnavigate them. This is apparently due to the way the hide had to be cut – one piece of hide was the challenge – an explanation so poetic that investigation into its authenticity is unnecessary. One addition to the story is that the prince of that time fell ill on his journey, possibly to Kairouan, and it was a healer from Sfax that nursed him back to health. The reward for the Sfaxiens was independence for their city. Their independence, industry and entrepreneurial acumen are still well recognized; the Sfaxiens are teased by the cosmopolitans of the north for precisely the same traits that they are most proud of.

When the city was founded by the Aghlabids around the year 849 the Grand Mosque was an integral part of the design; the alignment of the city – about 22 degrees off the North-South axis – corresponds to the alignment of its mosques towards Mecca (see diagram below). Inscriptions indicate that the mosque saw restoration work in 988, and again in 1085. At that time the only gate to the city was Bab Djebli, located on the side facing away from the sea [picture].


Bab Diwan [picture] (‘porte du conseil’) apparently dates from 1306, though an inscription may be read as commemorating a rebuilding of the gate in that year [picture]. During the same period, in 1313, traders from Pisa, Italy, obtained a treaty to be able to establish a Fundouq outside the city walls, at Bab Djebli. This Fundouq was marked on maps until just prior to World War II. Bab Djebli itself underwent some restoration in the first part of the 15th century. Continuing unrest in Tunisia meant that Bib Diwan was fortified in 1619, and improved again in 1646. The accession to power of the Husseini Beys brought a beneficial period of stability to the country, however, and Sfax’s fortunes improved too.

Amongst the visible improvements was the enlargement of the Grand Mosque; its ‘new’ Mihrab dates from 1758. During this period also the ramparts were restored, and two large reservoirs were constructed to supplement the Nasriah cisterns. The reservoirs located in the gardens behind the Sidi Al Lakhmi mosque are probably this 18th century addition to the city’s water supply [picture]. The foreign population of Sfax had increased at this time, and, since non-Muslims were not allowed to live in the city itself, a Quartier Francgrew against the south wall of the medina. This was reserved for Jews and Christians, and dates from 1776. A wall around this quartier was added in 1830.

Over the period of time since the foundation of the city, Sfax has needed to manage its water supply. The earliest storage cisterns, the Nasrias, were located about half a kilometer north of the walls. These consisted of numerous individual chambers in which water accumulated. Each day - or so the story goes - a different cistern was opened and used for the city's supply, and so we are told that there were 365 cisterns. Maps showing the Nasrias cisterns indicate an enclosed trapezoid of land with cisterns aligned in rows.

During the 18th century the demand for water had increased, and an additional set of large cisterns was constructed, somewhat closer to the city behind what is now the Sidi Lakhmi mosque. These cisterns had chambers for sediment to settle out, and held large quantities of water. Today they have been preserved, though the litter they collect does not make them very photogenic [picture].

Two other cisterns are described on various maps. Today, abutting the wall at the northwest corner of the city is a pair of circular pools, no longer holding water (perhaps they were connected to the 18th century cisterns) but constructed so that water could easily be drawn from them by the population.

For this author, a more recent discovery is of a rectangular cistern that was located outside Bab Djebli, where the share taxis now gather. It is no longer in evidence, much has changed outside Bab Djebli, but maps as late as 1937 still showed this cistern. It is also shown on postcards from the early 1900s [Photo B] Additionally, relating to water supply, most of the residents of the city had cisterns built underneath their homes, for more immediate access. These would collect rainwater from the roof, and reach capacity during the winter rains. The museum at Dar Jellouli is an excellent example of this. The cistern, well and rainfall diversion system is still visible and operational [picture] and [picture].