The Life of the Medina

Despite their chaotic appearance, medinas were laid out according to strict Islamic principles, thought to have originated in 8th-century Baghdad. Their layout is carefully adapted to the rigours of the climate. The deep, narrow streets keep the sun’s rays from the centre during the day, and draw in the cool evening air during the night. Earth, stone and wood were used to absorb water, which then evaporates and cools the surrounding air.

Medinas also served a military purpose, surrounding the city with fortified, crenellated walls and towers (Sfax’s are among the best preserved in Tunisia), elaborate babs or skifas (gates) designed to impress as much as to regulate entry to the city, and fortresses occupied by Islamic warriors.

Inside the walls, the heart of any medina was the city’s main mosque, normally known as the jami el kebir or Great Mosque. This should be located at the exact centre of the medina, as is the case in Sfax and Tunis. Radiating out from the Great Mosque were the souqs – still today the heartbeat of any medina. Closest to the mosque were purveyors of the ‘noble trades’: vendors of candles, incense and other objects used in the rites of worship. Next to them were the booksellers, venerated in Muslim cultures, and the vendors of leather goods. These were followed by the clothing and textile stalls, long the domain of the richest and most powerful merchants.

The hierarchy then descended through furnishings, domestic goods and utensils. Finally, on the city perimeter and away from the piety of the mosque, the caravans used to assemble and here were found the ironmongers, blacksmiths and the other craftsmen and vendors serving the caravan trade.

The funduqs or caravanserais (travellers’ inns) were important features of any medina. Here, traders, nomads, pilgrims and scholars stayed while in town, usually on their route elsewhere (eg to Kairouan or Mecca). Traditionally, an unadorned facade provided a doorway wide enough to allow camels or heavily laden beasts to enter. The central courtyard was open to the sky and surrounded by a number of stalls, bays or niches. The ground floor housed shops, warehouses, teahouses and stabling for the animals; the upper floor accommodated the travellers.

Apart from these buildings around which the public life of the city revolved, most of the medina was the domain of residential quarters. The Tunisian townhouse, known as the dar or interior-courtyard house, has remained largely unaltered for 3000 years. The principal feature is a central courtyard, around which are grouped suites of rooms in a symmetrical pattern. In the houses of the more wealthy, service areas were often tacked on to one side. The courtyard was designed to keep the house light and cool as well as provide a space for communal family life. Rooms could be used interchangeably for eating, relaxing and sleeping. The hottest part of the day is spent in the cool of the courtyard, and at night, the roof terrace can be used as a sleeping area. The Musée Dar Jellouli is a fine example of just such a house.

The street facade is usually just a plain wall, and the only opening is the entrance door. Any other openings are small, grilled and above the line of vision of passers-by, reflecting the strict demarcation of public and private life in Islamic society.

Centre Ville

South of the medina is Centre Ville (aka the Ville Nouvelle), a fairly compact and walkable area where the majority of Sfax's restaurants, shops, offices and hotels are located.

The focal point is the Pl de la République (aka Pl de Droits de L'Homme), fronted by a number of French-era buildings at the junction of Ave Hedi Chaker and Ave Habib Bourguiba.

The grand building on the southern side of Pl de la République is the town hall.