Gates of the Medina offer view of Tunis's history and architecture
Visitors roaming around Tunis come across a variety of landmarks that celebrate the eclectic history of the Tunisian capital. Not far from the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the throbbing artery of downtown Tunis, Bab Bhar — the Gate of the Sea — compels visitors to the Medina of Tunis to stop and admire the majestic architecture of one of the main entrances to the city.
Bab Bhar is among the iconic gates scattered around the perimeter of the Medina to discover when in Tunis. While the gates are landmarks of the old town, they also exhibit the rich history of the city and display the aesthetics of Islamic architecture.
Located in a fertile plain of north-eastern Tunisia, the Medina of Tunis dates to the seventh century and is considered one of the first Arab-Muslim cities of the Maghreb and among the wealthiest in the Islamic world. Given its historical and military importance, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was surrounded by a defensive wall with several fortified portals protecting the city.
The original wall contained five gates — Bab Bhar, Bab Jdid (the New Gate), Bab Mnara (the Gate of the Lantern), Bab Cartagena (the Gate of Carthage) and Bab Dzira (the Gate of the Island).
Historian Mohamed Habib Azizi, a specialist in Islamic history, stressed the importance of the gates in controlling access to the old city. They were integrated parts of the wall, which was built under the Almohads’ rule to protect the city from attacks, he said.
“The old city of Tunis was totally encircled by the wall next to which the Aghlabid princes lived at the beginning of the first century of Hijri (622AD). These walls were renovated during the centuries that followed. Some historians believe that the Hasfid rulers rebuilt the wall. The last records of renovations point to the Husseini era between 1700 and 1800,” Azizi said.
“Bab Cartagena, Bab Bhar and Bab Dzira were at some point connected through an inner wall but, unfortunately, only some parts remain today. However, one can still admire the main gates that connected the wall and which still exist in good shape showcasing the beauty of Islamic architecture,” Azizi added.
The city gates used to open at dawn and close after sunset and, although some have disappeared, areas of the town are named after the entrances.
“The oldest gate is Bab Dzira. It used to connect the city of Tunis to the island of Chrik, which is known as Cap Bon now. The second most important one is the Bab Cartagena, which was the gateway to Carthage. It dates to the second century Hijri (722AD),” Azizi noted.
He explained that Bab Bhar, as the name indicates, was the main access road for merchants arriving from the sea to reach the Medina. It was rebuilt in 1860 and was known as the gate of France during the period of French colonisation.
The gates invite visitors to explore markets and alleys nearby, offering a glimpse of the structure of life and society back then.
Jamal ben Saidane, a member of the Association of Cartagena for the promotion of the patrimony of the Medina, said the gates of the Medina are sources of many tales. They were named after either the direction they face or the functions they served.
“Bab Mnara had a lantern hanging outside. It was the only one that was lit. It delineated the limit of the markets, which were adjacent to the wall,” ben Saidane said. “As for the gate of Bab Bhar, it overlooked the quarters of the European settlers, including the British embassy and the French city that was built during the period of France’s colonisation.”
As the city expanded, up to 24 gates were added for different functions but many were destroyed, ben Saidane explained. Bab Saadoun, which overlooked areas surrounding the Medina and other gates served as security towers and spots to control the movement of travellers. Some gates were entrances for people and others were trade points as markets thrived near the gates.
“Bab Saadoun was named after a saint, Sidi Bou Saadoun. It was first built [in] 1350 on the edge of the suburb of Bab Souika. It originally had only one narrow arch but was replaced in 1881 by a gate with three arches. It also controlled the routes to Beja, Bizerte and El Kef,” ben Saidane said.
The tour of the gates is an enriching way to explore the history and architecture of the Medina. With its souqs, urban fabric, residential quarters, monuments and gates, the Medina constitutes a prototype of ancient heritage among the best conserved in the Islamic world.