140km south of Tunis is Sousse. It is Tunisia’s third largest city, but with a population of only 200,000, not exactly a megacity.
Sandy beaches with clear, turquoise water made it a popular destination for Europeans seeking less crowded, cheaper beach holidays until a lone terrorist gunned down 38 tourists on a beach at Port El Kantaoui, 10km north of Sousse in June 2015.
This and the Bardo Museum attack in Tunis three months earlier decimated tourism in Tunisia, and only this year have many countries lifted their travel advisories against visiting the country (although there are still some parts of the country with high level warnings, so check the current position if you are considering travel).
It’s difficult to imagine Sousse as anything other than completely safe. It feels relaxed, friendly, not particularly strictly religious. You can even buy alcohol in the major supermarket and some of the restaurants outside the medina.
The Sousse medina was one of the earliest constructions built after the Islamic conquest of North Africa in the 800s. UNESCO placed the Sousse medina on the World Heritage list in 1988, in particular because of its preservation from modern development.
Compared to others we visited, the Sousse medina is small, and off the main thoroughfares it is peaceful.
It has all the stuff you expect in a medina, and then just when you think you have seen everything medinas have to offer, you turn a corner and see something new….
Built to withstand invasion, it is surrounded by stout but imposing, fortified walls with a ribat (fort) on the seaward side with accommodation cells for 30 soldier-guards.
The Ribat is now home to the Sousse Archeological Museum, which has the second largest collection of mosaics in the world (after the Bardo Museum in Tunis – see previous post). The mosaics are beautifully presented, stunning in their individual size and state of preservation, and the museum is definitely one of the best things to do in Sousse. Especially if you love mosaics.
Once again we stayed in a beautiful dar, down a quiet lane a few streets into the medina.
It was a perfect base for our travels out to see some other bits of central Tunisia.
“He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. Now go away”. (Monty Python’s Life of Brian).
Our main reason for visiting Monastir was to see its Ribat, where most of the iconic Monty Python’s Life of Brian was filmed.
Completed in 796CE, the Ribat made a fair double for Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Well, not really, but that was 1979 and most of the film’s audience had probably never been to Jerusalem, so it was close enough.
Monastir also was the home town of Tunisia’s first Prime Minister, Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba was a major instigator of the armed struggle against colonial France, and instrumental in negotiating independence for the country. When Tunisia gained independence in 1956, he was appointed Prime Minister by the King, who perhaps regretted the appointment when just over a year later, Bourguiba declared Tunisia a republic, with himself as President. He established what was effectively a one-party state and remained President over successive five year terms until, presumably tiring of the bother of elections, in 1975 he declared himself President for Life.
He was ultimately removed from power in 1987 (although his successor proved to be even more wedded to power, and it took the Arab Spring to get rid of him). Bourguiba seems now to be fondly remembered. It’s all relative, right?
He remained under house arrest in Monastir until his death in 2000. An ignominious end, but he now slumbers in style in a mausoleum which he had built to his specifications whilst he was still alive. It is open to the public and is definitely a tomb reflecting a man who felt his contribution was worth honouring.
Kairouan is a small, UNESCO World Heritage listed town about 75 minutes by louage (a form of Tunisian public transport minivan) from Sousse. It was founded as a trading centre in the 7th century and became a major centre of Sunni Islamic learning during the Aghlabid empire in the 9th century.
Aghlabid emirs built the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba and an Islamic University which became a centre of both scientific learning and Islamic studies. The University was third only to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia in student numbers, and the mosque was considered so holy that seven pilgrimages to it were considered equivalent to one hajj to Mecca.
At its height, Kairouan was one of the greatest centres of Islamic civilisation, and whilst it is now a dusty, rather sleepy town, there are many remnants of that past to be seen.
The Great Mosque is an impressive 9,000 square metres in area, making it (according to some sources, anyway), the largest Islamic monument in Africa. It is one of the oldest mosques in the Islamic world and was a model for all later mosques in the Maghreb.
Disappointingly, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter, but a walk around its perimeter gives you a sense of its size and importance.
Next to the mosque is an Islamic cemetery within an area known as the Layla Rihana Gate.
The medina next to the Great Mosque also contains some treasures from the past, including the Mosque of the Three Gates. It looked more like the Three Arches to us.
Also, there is the Mosque of the Three Barbers. No, it’s not a shrine to the hairdressing profession. It is a place of veneration of Abu Zama al Balaui, a companion of the Prophet who, according to legend, saved for himself three hairs from the Prophet’s beard. Whether the Prophet was alive or dead when he pilfered them was not clear to us.
And the Mausoleum of Sidi Abid al-Ghariani, buried here in 1386. The complex includes a courtyard and oratory, his tomb, and an Islamic school.
The narrow lanes of the souk were used in the filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark as a substitute for Cairo. But actually a lot of the souk is much more open, and even has some quite modern murals.
About 20 minutes walk from the medina are the Aghlabid Basins. These enormous cisterns were built in the 9th century and contained water channeled by an aqueduct from hills 36kms away into a small settling basin and then into the larger holding basin. The largest basin is 5 metres deep and 128 metres in diameter. When in use, the main pool had a pavilion in the centre where the emirs could relax on warm evenings.
The pools are restored and are filled with water, although the pavilion is no more. OK, not that scenic, but an impressive engineering feat for its day.
An hour by train from Sousse is the town of El Jem, whose major point of interest for travellers is the magnificent El Jem amphitheatre. It is the second largest free-standing amphitheatre in the world, after the Coliseum in Rome, and had capacity for 35,000 spectators.
Built by the Romans in the 3rd century, it remained substantially intact for centuries, although after it fell into disuse, some blocks were taken to build surrounding monuments. Despite this, it is, on the whole, beautifully preserved.
Walking into it you need no imagination to conjure up a roaring crowd and a fight to the death between gladiators and lions. You can even walk down under the arena to the animal pits.
Scenes from both Gladiator and Life of Brian were filmed here.
In LOB, the scene in which Brian (Graham Chapman) asks to join the Peoples Front of Judea and is quizzed by Reg (John Cleese), was filmed here – Reg: You have to really hate the Romans. Brian: I do. Reg: Oh, yeah? How much? Brian: A lot. Reg: Right, you’re in.
Or, if you are a fan of perhaps the corniest movie ever to win a swag of Oscars, you could stand in the arena and imagine Russell Crowe removing his helmet and declaring “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius … father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next”.
As you may have guessed, Tunisia has been a favoured location for quite a few UK and Hollywood movies. And not just the Sousse area. In fact, the most famous of all lie much further south. See next post.