Sfax Through the Ages

Chapter 2 - Mid-1800s

Early maps of Sfax are not common, but an undated map from some time during the 1800s does show the situation as it was before the French colonization of the country. The Quartier Franc is labeled as Quartier Européen, and is walled (dating the map after 1830). The battery shown on later maps is here marked as fort, and predates the French invasion, but not necessarily the increasing French influence and control over Tunisian affairs. It is located adjacent to a small breakwater on the western point of the headland. (The building now located over this spot was originally - from about 1912 - the offices of the Sfax Gafsa Phosphate Company, and more recently - until 2008 - a police station. It is well back from the current shoreline.) Only small boats could pull close to shore – for a long distance offshore the sea depth only reaches 2m.

During the 1860s the Medina was reported to have a population of about 7,000 and the French Quarter about 2,000. The Quartier Franc was not built for the foreign population, by any means, having been built by some of the more affluent of the Arab citizens of Sfax. After a severe epidemic the local population began to avoid the 'faubourg', as it is also known, and by the early 1800s it had become primarily, as its name implied, an area where the foreign population of Sfax lived. The Jewish population numbered about 1300, and Christians about 700, primarily Maltese.

The Quartier Européen, besides having an entrance into the Ville Arab via Bab Diwan, had three portes. One named el Gharbi (west) and on the east, el Djenene, with a third, Al Qibli (though un-named on our map) giving access to the shore. The mid-1800s map is very simple, and it would be easy to overlook it, but, besides giving us valuable information as to the situation before the French took control and began their building projects, the map has some information not seen elsewhere. Most obviously, though not of the most value, the city is written in French as Sfak’s – the apostrophe indicating the extra syllable lost in the more modern European spelling. Secondly, the road between the porte we know as Bab Diwan and the shore where the Douanier was located is appropriately named Rue de la Marine. The presence of two small forts on the seaward wall of the Quartier Européen is also instructive, though it seems that nothing remains of them today. For a visitor to Sfax, however, (and however brief the visit) Bab Diwan is the most photographed point, and it is what this map reveals about Sfax’s second gate that is most revealing.

Bab Diwan originally only had one entrance. The postcards show (left) the external gate, looking down Ave. De la Republique, and (right) the entrance into the medina.

Photographs today show what seem to be two old entrances, similar in style, with two large openings dating from the 1970s (or later) made beside them for vehicle access.

What the map from the mid-1800s reveals is a small but important detail. Bab Diwan was originally a fortified city gate, where the external entrance (viewed above) is offset from the internal opening, in this case by as much as 30 metres. Anyone entering through Bab Diwan prior to 20th century modifications would have to turn right and walk through a narrow alley inside the wall, before turning left and debouching into the medina.

The relevant portion of the map is shown above. The porte illustrated is clearly designed to make transit of this fortified gate difficult. Even if the outer gate could be battered open, the invaders would have be vulnerable to attack from above as they worked on the inner gate, at which they would have very little room for maneuvre for their equipment.

A field investigation seemed warranted at this point. From the old gated entrance into Bab Diwan [A, from inside the gate] one steps onto a cobbled street [B]. This turns to the right, passing the tourist shops and through the large vehicular entrance into another old section of wall [Photo C]. Finally, one turns left and enters the medina between the old wooden inner gates [D].

So, a small and seemingly insignificant map provides the key to a puzzle.

Further investigation showed that a passage was made directly through the wall from the inner gate in the first decade of the 20th century. This is reflected in the maps of 1903 and 1909.
For more information on Bab Diwan, and its five gates see here.