Sfax Through the Ages

Chapter 3 - 1888

On maps produced after the French occupation (1881) the quartier Franc is known as Ville Européenne, which soon housed the French administration offices. Even today a large number of the buildings to the south of the medina are administrative in nature. Sfax – the French tongue does not seem to have adapted well to Tunisian place names – still did not have a good harbor, and any goods shipped to the city had to be offloaded out at sea, before being brought ashore on lighters.

The 1888 map indicates the presence of a douanier post (customs) on the shore. Boats pull up on shore against earthen jetties projecting a few metres into the water. The map also shows a new gate at Bab Kasbah (below), indicated as Porte Neuve, at the south-western corner of the Medina. This would provide access for the populace without them having to pass through the French quarter to enter at Bab Diwan. The three portes of the Ville Européenne are identified as Pte. Caharbi (a poor transliteration of Gharbi, west), Pte. Cherki, east, and Pte. Cuabli (of uncertain meaning). Another early building was a church, labeled in postcards of the early 1900s as a Cathedral [B], but on the maps more humbly as Eglise.

The streets of the Ville Européenne were named (or renamed, since 1881) after French heros, with only a few names familiar to Anglophiles today. Hugging the walls of the Medina at either side of Bab Diwan could be found Rue Leonnec [B] and Rue Jules Ferry, with, further from the walls, the west-east axis through the faubourg being taken by Rue Tissot (earlier Rue de la Telegraph) and Rue Pasteur. (These are now buried under the eastbound lane of the wide street named after Ali Belhouane (below), the high school teacher who found himself a central figure in the struggle for independence in the 1950s.) The southernmost street, also parallel with the medina wall, was Rue General Chanzy. Perpendicular to these streets were (from west to east) Rue Charles V, Rue du Malte, Rue de la Republique [B] (which ran south directly from Bab Diwan, and was previously known as Rue de la Marine), Rue De La Synagogue, Rue Annibal, and the streets named after other locations; de Carthage, d’Algers, de Jerusalem and the Rue de Sinai.

Since the late Medieval period Tunisia, and most of North Africa, had seen an influx of Jews, Sephardic refugees from the Spanish reconquista. In spite of the names of the streets at the eastern end of the Ville Européenne, the maps of this period do not actually show the location of the synagogue, and it is not until the 1909 map that we are able to place the location of the Synagogue, at the intersection of Rue du Synagogue and Rue Pasteur - adjacent to the number (5) on the map above. At present there are two synagogues in Sfax, though the buildings are unused and protected by a police guard,. The main synagogue is visible from the medina ramparts – in fact, the best location for a photograph is from one of the towers of the Kasbah (below, left). A smaller synagogue exists – Synagogue Azria (right) – 'qui se trouve derrière le Lycée Habib Maazoun juste en face du batiment Taparoura'

The view of the city below seems to be from the south, with the fortifications around the Bourj An Nar on the right (east) and the minaret of the Grand Mosque towering over the small buildings in the center of the city. (Today’s buildings have been built higher, and the various minarets are not so prominent any longer.) In the middle foreground is a tower located where we now find Bab Diwan, and on the left is an inaccurate rendering of the Kasbah. The wall on the east can be seen extending beyond the Bourj An Nar, though it does seem on this drawing to be extended further than it actually does.

The name Bourj An Nar, literally "Fort of Fire", comes from the installation there, in previous centuries, of a warning light for vessels arriving at Sfax after nightfall. The Bourj was fortified during the Venetian seige of 1785/86. This southeastern point of the medina would also be the first point of attack by any invader. This factor is related to in the following text, which points out that the faubourg - the Ville Européenne outside the city walls - could also serve as a shield against attack. That it did not do this is evident from the Venetian bombardments of the town four times in two years during 1785/6.

"En 1776, on édifie le faubourg sud de la ville, le quartier franc, réservé aux juifs et aux chrétiens, haut lieu du commerce maritime, mais qui devait aussi servir de tampon contre les attaques par mer toujours à craindre. L'éventualité ne tarda pas à se produire, les Vénitiens bombardant Sfax à quatre reprises en l'espace de deux ans (1785-86). On construisit pendant le siège un grand fort qui flanquait Borj Ennar; il fut démoli après la dernière guerre." (from http://www.sfaxonline.com/dev/histoire/ on 29 June, 2007)

After the French invasion of 1881 Sfax became the center of an insurrection against the occupiers. On June 15, 1882, the insurgency began but it was put down on July 15th by a two-hour bombardment by the French navy, followed by an assault of their troops. They set fire to Bab Diwan (?) and occupied the Kasbah, eventually restoring calm to the city.

A Sfax, le 18 juin 1882, les insurgés se ruèrent en armes dans le quartier franc et s'en prirent à la population. En représailles, le 15 juillet, une escadre française bombardait la ville deux heures durant. Les soldats débarquèrent, firent sauter Bad Diwan et investirent la Kasbah.

The northeastern corner of the medina is labelled as bastion blanc. The tower at that location still bears some evidence of white paint, possibly having some connection to its name (above). Occupying the space on both sides of this corner, east from the fondouk and south along the eastern wall, a military camp some time in the decade and a half between the 1888 and 1903 maps. An underground parking area occupies much of that space on the north side. Today the Avenue du Camp – now Avenue de l’Armée – divides old camp grounds in two, with the half closest to the medina wall being given over to a park. The rest is still a military base, occupied by the National Guard.

In consequence of Tunisia’s Marabout tradition, scattered around most cities there are numerous of the small, domed buildings dedicated to the memory of a holy man, or devout sheikh. Some entire villages elsewhere in Tunisia trace their ancestry to one or the other of these, and maintain the prayer room in his memory. The earliest maps and postcards indicate the presence of a handful of these within a stone’s throw of the medina. All of these seem to be still in existence though the city has grown around them, and they can be found in the most incongruous situations. One photograph shows three marabout shrines directly north of the medina outside Bab Djebli, where the Sidi Al Lakhmi mosque is now located [B]. One of these must be enclosed within the mosque, but the others are still visible on its perimeter (below).