Sfax Through the Ages

Chapter 4 - 1903-1916

Having discovered major sources of potash in the hills around Gafsa, the next stage for the French was to improve the harbor situation, to enable Sfax to become a rail and maritime hub of the export trade. This was not so simple, since merely deepening the sea bed beside the douanier would encourage rapid silting from adjacent areas as the sea compensated. What was necessary was to isolate the deep water moorings from the ebb and flow of suspended sand and clay, and to reach out as far as practicable into the deeper water offshore. By 1903 both of these goals were achieved. The European town was extended south by 200m or more, with parallel jetties constructed for shelter and for loading . The construction of a railway at this time brought a different dimension to the port operations – not only were larger ships able to discharge their cargo, but the rail network allowed it to be delivered across the country in a much shorter time. This increased the commercial potential of Sfax, and initiated the growth of the city into a significant regional center.

C-Catholic Church
O-Orthodox Church
P-Protestant Church
1-Grand Mosque
3-Bab Djedid (‘Kasbah’)
5-Hotel De Ville (City Hall)
7-Place Carnot
8-Jardin Paul Bourde
9-Hotel Moderne
10-Hotel De France
11-Boulevard De France
12-Rue Pavillier
13-Rue Charles Quint
14-Rue Philippe Thomas
15-Rue Mattéi
16-Rue Massicault
17-Rue Gambetta
18-Rue Lamouricière
19-Rue Michaud
20-Rue Numero 10
21-Rue Corbet

Initially the railway ran only between Sfax and Gafsa, but it was connected to Sousse in 1909, and Gabes soon afterwards. It would be a number of years before the route to Gabes was on a through line. Until then – perhaps as late as the 1970s? – trains continuing south to Gabes would have to pull into the station, the engines disconnect and move to the opposite end of the train, and then leave the station in the same direction from which they came. After leaving the station, the line to Gabes curved west and passes north of the city between the medina walls and the Nasria cisterns, about 100m north of the 18th century cisterns near the Sidi Al Lakhmi mosque. Photographs from this period show steamships and sailing ships unloading at the wharves, railway wagons receiving their cargo [B]. Until the 1920s the smaller boats were still able to moor within 50m of the medina walls. An arm of the port extended north towards Bab Kasbah, following the line of what is now Rue Haffouz [B]. The buildings on the west side of the road are built over the basin where the petits bateaux were moored and unloaded of their cargo. Amongst the cargo brought ashore by these boats were moutons (sheep) from Kerkennah, which were unloaded for market close to where the Orthodox Church still stands. On some maps the market is marked (as marché) on the new jetty on the west side of the basin. The bassin des torpilleurs (torpedo boats) was established adjacent to the new European town.

The space between the railway station and the Bourj al Nar (“tower of fire,” apparently a reference to its being a defensive tower), on the south-eastern corner of the medina, was occupied for many years by a military hospital. This area now contains the Post Office and other government buildings. Two station platfors also now occupy part of what was the hospital grounds.

Running directly from Bab Diwan one could walk down the Rue de la Republique, and if one continued south – only possible from the 1890s! – crossing the Avenue de Paris at the theatre, the Rue Emile Loubet would take one directly to the new customs offices at the port. By 1916 the Avenue de Paris had been renamed after Jules Gau, but it still led from the Chanel Pour Petite Bateaux to the Gare. Postcards of the time show skiffs moored at the western end of Jules Gau [B]. The buildings in the background still exist – one of them now houses the photography studio, Take Five, which has a large collection of photos of old Sfax – but one risks one’s life standing in the middle of the traffic of Avenue Habib Bourguiba [Photo 17, above] trying to replicate the scene in the postcard!

There still is a Rue Victor Hugo, but it no longer runs from the Orthodox Church, as it did in 1903, having moved east; today Rue Victor Hugo runs south from the medina, past the Palais de Justice, and the original – now known as Avenue d’Algerie – runs westwards until it joins the Gabes road.

The Hotel De Ville, now the city hall, or Baladiya, was under construction during the early 1900s. A photograph dated from 1906 shows it partially completed, encased in scaffolding, with the port buildings in the background.

Bab Diwan [Photo 18, below] is an ancient gate, originally dating from 1306. Perhaps it was during the the 16th century fortification of the wall that the defensive features of the inner and outer gates were improved by offsetting the two portals, which we discussed earlier. During the early 20th century the inner porch was extended so that it went straight through the wall, (though the earliest postcards showing this second gate date from the 1960s [B]). On the 1903 map the single gate of Bab Diwan is labeled as Porte à Couloir. On the 1916 map the west portal is still labelled Bab Diwan but the entrance about 30m to the east is known as Porte Delcassé. Outside Bab Kasbah – on the 1909 & 1916 maps still called Bab Djedid (‘new’) – there is now a monument commemorating the French bombardment [Photo 19]. The inscription [Photo 20] is in Arabic, but I should have it translated.

The original gate to the city was Bab Djebli, in the middle of the northern wall. On the 1903 map this is labeled as Bab Darhraoui. This term refers to the alignment of the city in respect of the mosque. Whereas the qibla is the direction Muslims face to perform their prayers, Darhraoui refers to the opposite direction, away from Mecca. (Today there are three entrances at that point, the central one being the original.) Outside the gate is the Fondouk, a hotel for travelers to the town, merchants in particular. This fondouk was established in 1313 by Pisan merchants, just a few years before the last of the Sicilian crusades were expelled from the last bastion, Kerkennah. Nothing remains of the fondouk, but a general market – containing all the variety of the medina – is now located in its place, with a fairly recent fish market on the north side. An early postcard shows a corner of the Fondouk, along with the original gate [B].

The triangle of development to the west of the medina was known as Picville during the French administration. A cemetery is marked on the north side of this triangle, alongside the road (now Avenue des Martyrs), whilst the earlier maps show it set back from the road by a couple of blocks. An aerial photograph from about 1906 shows Picville, and gives us further documentary evidence of the extent of the Ville Européenne at that time (below).

A number of features are clear on this aerial photograph, dating from about 1906: the military camp against the northeast corner of the medina; the mudflats of the eastern shoreline; the Ville Européenne against the south wall, between Bab Diwan and the Bourj An Nar; the market and Orthodox Church near the end of the Chanel; and Picville in the foreground, west of the medina’s western wall.

The photograph above corresponds closely with the 1909 map of Sfax. The grain (céréales) market stands outside Bab Djedid, with the abattoir and on the southern side of the road, and a factory close by. On the photograph, the the high water mark (Laisses Des Houtes Eaux) is further from the factory than is indicated by the map - perhaps the photo is more recent than 1906? The alignment of the Military Camp buildings on the photograph corresponds with that of the map. The shape of the 18th Century cisterns, labeled on the map as Vieille Citerne, corresponds with what has been preserved until today, as does their location, about 300m NW of Bab Djebli. Adjacent to the Fondouk, outside Bab Djebli, is the first indication that there had ever been another cistern close to the city walls. This rectangular reservoir has since become part of the bus and share-taxi station outside Bab Djebli. (The cistern is still shown on the 1916 and 1937 maps, as a rectangle, but it is not labelled, and may perhaps already have been disused and even filled.)

On the 1916 map (see appendix for a copy of the original) many of the city blocks were not yet developed. The two main hotels in the Ville Européenne were the Hotel Moderne and the Hotel de France. Neither of these two hotels still exist, but in 1923 the Hotel Les Oliviers opened in the new town, further south towards the port. The hotel is labelled on all later maps. During the 1990s it was experiencing hard times, but it was refurbished in 2005. Comparison of today (below) with photographs from the 1920s [B] show that the hotel has been much enlarged.

Until the new commercial sector of the city developed the streets were given numbers rather than names; from Avenue No. 1 beside the chanel pour petits bateaux and Rue no. 2, etc., with Rue no. 10 running alongside the railway station. On the 1909 map the first four, and No. 10 were still un-named, though by 1916 only Rue No. 10 remained nameless; the others had become Ave. Georges Cochery, Rue Charles-Quint, Rue Philippe Thomas (after the military veterinarian who discovered the phosphate deposits in the hills around Metlaoui) and Rue Mattei.