Sfax Through the Ages

Chapter 7 - Today (2007)

The greatest differences noted on a contemporary map involve the amount of reclaimed land now visible. The saline beds to the southwest are located on old mud flats; the fishing port extends southwards hundreds of meters out from the previous shoreline; and to the east an enormous bulge of reclaimed land stands out prominently on satellite images of Sfax [see Maps].

A-Post Office
B-Police Headquarters
C-French Consulate
D-Baladiyeh (City Hall)
E-Hotel les Oliviers
F-General market
G-Fish market
J-Sidi Al Lakhmi Mosque
North/South streets
R. Haffouz (W, by harbor)
R. Patrice Lumumba
R. Habib Mazzouni
R. Mohamed Ali
Ave. Hedi Chaker
R. Abou El Kacem Chebbi
R. Salem Barzallah

R. Alexandre Dumas
R. Mongi Balil
R. Cheikh Megdiche
R. Tazarka (E, by railway)
East/West streets
Ave. Habib Bourguiba (N)
Ave. Ali Bach Hamba
R. Habib Thameur

Even as the French were expanding the city southwards on reclaimed land, Sfaxiens were increasingly moving out of the medina to live more permanently on property that had previously been devoted to orchards or olive groves. Even though the city today stretches out as far as 10km in each direction, one still sees the cactus-topped heaped earthen mounds that demarcated each family’s smallholding. These are gradually giving way to concrete-block walls, but the same families generally still live on the same land they farmed since more than a century ago, often retaining their home in the medina, or renting it to one of the many small business enterprises for which Sfaxiens are known.

In the late 1960s it was recognized that the medina might deteriorate quickly if the unoccupied buildings became merely slum dwellings. In 1968 a program was begun which would manage the restoration of major parts of the medina and ensure that it would remain an integral part of the city as a whole. The results of this program – the management body that was set up at this time still has an office in the Bourj An Nar – can be seen in the vitality and relevance of the medina today. Commercially, the medina is probably as active now as it has ever been over past centuries.

A document produced in 1972 by the UNESCO International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) (http://www.international.icomos.org/monumentum/vol8/index.html) includes a diagram showing the development of Sfax’s commercial center through the years:

(The Bab Djebli area of the Medina)

(plus Ville Européene)

(and the Commercial Quarter)

(to which we could add more recent development)

The view of the city that today’s visitors have is largely due to the restoration and other improvements that have been made since the late 1960s. These include the opening of additional gates – and the enlarged openings at Bab Diwan [refer to Photo 6] and Bab Djebli east [Photo 33, previous page] and west [Photo 34] – to improve access and allow the medina to become a significant commercial district. An inscription above the western opening indicates the date of its construction [Photo 35].

It was as recently as the late 1980s that the Railway was rerouted around the south of the city. Previously, as mentioned above, Sfax was a terminus, and trains continuing to Gabes or Gafsa had to leave the station in the direction from which they came. The original line was taken up (but it is still possible today to trace its route) and replaced with a line which was routed alongside the port. Parts of the original track can still be seen opposite the Bank of Tunisia headquarters on Avenue du 7 Novembre 1987 [Photos 36 & 37, above] and also near the football stadium at the beginning of Rte. De Soukra, where it crosses the oued [Photo 38]. To provide space for the new rail route, the row of buildings closest to the port had to be demolished, between the Quai Mougeot and Rue Pavillier (compare the previous two maps) and the rail line had to make a sharp curve of 90? to the west immediately as it left the station. A small shop fits snugly in the corner near the curve, in the place where a larger building obviously had to be removed to make way for the railway. As the rail line makes its curve from the station one of the older dounaier buildings has also been partially demolished to accommodate the road that runs alongside. The inside of the building looks strangely vulnerable as it stands exposed to the elements [Photo 39].

An aerial photograph from the 1990s (below) shows the city from the Sidi Al Lakhmi mosque southwards over the medina, the commercial centre, and the port. Since this picture was taken the shacks adjacent to the mosque have been removed, and Avenue Hedi Chaker, the main avenue through the commercial district, has been pedestrianised. Also, adjacent to the Kerkenah ferry terminal, a lift bridge has been installed to allow for the passage of boats into the old fish port.

The Hôtel de Ville was erected by the French administration in 1906, on land that had only recently been reclaimed from the sea. Today it is Sfax’s City Hall, the Baladiya [refer back to Photo 31]. Its ground floor is given over to a museum of artifacts from the Roman towns of Taparura, now buried beneath Sfax; of Thyna, about 30km south where there is now a lighthouse; and of Skhira, about 80km south from Sfax. The museum occupies four rooms, one of which – though sparsely labeled – shows artefacts from Roman Taparura. Amongst the few items on display are mosaics, freely decorated with fish and fishing scenes, a piece of cornice, a carved lion, and a floor display illustrating the way the site looked as the archaeologists began their exploration.

In today’s Sfax it is difficult to conceive the Roman town; where are the paved streets, the arches and the monumental buildings that we have learned to expect from Roman culture? As we walk through the medina we fail to observe the few fragments that are visible; in the corners of the Grand Mosque, or where they are incorporated into the oldest gates, Djebli and Diwan. In the gold souk one pillar decorates the corner of a block of buildings beside the plaza where the table covers and other fabrics are displayed, but we walk past it focusing on more modern displays. Neither, enjoying a glass of tea or a cup of direct in the garden behind the Maison De France, do we pay attention to the headless statue that ornaments the lawn, or the numerous columns, capitals and vases around the perimeter.

Perhaps future generations will find a way of displaying the foundations of Taparura for general view. Until then, as we surmised in our introduction, the Roman period will be beyond the ken of visitors to the city, and, yes, of Sfaxiens themselves.