Sfax Through the Ages

Bab Diwan

Today, Bab Diwan is probably the most visited location for the fortunate tourists that make it to Sfax. It is located on the south side of the medina, between Bab Kasbah on the western corner and the Bourj An Nar on the east. It dates from at least as early as 1306, possibly earlier. What is visible today is partly the result of restoration work after WWII, plus an effort during the 1970s to revitalise the medina by improving access to it.

From the plaza outside the medina four gates are visible today. This was not the original layout, however, and here we shall look at the changes to Bab Diwan over the years.

Defensive measures
Bab Diwan may have originally been a simple gate in the same form as Bab Djebli to the north. However, since Bab Diwan faced seawards it was more exposed to attack, and at some point during 17th century improvements being made to the defenses of Sfax the entrance was itself fortified. A portion of a map from the mid-1800s gives us some idea of the layout of the gate after these changes, which were probably made during 1619 or 1646.
On the plan it can be clearly seen that the opening marked as porte is not directly in line with the exit onto the Rue de la Marine.
Bab Diwan was reconstructed as a fortified city gate, where the external entrance (below, left) was offset from the internal opening (right), 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 entering the medina.

The outer gate of Bab Diwan (as reconstructed after WWII damage). The plaque above the outer gate. The inner gate of Bab Diwan, with its ancient doors. The plaque above the inner gate, with legible Arabic calligraphy.

The porte is clearly designed to make transit of this fortified gate difficult. Even if the outer gate could be battered open, the invaders would have been 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.

Porte Delcasse
A detail from the 1903 map seems to show Bab Diwan as still having the offset alignment (below, left), where it is labeled as Porte a Couloir. This is not so much a title as a description of the gate, the Couloir refering to the 'passage' between the inner and outer gates. As a later map shows, by 1909 the additional entrance, Porte Delcassé, has been opened (right). This allowed traffic, pedestrians and commercial goods being delivered by barrows, much easier access into the medina.


A couple of old postcards show views of Bab Diwan during the early years of the French administration.


Post-war Changes
From photographs and postcards we have found that the inner gate of Bab Diwan was opened between 1903 and 1909. One aerial picture (below) shows a view of the medina from over Bourj An Nar; the Ville Européene buildings have already been removed, and two gates are clearly shown at Bab Diwan. This picture is postwar (1950s or early 1960s), since the streets around the Rue Pasteur are gone, having been demolished after the bombing of 1943. The photo also shows us that any damage of Bab Diwan was already repaired, without at that time creating the two larger openings we see today.

A fifth gate at Bab Diwan?
Furthering our investigation into the changes to Bab Diwan, the 20th century photograph below shows the newer, eastern opening (the original entrance is to off the picture, to the left. To the right there seems to be an additional opening, simple and undecorated, which would be approximately in line with Rue Mongi Slim, a major street that traverses the medina north to south.

According to a website recording the locations of synagogues in Sfax, Bab Diwan was modified around 1955, by the addition of “une nouvelle port.”

Il y avait une synaguogue qui s'appelait SLATH EJDAH a l'interieur des remparts de la ville arabe de Sfax, elle etait situe au debut de NEJ EL BEY cote droit, cette longue rue etroite qui demarait juste devant en entrant par une nouvelle porte construite a peu pres en 1955. Cette nouvelle porte ouverte sur les remparts se trouvait a une trentaine de metres a droite de BAB-DIWANE quand on se presente en face des remparts. (from http://harissa.com/D_Communautes/Tunisie/lasyna.htm)

Maps show the second gate, Porte Delcasse as early as 1909, much earlier than 1955. Therefore, it was not immediately clear to which gate the statement above refered. However, the postcard above provided a solution. The opening to the right of Porte Delcassé, on the postcard, must be the opening made in 1955.

The aerial photograph does not seem to show the third gate, opened in 1955, though the other two entrances are clearly visible, with their approaches marked by a border. This allows us to date the photograph to between about 1947 and 1955. The color photograph is obviously post-1955, and may perhaps best be dated from the vehicles on the plaza.

Another postcard shows the 1955 gate more clearly.

Late 20th Century
The natives of Sfax, until the last century, lived almost exclusively in the medina. Most of them also owned property in the surrounding countryside, these small-holdings being bordered by hedges of 'prickly pear' cactus. These semi-defensive bourj's served as summer homes for the Sfaxiens. During the 20th century the inhabitants of Sfax increasingly moved out to the periphery of the growing city, where the married children moved into homes built on portions of the original bourj. In time many of the homes in Sfax fell into disuse, or were rented out.

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.

It is as a consequence of this redevelopment program that the latest changes to Bab Diwan were put in place. The two imposing vehicular entrances were opened, allowing unprecedented access to the medina - at least as far as the narrow streets would allow! In the process, the simple gate that was opened in 1955 was closed and any sign of its presence camouflaged by the plasterwork that effectively hides evidence of modern reconstruction around the city walls.

Gate Diagram
Bab Diwan’s external gate is part of a wall section that projects out from the main line of the wall. The level of pavement inside the gate is actually lower than that of the plaza outside, hence the descending stairs as one enters the area of the tourist shops, either by means of the old gate or through the vehicular entrance.

The cobbled path that leads between the two gates has a kerb at both sides, but is interrupted by the western of the two vehicle entrances. The cobbles and kerbs continue in the central block of wall that forms the rest of Bab Diwan, an island of old construction between the two vehicle entrances. Their construction required the demolition of the section of wall they occupy - walls that had been rebuilt after major damage during World War II (see History of Sfax, chapter 6 ).

In summary:The Seven Gates of Bab Diwan
1306 The gate known now as Bab Diwan is opened in the southern wall of Safaqis. (1)
1619/1646 Defensive modifications made to Bab Diwan include offsetting the inner entrance.
1700s A Ville Europeenne is developed outside Bab Diwan, housing Jews and Christians.
1830 The Ville Europeenne is walled.
1881 France occupies Tunisia and sets up the Protectorate. Bab Diwan is damaged during the French assault on the city on July 16th, 1881, and later repaired.
1882-5 The wall is removed from the Ville Européenne.
1897-1903 A new entrance is made adjacent to the outer archway. A clock is added in c.1903. (2)
1903-06 A through passage is made, Porte Delcasse opening a second entrance into the medina. (3)
1910-20 The pre-1881 gate is sealed, leaving the two French-built entrances, Bab Diwan and Porte Delcassé.
1943 Bab Diwan’s original 1306 entrance and the French addition of 1897/1903 are damaged during allied bombing of WWII.
1946-47 During post-war repairs the French-built gate is repaired (without the clock), but the pre-1881 gate is not rebuilt. (4)
1955 A new entrance is opened (a third opening) in line with (what is now) Rue Mongi Slim. (5)
c.1963 Two large vehicle entrances are opened to improve access to the medina. The 1955 opening is sealed. (6,7)