Sfax Through the Ages

The Ville Europeene
Part 1: 1700 - 1881

"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)

At the north side of the city of Sfax, outside Bab Djebli, a Fondouk was established by traders from Pisa, Italy, as early as 1313. During the developing prosperity of the period under the Husseini Beys (from 1705) other groups of foreigners were interested in the opportunities offered in Sfax. These included the Sephardic Jews that had left Spain after the Reconquista in 1492, no longer tolerated as under the more liberal Islamic rule, as well as Italians, Greeks and Maltese that had made their homes in Sfax and practiced their various trades there.
Just as the different families living in the Medina had their specific trades - wood, shoes, chechia, olives, almonds - so did the foreigners among them. Sponges were caught in the shallow waters offshore from the 'battery' where today a beach is being developed for the Project Taparura touristic zone. A century ago this was more than a hundred meters offshore, and an ideal location for the Greek fishermen to wash their catch before bringing their sponges ashore to market.

The native population of Sfax increased under the stability brought by the Husseini Beys. To provide room for this growth, with the permission of the Bey, an area outside the southern walls of the city was made available for additional housing. This area, between Bab Diwan and the Bourj An Nar, had not been neglected prior to the 1700s, but was the location of a number of Zouaia, prayer rooms devoted to the marabouts of earlier generations. Faouzi Mahfoudh (1990?) identifies these as being dedicated to Sidi Nushi, Sidi Kammun, "ou encore de Sidi Sha'ban Zayn al-Din."
It was an order of Ali Bey in 1775-76 that permitted the development of the faubourg and we know from reports by travellers - and particular from Faouzi Mahfoudh's excellent summary - that the new town was originally occupied by Sfaxiens themselves.

In the mid-1780s a pestilence struck Sfax, and (though the numbers are questionable) it seems that as many as 15,000 may have died as a result, a significant proportion of the population of this relatively small town. The close proximity of the families within the walls of the medina would have made them particularly susceptible to a contagious disease such as this. Nevertheless, by the end of the 18th century the population had increased sufficiently to justify the development of the new town, a Muslim town still, as indicated by the construction within it of an 'oratory' (if my interpretation of Mahfoudh is correct):

Le caractere, d'une "cite musulmane" apparait encoure d'une facon eclatante dans l'edification d'un oratoire. Magdish avait mentionne avec une tres grande precision - le fondateur du Masjid qui fut le commercant Hammuda al Sellami, le debut des travaux 1189H/1775, leur fin 1199H/1784, et le debut de l'occupation de l'oratoire et de son fonctionnement en 1203H/1779-80.

(Magdish gives precise dates for the beginning of work on the new 'oratory' (mosque?), 1775, its completion, 1784, and the date when the mosque began functioning, 1779-80.)

It is not until the early 1800s that we read of the 'faubourg' being the residence of Europeans in particular, but by 1829 it was known as 'faubourg Europeen', and 'habite par les juifs et par les chretiens' as recorded in 1840. This does not seem to have been a deliberate process, but a gradual development initiated, possibly, by the plague, and the unwillingness of Sfaxiens to live outside of the walls after that event. Whatever the motive for this change, by the mid-1800s the two parts of the city were distinguished by the religion of their residents: l'une reservee aux musulmans c'est la medina medievale et l'autre occupee par les europeens.

A later author writes that it was thought that this quarter - reserved for 'Jews and Christians' - would hopefully also serve as a buffer, to absorb and hinder any attack. However, it did not prevent the Venetians bombarding Sfax four times in the years 1785 and 1786! (See opening quotation.)
Known also as the 'Quartier Franc' (though, as already mentioned, most of its citizens were not actually French) the faubourg was walled in 1830. By then France's involvement in Tunisian affairs was increasing, even as the danger from the Corsairs was receding into memory. Until the Barbary wars of 1804-05 and 1815 much of Tunisia's income had been derived from piracy, though because of Sfax's poor anchorage this was never as significant as it was in, for example, Bizerte, Tunis and Mahdia. During the 1800s Tunisia grew more and more in debt to France, having been unable to adjust for the loss of corsair income. This would provide France with an excuse to take control of the country in the late 1800s.

Vers 1830, on entoure le quartier franc d'une muraille et en 1860 la ville est dotée d'un bureau des postes et des télégraphes.

This map shows the walled 'Quartier Europeenne' on the south side of the Medina, between the fortified Bourj An Nar (the fort was added in 1785/6) and Bab Diwan. Bab Diwan (labelled 'porte' on the map) opened directly onto the European quarter. Three other gates existed, guarded to ensure that only those acceptable to the authorities could pass into the European section: Bab Djenene (elsewhere labeled 'Bab Sharqi,' east), Bab Gharbi (west) and Bab Qibli (the direction of Mecca) opening onto the customs area, the Douanier, at the end of the Rue de la Marine.
In Bab Diwan the inner and outer portals were offset from each other - porte a couloir - by about 25 meters. This map is one of very few that actually show the offset gates. A detailed report on Bab Diwan is also available.
A more detailed map can be drawn from the plans made by the French after occupying Sfax in 1881. This event in itself is worth study, since Sfax was one of the last places to resist French occupation, submitting only after a naval bombardment in July of 1882.

On the map, below, we can see the original names of the gates, and the forts (bourj) that guard each angle of the wall: Bourj An Nar, Al Sallami, Al Tabbana and Al Recace. Today, the Bourj An Nar still exists but has been reduced in size; after World War II the fort extension dating from the 1700s was removed, apparently to make way for the road improvements that were part of the post-war reconstruction efforts. The tower on which Bourj Al Recace stood can still be seen, about 40 meters west of Bab Diwan; today it is a frequent halt for tourists, as it is now the location of the popular Cafe Diwan.

The corner of the Bourj An Nar, showing the point where the fort was demolished in the late 1940s
The Bourj Al Recace, now Cafe Diwan, looks down over the new town.
  The entrance to Cafe Diwan.

The French occupied Tunisia in 1881, and ensured their control during a series of rebellions in the summer of that year. In July Sfax was subjected to a naval bombardment, prior to being assaulted by French marines. It is difficult to say what damage the bombardment caused, but the consequences of the French occupation were more significant than the assault. As a result of the French occupation Sfax was to experience major changes during the next 70 years. We shall look at these in Part 2: 1881 to 1943.

Since, at least by the mid-1800s, the European population lived primarily in the Ville Europeeene, it may be interesting to know how this population breaks down.
From church records we know that by 1881, in Sfax, the Maltese were about 77% of the Catholic population, numbering about 900. Their emigration to Tunisia in the first half of the 19th century was part of a general migration resulting from economic factors on the island. During the 1820s, for example, nearly 2,000 per year emigrated; by the 1840s there were 20,000 Maltese living in the Maghreb countries from Libya to Morocco; in Tunisia there were more than 6,000 Maltese (60% percent of the European population, which also included 4,000 Italians and 250 Greeks).
(These and other details on the Maltese presence in Sfax were obtained on 15th August, 2007, from Andrea Smith's article at http://www.maltamigration.com/about/foma/convention2000/full/topic2j.shtml)

Very few images are available of the walls of the Quartier Franc. These two pictures are from the Illustrated London News of July 23, 1881, and illustrate the walled city of Sfax as seen from ships offshore.
This first drawing is as viewed from the south/south-east, looking directly at the medina. Bab Kasbah is on the left (east) of the picture, with Bourj An Nar and some of the eastern wall on the right. On the waterfront, directly below the right hand tower, is a domed building. This (perhaps intended to represent either the Bourj Resace, or Bourj Tabbana) is the starting point of the wall around the Quartier Franc. The wall runs to the east, past a low white construction, as far as two small rounded buildings in front of a building with 4 small windows. This building is the corner of the wall, or possible Bourj Al Sallami These are probably intended to indicate the battery that stood on the shoreline. From that point the wall of the faubourg returns directly to Bourj An Nar, and is not visible at this angle. One of the towers of Bourj An Nar projects above the corner building.

The second illustration is looking from the eastern side of the medina. Visible on the shoreline are some wooden jetties. A cemetery can be made out between the beach sea and the wall, and in front of the Bourj An Nar is drawn a Marabout (or 'Zouaia'). To the left of the high wall of Bourj An Nar (from which a flag is flying) is the lower wall of the Quartier Franc. Over the wall can be seen another domed Marabout.