Sfax Through the Ages

The Ville Européene
Part 2: 1881-1943

J'ai passé aujourd'hui toure la journée dan les ruines encore fumantes et brûlantes de Sfax.

Le bombardement a eu lieu avant-hier 16 juillet, et on arrache encore les Arabes des caves où ils se sont réfugiés, pendant que ceux-ci tirent des coups de fusil sur les Européens qui passent. Jamais personne ne reverra ce que les rares voyageurs du Dragut viennent de voir dans cette étrange journée.

So is recorded this visitor's unique experience, as a member of the naval force that entered Sfax on the day after the July 16th, 1882 bombardment of the city by the French.
French Marines assault Sfax, still burning from the bombardment

France invaded Tunisia and took control in 1881, making the state a Protectorate. Tunisians actually became French citizens - if they chose to take advantage of this - though to do so required their accepting the French, Catholic, faith. Tunisia remained under French control until independence in 1956, during which time the country saw remarkable changes; in administration, architecture and industry, amongst other areas.
Our next map portrays the Ville Européenne after a short period under French control. The street names were changed in the later part of the 1800s, though the precise date is unclear; the names shown here derive from the 1903 map of the city. From the names of the streets it is not difficult to discern in which area the Jewish population lived - probably they were the largest single people group in the faubourg. The Rue De Malta may also provide an indication of the area where the emigrants from that island resided, though the location of the Catholic Église is another indication. The church may well have been funded in large part by Maltese interests.
So, France occupies Tunisia in 1881, puts down insurrections in Sfax, Mahdia, Kairouan and elsewhere in 1882, and proceeds to impose its administration on the country. Sfax received particular attention at this time as a result of the discovery of phosphates in the hills around Gafsa. To take advantage of the abundant and useful mineral it was necessary provide a sea port close enough to keep transport expenses low. Sfax was chosen for its location, even though its harbour was very shallow. Within a very short time of the land reclamation project associated with the development of the port saw an increase of land to the south - actually, south south-east - and numerous building projects upon this new land. (This topic is covered thoroughly in Sfax Through The Ages.)

The land reclamation extended southwards, beginning almost at the walls of the Ville Européenne. Almost immediately the faubourg was affected by the changes brought by the French, with the removal of the perimeter wall in 1883. A street now followed the route where the wall had been, the Boulevard De France. Both the Bourj Al Sallami and the Bourj Al Tabbana were totally demolished to make way for it.

The difference between these two maps, above and below, separated by only 20 years, is striking, and the later map, below, does not show the full extent of the French land reclamation scheme. Where once the medina walls were overlooking the sea, in a very short time - once construction begins - looking south from Bab Diwan, one would not be even able to see the sea!
This is the period, after 1903, from which comes most of the photographic record of the Quartier Franc. Unfortunately most of the photography is dated from after the removal of the wall around the faubourg. Hence, even though we are looking at buildings that date from the 19th century, or even the 18th in some cases, our view of them is after the wall has been removed. This gives a different aspect to even the Rue De La République, where the view to the south would have ended in the fort known as the Bourj Al Tabbana. Similarly with the cathedral. Though it may have been built with a southern aspect, looking over the Mediterranean Sea, for most of its life it was facing across a plaza at the wall, from the other side of which it was not visible.

Rue De La République

The colorized picture of Rue De La République (above) is looking north (NNE) towards Bab Diwan. The French-built gate (a clock tower was tower added by 1903) was built alongside the original entryway, Prior to the French gate, pedestrians would have entered the gate, and then followed a passage which led to the right, inside the wall, before turning left and opening into the medina. This gateway projects forward somewhat from the wall. Behind the clock tower can be seen one of the towers of the wall; This still exists though the clock tower was removed after World War II.
See the separate document, Bab Diwan for more information on the history of the gates.

Looking down on the Rue De La République, in the picture on the right, the clock tower is again visible, and the bastion behind is seen to be offset a little from the porte of Diwan. Beyond this can be seen one of the numerous mosques of the medina. Besides the Grand Mosque in the center of the medina, there is another at each of the other early gates - Bab Djebli (the original entrance to the medina) and Bab Diwan (dating from 1306) - as well as a number of others elsewhere in the medina.


The perimeter wall, dating from 1830, was already in place when the Cathedral was built in the 1840s. This view of the cathedral was impossible until the wall was demolished upon the French occupation.. Perhaps as high as 4m tall, the wall not only restricted access to what had become a European enclave, but also restricted the view of it. The cathedral has two towers at the front (added in the 1890s), with a dome in the rear, positioned over the altar.
The wall ran at an angle across this picture, coming closest to the cathedral building on the left corner. Beyond the statue of Philippe Thomas, erected in 1913, the pedestrians are walking along the Boulevard De France, which follows the route of the wall.
On the lower picture, left, the statue of Philippe Thomas has not yet been installed, but the postcard allows us to see the alignment of the Boulevard De France (right) and the Rue Victor Hugo (left). On the map note the triangular park where the statue is located, and the greenery in front of the buildings on the Boulevard. The wall would have run down the middle of the street here.

Medina wall

Alongside the southern wall of the medina, to the east and west of Bab Diwan, were two streets named after French dignitaries, Rue Leonnec and Jules Ferry, the French Premier at the time of the occupation. Whilst the wall was still in place the Rue Leonnec led from Bab Diwan to the Bourj Al Resace; after the removal of the wall it was extended to meet the Boulevard De France at Bab Al Kasbah.
This view is looking east along Rue Leonnec towards Bab Diwan, which can be seen in the distance. Part of the bastion that had been Bourj Al Résace can be seen to the left of the photographer. The upper levels of this are now the Café Diwan. The photographer is standing where the wall had previously been located. It ran perpendicular from the Bourj Al Resace to the Boulevard de France.
Here we are much closer to Bab Diwan, and the Rue de La Marine (later République) which ran from Bab Diwan directly to the shore. The clock tower is over the French-built gate (~1903) but this postcard also shows the earlier gate, much smaller, beside it. This was the entrance gate to the medina that led into a passage between the two offset entrances. This original gate suffered some damage in the 1881 assault, but record of it was lost after the damage suffered duing WWII. At some point during the early 20th century the original gate seems to have been sealed; the French gate may well have led directly into the medina, avoiding the 'chicane.'
The Rue Jules Ferry ran along the north side of the faubourg between Bab Diwan and the Bourj An Nar. Numerous small shops and workshops were located against the wall, almost built into it. This section of the faubourg was probably the Jewish quarter, with street names such as Rue du Synagogue, Jerusalem, Sinai, and Cairo. This postcard dates from 1910, according to the postmark.
Another picture taken on Jules Ferry shows Bab Diwan. In the background can be seen the clock tower - this is over the original entrance way into the passage within the wall. Between 1905 and 1910 another entry way was made, which passes directly through the wall from the inner entrance. This picture shows the newer gate, which has changed very little since the picture was taken. This gate led directly into the medina, as did (probably) the earlier French gate with the clock tower.
The canopy is between the two entrances (see the upper picture, form Jules Ferry). The bastion to the right of the clock seems to be closer to the photographer, but in fact is slightly beyond the clock, as can be seen from the picture of Rue De La République, above.

Place Carnot

A park was located in the south-eastern corner of the faubourg, inside the walls to the south of the Bourj An Nar. Originally known as Place Du Consulats by 1903 it was named Place Carnot. Pictures show it at different stages of its existence.
The Place Carnot was situated between what is now the Restaurent Le Bec and Rue Ali Belhouane. Today it has been replaced by government administrative buildings, or fenced-off parking for these offices.
This later picture shows a paved way through the park - after the automobile had begun to make its impact felt, presumably. The wall visible on the left of the picture is also shown on postcards of the Place Jerome Fidele, a more recent park, which replaced the Place Carnot later in the French occupation.

World War II

Having taken control of French territory during WWII, the Axis forces controlled Tunisia until Operation Torch successfuly ejected them from North Africa. To prevent the Axis from being able to benefit from the port and railway of Sfax the Allied forces engaged in a bombing campaign of the area from the end of 1942 until the April of 1943. The consequence of this campaign was felt most seriously by the port and the railway. However, unfortunately for the Ville Européenne, it suffered from being in close proximity to both targets.
By the end of the campaign, the faubourg was in ruins, and all that could be done for its buildings, and many more in the newer commercial district, was to demolish them.
Rue De La République, (left) looking south from the wall above Bab Diwan,...
and (right) looking north towards Bab Diwan from the junction with the Boulevard De France.
Below: The same scene, after demolition. Hardly a building is left of the Quartier Franc.
The Palais Du Banque De Tunis building remains, to the left of the boy in the picture. It was built alongside the Theatre, and stood taller than this more ilustrious neighbour. In the post-WWII photograph it is probably in better condition than it is today, severely in need of restoration, but with two shops still open on the ground floor: a bookshop and a shoe shop.
The two gates of Bab Diwan are clearly visible in this picture taken from the roof of the Palais Hamdan building.

This picture is taken from the Boulevard de France, across the front of the Eglise. The west tower of the church can be seen, and a part of the door. The ruins beyond are the destroyed buildings of the Quartier Franc Looking across the Boulevard De France. Unidentified picture, possibly also the Boulevard De France.