Tunisian architecture includes a variety of influences. The earliest of these can be seen in the Roman and Punic remains that are scattered throughout the northern regions and along the coast. Much later, the colonial era brought with it new civic styles including the French Ville Nouvelle with wide streets, public parks and houses with elaborate stree facing facades. Ancient Berber architecture is most common in the south of the country where the troglodyte pit houses and ksour (fortified granaries) reveal a way of life that has changed little over the centuries.
Some Berbers of southern Tunisia lived partly underground.Their ancient homes, dug down into circular pits, maintainedthe same temperature of about 17° C (63° F) throughout theyear. This building tradition goes back many hundreds ofyears, but the most famous homes of this type, found inMatmata, date from the 19th century. A “pit house” wasinhabited by just one family, with the number of roomsbeing appropriate to the family’s size and wealth.
Punic architecture is associated mainly with Carthage,which was founded in 813 BC. Its most obvious featureis a distinct town layout, with houses built on slopesaround a square. Another hallmark of this style is thehorizontal and vertical arrangement of building stones,known as opus africanum. Coastal towns often hadtwo harbours, northern and southern, which were useddepending on the wind direction.The temples were built in themountains, close to springs,trees and stones, which wereseen as sacred.
A typical Roman town was constructed on a chequered layout. At its heart was the forum, which was dominated by a temple (capitol) devoted to various deities. Everyday life concentrated around the market square. Entertainment was provided by the theatre, and the baths were used for relaxation and hygiene.
THE COLONIAL ERA
With the advent of the French protectorate in 1881, Tunisian towns acquired straight avenues, flanked by public buildings. The style of the day combined European and Islamic elements. European design incorporated arcades and horseshoe arches and the fa˜ades of elegant villas were further embellished with loggias and balconies adorned with beautiful wrought-iron grilles.
Minarets (from the Arabic for lighthouse) are found at one corner of a mosque. According to tradition, the
Prophet Mohammed intended to use a trumpet (as did the Jews) or a rattle to call the faithful to prayer
but one of his disciples saw a mysterious apparition that revealed to him the words of a prayer. Mohammed
instructed the Bilal (the first muezzin), endowed with a powerful voice, to learn the words. Since then, five times a day, the muezzin’s chant cuts through the daily bustle of Muslim towns and villages. There are two main styles of minarets found in Tunisia; the older one has a rectangular base, while the ones built on an octagonal plan were popularized by the Turks.
The mosque or masjid (“a place of worship”) is one of the main forms of Islamic architecture. The basic elements include a courtyard surrounded by columns, and a prayer hall. The design is thought to be based on the house that belonged to Mohammed in Medina which had an oblong courtyard with huts. This courtyard has become the prayer hall which faces toward Mecca. The hall is separated from the rest of the mosque by a step or balustrade.
Zaouias are humble resting places for people who have dedicated their lives to Islam. Simple in design, they are usually whitewashed and less grand than mausoleums, and can be found dotted around the towns and villages of Tunisia. Initially the name was given to an isolated part of a mosque that was used as a gathering place for Muslim mystics, mainly ascetic Sufis. Following the death of its master, a zaouia often became a sanctuary that attracted pilgrims.
A bab is a door or gate that not only leads into a town but is also used to divide a town’s areas into smaller quarters, creating a feeling of security, and guarding against unwelcome visitors. In the 20th century many of the gates disappeared, turning the private areas into public ones. But even now in Tunis or Kairouan, there are still gates that are centuries-old leading to private homes.
In the Middle Ages, a medersa was a law school, a type of Muslim university, and the main centre for promoting Sunni orthodoxy, Muslim law and theology. They generally included lecture halls and, as students traditionally lived there, boarding rooms. Designed along the same lines as a mosque, merdersas have an inner courtyard beyond the main entrance and also a prayer hall. The classrooms are generally located to the side of the courtyard. Most often found in the medina of large towns and cities, medersas can have incredibly elaborate decoration.
The kasbah is a specific type of fortress palace. It was normally the residence of the local ruler but it also provided shelter for the local population. Kasbahs (or citadels) were generally built on hilltops, mountain slopes or near harbours. Their distinctive features include high walls and small windows. Some of the most beautiful examples have survived in Sousse, Le Kef and Tunis.
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