Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Moorish Heritage in Tunisia

Ibn Khaldun Statue in downtown Tunis

Look around the cities and towns of Tunis and you will see the footprints of many different civilizations. Carthage and Rome are the best-known examples perhaps, but many other ethnic groups have come to these shores as conquerors, as traders, as migrants and as refugees. For most of the last 4,000 years, Tunisia has welcomed people from around the Mediterranean basin, and Africa, who have brought their own histories, cultures, languages and religions. Each has made their own contribution to the richness and diversity of contemporary Tunisian culture.
Two of these groups are the Andalusians and the Moors. Both these people came as refugees from Spain during the middle ages and settled in Tunisia over several centuries, bringing with them culture and traditions that have become an important part of Tunisia’s cultural heritage.
For many centuries much of the Iberian peninsula – modern-day Spain and Portugal – was under the influence of Moorish culture and Islam. The architectural masterpieces of the Alhambra palace-fortress in Granada or La Mezquita in Cordoba, to cite just two examples, still stand as testaments to the wealth and cultural sophistication of this society. From the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, however, the peninsula gradually fell under the control of Christians in a process known as the reconquista, which continued until 1492 when the last Moorish city, Granada, fell to Christian Spain.
As a result of the reconquista, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco received two distinct waves of Muslim Spanish migration. The first group – Andalusians – were Arabic-speaking Muslims who started to arrive in 1230. Often wealthy and educated, they had few difficulties integrating with local populations in urban areas such as the medinas of Tunis and Sousse. For example, the historian Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406), born in Tunis, was from an Andalusian background. He was the first to write about the Amazigh in his book Almuqadima; the Introduction. Today, his statue can be seen in downtown Tunis, opposite the cathedral and French embassy.

The second group consisted of Moors. After Granada fell under the control of the Christians kingdoms in 1492, Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity and adopt the Spanish language and traditions. Despite a ban on Islam, Muslims practiced their religion secretly until their expulsion in 1609 to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
This expulsion under Phillip III in 1609 marked one of the most significant waves of Moorish immigrants to the country, and their arrival made a large impact on Tunisian culture and popular memory. Some of the wealthier Moors chose to settle in the north fringe of the Medina of Tunis- Bab Souika, Bab Carthagene and Bab El-Khadhra. Many farmers and poorer immigrants settled in several villages scattered throughout the Medjerda Valley and in other parts of northern Tunisia.
Chechia Market Tunis photo 1900

In contrast to the experience of the Andalusians, the Moors had a more difficult time integrating into Tunisian society. Arabic and Islam had been banned for over a century in their Iberian homeland, and the Moorish communities that settled in the countryside in particular, were considered by the established communities to be culturally influenced by Christianity. Moreover, these migrants were not only Muslims: Spanish Jews were also expelled from Spain and joined the Tunisian Jewish community that has existed here since the Diaspora, more than two and a half millennia ago.
Moorish Heritage in Tunisia 
When the Moors left Spain following the reconquista and settled in North Africa, they brought with them their knowledge, culture and aesthetic tastes. Together, the contribution of the Moorish and the Andalusian in Tunisian culture can be seen in the daily life of the Tunisians, particularly in domains such as cuisine, architecture and clothing.
Testour, founded in 1609, is an authentic Moorish village located in Northwestern Tunisia. The urban planning of the town follows Spanish norms- with windows and doors opening onto the streets rather than inner courtyards. The minaret of the city’s mosque is reminiscent of the church bell-towers in Seville and Toledo. A square for bull fighting was even erected before the blood-sport was banned by the local authorities a few decades after the village was founded.
Today, the original layout of the village is still visible and the minaret of the mosque can be seen from the GP5 road on the way to Teboursouk and the archaeological site of Dougga.

The Medina of Tunis is one of the best witnesses of a Moorish contribution to the artistic life of Tunis, not only in terms of architecture but also culture and tradition.
The minarets of many of the mosques were designed by Moorish architects as were a number of palaces and schools, including Bir Lahjar. The colorful and eclectic ceramic wall tiles you can see throughout the medina are also of Andalusian origin.
The chechia, a red felt hat, is another notable Moorish contribution. Souk Chaouachine in the Medina houses the biggest felt-hat workshops. The first waves of these communities who settled in the Medina of Tunis installed the souk very close to the Zitouna Mosque in the heart of Tunis, since the felt-hat is a symbol of wealth and nobility.
Furthermore, the Moorish and the Andalusian architectural influence can be seen in the construction of bridges in Medjerda Valley. In Medjez El-Bab, around 70km west of Tunis capital, a bridge can be seen from the GP5. It was built in 1677, when the Ottoman rulers ordered a bridge to be built on Medjerda valley to make the work of tax collectors easier. The construction was supervised by Moors since they had experience in such work.
Medjez el bab Bridge supervised by a Moorish engineer

Ridha Mami is an expert on the Moorish Culture in Tunisia and in the Mediterranean who teaches in Manouba University in Tunis and Madrid University. He told Tunisia Live that the Moorish heritage can be observed in several common family names of Tunisians including Morou (Moor), Tlatli (from Toledo) and Qortbi (from Cordoba).   Mami also argued that one of the most significant contribution of the Moors to Tunisian culture is in cuisine. The names of many dishes have Spanish roots. Ojja for example is derived from olla the pot. Moreover, in Soliman, some 40km south of Tunis, a typical pie is made from cheese and parsley: Banadhej. This name has been derived from the Spanish term empanada.

Testour Mosque: the minaret follows the model of Sevilleans chruch bell-towers

In addition, Moorish heritage extends to the arts, and especially especially music. The traditional music genre of Ma’luf has Andalusian origins. In particular, two Tunisian musicians have left their touch on this music, Habiba Msika (1903-1930) and Khmaies Tarnen(1894-1965), both of whom came from Moorish families.