Initiatives to preserve Tunisian architecture

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06/04/2010


With the main orientation of creating forums about traditional Mediterranean architecture in three countries of the Maghreb, “Montada” project, operating in the framework of Euromed Heritage IV, is engaged in the conservation of built environment. Report.


Samira Sadfi - Tunis, Al-Hayat

Local populations in Sousa and Kairouan are working hand in hand with local and European experts to preserve the cultural heritage of their cities. Tunisians consider that the 2 cities are famous for their long and rich cultural heritage; for this reason they were declared by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. Yet, due to lack of financial means, lack of know-how and the actual predominance of modern architecture, old and traditional Mediterranean architectural sites are under serious threat.

In an effort to enhance and promote Mediterranean heritage, including traditional architecture, the European Union launched the Euro-Mediterranean project “Montada” (Arabic for “Forum”), which will last for 36 months (from March 2009 to February 2012). Stephanie Carette, responsible for media projects at the EU delegation in Tunisia, notes that the project aims at saving the architectural heritage of the two cities declared by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. It is worth noting that Sousa and Kairouan are inside ramparts and have retained their medieval characteristics for the past 14 centuries. Kairouan was the first city founded by Arabs in the conquest of North Africa and it has preserved its historical importance as a previous capital of the west Mediterranean. Sousa was the main seaport of the Arab dynasty. It played a major role in Mediterranean conquests, specifically the conquest of Sicily, where Arabs remained for 4 centuries.

Carette underlines that “Montada” project is led by the Col•legi d'Aparelladors i Arquitectes Tècnics de Barcelona (Spain), in collaboration with the School of Avignon (France). Six cities are concerned by the project, namely Sale and Marrakech in Morocco; Ghardaïa and Dellys in Algeria; and Kairouan and Sousa in Tunisia. Xavier Casanovas, expert in traditional architecture and leading the project from Barcelona, says that the long-time expertise in preserving Mediterranean traditional architecture within Euromed heritage programme has incited all participants to launch a new project to preserve historical and cultural identity in the Mediterranean. The project intends on engaging local populations in the preservation of their built environment. It aims at creating awareness for the participation of the population in preserving the value of this architecture. “The objective is to change the mentality of the people living in these cities”, says Dr. Mourad Ramah, head of the association for the conservation of Kairouan city, which is partner in the project. The project does not focus on the well-known historical sites in the city, but on vernacular ordinary houses.

Cultural heritage in jeopardy
Ramah welcomes us in his office at the headquarters of the association in a historical building in Zaouia Sidi Abid in Kairouan. Basing his argument on maps and architectural drawings, he notes that rehabilitation techniques used by a large category of people are modern techniques utilizing cement, iron and plain red stones… which are incompatbile with the old structures and orginal materials and put the long-preserved historical and cultural characteristic of the city in jeopardy. “A number of cities have lost their cultural richness due to this practice”, he stresses, adding that the total budget of the project is 1.8 million Euros, 80% of which is funded by the EU and the remaining sum by the concerned cities.

The initial step in the project consisted in understanding the profile of the civil society, namely associations, elected representatives educated people and neighborhood inhabitants in order to better tailor the project’s awareness campaign to this profile. Then, training and awareness campaigns were designed targeting youth and school students to help them understand and learn to care for their heritage. Ramah says: “We have chosen two schools in Kairouan, and in each school, we have gathered two groups (with an age range from 8 to 14) to educate them on the value of cultural heritage and make them aware of the importance of preserving it for themselves and for generations to come”. Ramah adds that the center will focus on specific topics like the water issue, precisely the scarcity of water in the old Mediterranean city due to the absence of rivers in the vicinity. In the past, the people of Kairouan were able to overcome the problem by building large water pools around the city’s gates (the Aghlabites basins), in addition to wells and water reservoirs in buildings and houses. This monumental work constitutes today a cultural heritage in the old walled city that needs to be preserved. A special exhibition is under preparation to highlight the historic importance of water establishments in Kairouan. Imposing walls, monumental gates and Islamic architectural heritage characterize the cultural richness of the old city. They all require rehabilitation and maintenance works to guarantee their conservation. In this regard, a group of young workers began renovating the gate of an old house in a famous street in Kairouan to revive its traditional characteristics.

Soap factories
In Sousa, the Association for the preservation of the city’s heritage, another partner in the project and headed by lawyer Abdul Jalil Bouraoui, stresses two aspects of the project: enhance the awareness of inhabitants to remain in their town and participate in the conservation of their Mediterranean heritage, in order to counter the proliferation of tourist shops invading the city and eradicating its precious historic richness. The second aspect is the reviving of handicrafts, more particularly textiles and soap production. Bouraoui told Al-Hayat that Sousa benefits from an important seaport and became a center for trade in the region. The city is also well-known for its agricultural richness, namely olive plantations. He pointed that traditional presses in the neighborhood of Sousa were not only oil presses, but were producing top quality soap as well. The rehabilitation of this traditional heritage is one of the objectives of “Montada” project, explains Bouraoui, in an effort to preserve traditional and historic characteristics of Sousa.

A meeting was held in “Dar El Chareh” in Sousa to assess the situation and suggest solutions to preserve the traditional historic heritage of the city. A EU representative participated in the meeting, as well as researchers from the National Heritage Institute, the Institution for reviving cultural heritage, the Economy of Tourism department in the faculty of law and economics, the municipality of Sousa and civil society organizations. Participants in the debate stressed on the importance of setting a plan to rehabilitate traditional old houses in the city, with the support of the government. They highlighted the necessity of renewing the network of public lighting and organizing workshops for craftsmen, in an effort to respond to the city’s touristic needs. Bouraoui noted that the rehabilitation project of April-9 Street in the old city is about to start. The project will be executed by the association in collaboration with the municipality.

Meetings and debates
Participants in the meeting suggested creating cultural forums in the city to enhance the appropriation of inhabitants to their cultural heritage. Other campaigns with pedagogical tools target the youth to improve their attachment to their heritage. Bouraoui stressed on the importance of organizing meetings and debates to raise the local populations’ awareness about the value of this architecture and the necessity of conserving it. A group of selected local and international experts will focus on scientific aspects of the project, which will help promoting the value of traditional heritage.

Who will participate in forums? In fact, in both cities, a steering committee (“Local Forum”) is in charge of selecting the topics to be discussed in each city. Two assemblies gathering around 50 inhabitants from different horizons were created in Kairouan and Sousa, and integrated rehabilitation and awareness efforts were made to treat the built environment as an important part of the shared cultural identity. Young students were provided with cameras to take photos of historic monuments in the old city. These photos are offered as gifts to city’s visitors. A plan to emphasize specificities of water establishments in the city is being under study. A practical guidebook highlighting the city’s traditional water sites is being prepared as well to serve as a guiding tool for tourists. A periodical meeting is organized by the members of the consortium from concerned countries to assess the development of the project and develop communal approaches to secure heritage architecture. European experts coordinate with local experts and pay consecutive visits to the cities to support the efforts of local populations in this matter and provide technical and scientific assistance. European expert Michele Butzbach was visiting Kairouan during the preparation of this report. In the framework of a one-day workshop, she was meeting with the inhabitants and explaining to them the means of managing and preserving architectural heritage.






Your reactions
Schhaider | 21-10-2010, 01.34h

 It is good to hear that there is someone who really cares about our historical monuments. While reading the article, I was hoping to find so many Tunisian names to make sure that, also, in our country there are people who are hell-bent on preserving what is left of a glorious history. Tunisia, thanks to its location, welcomed many civilizations whose leaders built huge and glorious buildings. Not only in cities near the shores, but also in the far west cities like Sbitla, Kasserin...

I believe that in order to save the surviving monuments, there should be a campaign to make Tunisians aware of the significance of such a loss if those buildings become ruins.