If any one Tunisian holiday destination can be said to have it all, it’s Sousse. This lively city on the Bay of Hammamet has a white sand beach on the shimmering Mediterranean, hotels to fit every pocketbook, fabulous restaurants, a UNESCO World Heritage site medina where you can literally shop till you drop, and 2,800 years of fascinating history. Now wonder Sousse is a favorite with hip, young Tunisians and Europeans alike.
The seafaring Phoenicians were the first to recognize the Bay of Hammamet’s strategic importance. In the 9th century BC they founded a colony on its shores called Hadrumetum.
Though the Carthaginian general Hannibal used Hadrumetum as a base during the second Punic War, the town’s sympathies lay with the Romans who sent a garrison of 5,000 soldiers to protect the town.
Hadrumetum did well under Roman rule. A number of extremely well preserved mosaics survive, documenting the town’s daily life in the opening centuries of the new millennium. When Rome fell in the 5th century AD, the Vandals destroyed the town and then rebuilt it as a legacy to their leader Hunerik, calling it Hunerikopolis. A hundred years later, the town was recaptured by Byzantium, who renamed it Justinianopolis after the Byzantine Empire’s most famous Emperor.
The town was renamed Susa, or Sousse in French, following the Islamic Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century AD. Its famous ribat, the oldest mosque in North Africa, was constructed during this period to withstand the attacks of the Christian Sicilians.
Today, Sousse’s medina, casbah and fortifications are some of the finest examples of medieval Arab architecture in the entire world. The Cairo scenes of the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” were filmed in Sousse.
Things To Do In Sousse
Boujaffar Beach stretches from the center of town to Port el-Kantaoui, six miles away. High-rise hotels line most of the beach, laying claim to some of the choicer spots, but much of the beach is public access. Boujaffar is an ideal place for water sports like windsurfing, water-skiing and jet-skiing and equipment can be rented at a reasonable price from a variety of suppliers. In summer, the beach packed with Tunisian families as well as foreigners.
Sousse’s medina is small compared to those of some other Tunisian cities. Its walkways are still covered with tiles, ceiling girders and eaves as most souks were during medieval times. You won’t find anything in the medina that you can’t find in other Tunisian cities, or indeed in the modern four story mall right outside the medina, but what you find will be reasonably priced. Sousse’s merchants dislike haggling. The price they quote you initially will be the cost of the item.
The Great Mosque and the Ribat
Sousse’s Great Mosque is the only mosque in North Africa without a minaret. That’s because minarets only became a standard part of mosque architecture in the 11th century AD, and Sousse’s mosque dates back to the 9th century. Before the 11th century, minarets specifically signified an adherence to Abbasid rather than Fatimid religious tenets.
Khalaf Tower, Sousse’s famous 8th century ribat, serves a dual purpose as a minaret and a watchtower. The ribat was initially part of the fortifications the Arabs built to defend the their territory against the Sicilian Christians who launched attacks against Sousse over a period of 300 years.
• The Sousse Archeological Museum, housed in the casbah, has a collection of magnificent mosaics dating back to Roman times, second only to the collection at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. An onsite artist reconstructs the techniques used for creating these masterpieces.
• The Museum of Kalaat el-Koubba is a recreation of a traditional Tunisian funduq or guesthouse. The 11th century building houses exhibits showcasing the traditional life of the medina in Ottoman times. The building is remarkable for its zigzag fluting, the only example of this archeological embellishment in Africa.
• A small private museum called the Dar es-Sid, housed in a 9th century house on a quiet medina side street, recreates the daily life of a 19th century Sousse family. The highlight of the collection here is a small lamp dating back to the Roman era, embellished with scenes of copulating couples. It was lit every time the man of the house had sex with one of his wives.
Underlying Sousse is a network of tunnels some three and half miles long where the remains of some 15,000 bodies are interred. The deceased were Christians living in the Sousse region in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.