I got to spend one day wandering around by myself. I wasn’t sure how it would go as a lone Western female tourist in an Arab country, but it went just fine. I don’t think I’d have the guts to do it in Egypt, but in Tunisia, yes.
I headed straight for the souk. And when you ask strangers to take your picture by the “I Love Tunis” sign, you get backpacks in the photo. *shrug*
Inside the souk itself, it wasn’t that spectacular. Narrow, winding passages, shops stocked with the usual kitchenware, clothing, shoes and spices. It’s more like a local shopping spot than a tourist dream like Istanbul’s Grand Mosque. I was super conscious of getting pick-pocketed in the crowd, so I didn’t take many photos.
I found myself in a quieter alley, though, at one point, and some guy asked me if I wanted to see the old mosque. Answer: yes, please!
He tried to direct me, as in: turn left, go around the corner, then turn right, go up some stairs, something something something in Arabic… I headed off, but he could tell I was getting nowhere, so he came along. He proceed to speed walk into an ancient mosque (and maybe palace?) jabbing his finger toward the various rooms.
We were talking in Spanish, the most of any language both of us spoke. My Arabic: limited to mostly the alphabet. My French: mostly cooking words and food. His English: a few phrases. Instead, his version of Frenchish Spanish would have to do. All that to say: I didn’t get a lot of the details.
I think we were in the al-Zaytuna mosque, because I do believe he mentioned something about olives. Apparently the mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica formerly named Santa Olivia. When Islam came in and the mosque built, they converted the name to Arabic.
We zoomed up stairs past landings and carpet shops, dusty untouched wings of the building and amazing tile work. I wanted to take my time and meander up, but Mr. Volunteer Guide was in a hurry. I think he may have said the mosque was due to shut for service time in a few minutes. But we weren’t in a worship section, so who knows?
What I do know is that I emerged into bright sunlight on a tile mosaiced floor with sweeping 360-degree views of the city. Minarets, satellite dishes and domes peeked out. It was a sort of cafe built on the terraces of the ancient buildings, with left-over tile pieces encrusting everything.
Up at the top, there was a man behind the counter and three girls giggling around a table, but other wise it was empty. Again, I could have lingered much longer for a coffee in the sun and those views. But Mr. Volunteer Guide awaited. He said the square minarets, particularly the al-Zaytuna one, was in a native shape (square) and dated to the 700s. The distinctive octagonal minarets were built by the Turks during the Ottoman empire.
Suuuuuper charming, right?
I’ll probably never be able to find it again.
But it was worth it.
The tour ended with another whirlwind stop through some of the ancient madrassas, some still in service and others converted to art studios and the like.
When my son saw all the black and white painted arches in the madrassas, he said they looked like shark teeth.
All I know is: marble/mosaic/basalt cobblestone 4ever.