The medina, or old city, of Tunis, is a realm of secrets. Though it covers slightly over 270 hectares, its tightly curled alleys contain countless gems of Ottoman-period architecture. A map of the medina looks something like a thumbprint, and its myriad involutions are every bit as unique. Tucked away in its twists and turns are countless mosques, hammams and madrassas, some of which date back nearly a millenium.
Dar Ben Gacem, a recently-opened boutique hotel in the medina, is a modest residence compared to some of the hidden palaces in the neighbourhood, but there’s still plenty of space for guests to explore and feel at home. And it offers visitors what no guided tour of the medina can provide: the chance to experience and inhabit its characteristic intimacy.
Indeed, domestic introversion is the key to understanding the medina’s mysterious structure. ‘Everything turns around the idea of intimacy,’ says Zoubeir Mouhli, the chief architect of Dar Ben Gacem and the secretary general of the Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina de Tunis, a consultancy and advocacy group dedicated to guarding and renewing the medina’s heritage.
‘To pass into a house, you enter from the large streets, to the smaller streets, to the tiny impasses. Then as you enter the house, you enter through a series of filters – the driba [entrance hall], the skifa [hallways] – to finally reach the central patio. And the richer a family was, the longer and more complex this filter was,’ explains the architect.
The passage into Dar Ben Gacem may not ramble like that of an Ottoman noble, but the house, which belonged for 300 years to a family who sold perfume in the souk, nevertheless has a distinctly homey, cut-off-from-the-world feel.
The hotel contains seven rooms, four of them organised around the uncovered central patio (where the family bedrooms would have been located while the house was in use) and three smaller rooms, formerly guest rooms, which surround a smaller patio upstairs. A narrow staircase leads to the rooftop terrace, with views of downtown Tunis and what the hotel calls a ‘kiosk’ – an open sitting room with low cushioned benches – where visitors can take in the sunset.
Each room has its own unique style and colour scheme, but they are united by features typical of Maghreb Ottoman domestic architecture: the dazzlingly coloured tiles on the walls, the layer above them of intricately carved decorative plaster panels and the painted wooden ceiling overhead, all scrupulously restored to period condition by Mouhli and his team. The bathrooms in each room were converted from what were storage spaces, and have kept their low, carved limestone entrances.
Even the choice of furnishings reflects the local setting. If the detail wasn’t already present in the building, it was procured from one of the overstuffed antiques dealers which line the souk district of the medina, or made especially by local artisans. Some of the tailor-made items were further personalised for the space by including fragments of the original decorations: the frame of a mirror in the entrance hall contains shards of broken ceramic tiles found in the Dar.
The end result is a space which recreates as closely as possible the environment of an Ottoman-period family home with subtle touches of modernity, like a few pieces of modern artwork or contemporary lighting fixtures, subtly blended in like any of the other cultural influences – Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Arab – which comprise the Ottoman Maghreb style.
Leila Ben Gacem, who bought the house along with her family and helped oversee the renovation, explains that preserving the local historical character of the house was a priority.
‘I love staying in a place where you really feel its spirit and heritage. I really want to bring out what Tunisian artists have made, and whoever stays there, I want them to really feel the medina. And that’s the fascinating thing. You’re living in this little micro-palace and there’s a whole medina around you. You’re right there near the kasbah and souk,’ says Ben Gacem.
The greatest advantage of Dar Ben Gacem is that it allows visitors to have their own hideaway in the medina, a starting point from which to explore the many nooks and crannies of what is perhaps the capital’s greatest attraction.
The history of the medina dates back to the original fortified city constructed by the Arabs in 698 AD, protected from seaward approaches of the Byzantine navy by a lake, now called Lac de Tunis. At the heart of the medina’s oval perimeter is the famous Al Zaytuna Mosque, the oldest mosque in Africa and once an important site of Islamic study. In 1979 UNESCO added the Tunis medina to its list of World Heritage Sites. However, if you ask Zoubeir Mouhli, it wasn’t because of grand edifices like Zitouna that UNESCO singled out the medina.
‘In my opinion it wasn’t because it has great, tall buildings of 30 or 40 metres, like in Cairo or Baghdad. No, no, no – when you walk around its white-limed walls, it’s like a labyrinth at human scale… Our architecture isn’t about the right angles of the Haussmann style, where there are perspectives and the monument has to be at the end of a perspective. No, everything interlocks in a vernacular fabric – the approach to the monument has to be earned. You have to advance and walk around the neighbourhood to create your own landmarks and perspectives,’ says Mouhli.
A historian and tour guide of the medina, Jamila Binnous, likes to use the metaphor of the body: Zitouna is the heart and the principal streets are its arteries, which subdivide into the tiny capillaries of its alleys. The houses, like Dar Ben Gacem, tightly packed together in clusters, are the very cells of its flesh.
What better way to uncover the medina’s secrets than to take a room right in the thick of that flesh.