Mahdia Tourist Attractions
Chief town of the governorate of MahdiaSituation and characteristicsMahdia lies in a sheltered situation on a small rocky peninsula, 1.5km/1mi long and barely 500m/550yds across, which is linked with the mainland only by a narrow isthmus.
It is the economic center of the southern Sahel and in recent years has developed into Tunisia's largest fishing port. About a third of the country's total catch is landed here and processed in numerous canning factories.There is an annual festival here in July or August, the "Nuits de Mahdia", with performances of classical and folk dancing and illuminated fishing boats in the bay.Mahdia has a picturesque Medina and a beautiful sandy beach to the north of the town. So far, however, tourism has made little headway. The Friday market is held in Place Farhat Hached, on the harbor.HistoryThe strategic advantages of this site on its tongue of land were realized by the Phoenicians, who built a rectangular harbor, the Kothon, with watch-towers to defend it. The harbor, on the north side of the peninsula, is still in use.There are no traces worth mentioning of the Punic settlement or the Roman town which succeeded it. In 1907, however, sponge-divers found a Roman vessel with a cargo from Greece which had sunk off the coast in 86 B.C.During the Arab conquest the town was utterly destroyed. It was refounded in 913 by the Fatimid Caliph Obaid Allah el Mahdi - who saw that possession of this site on Cap Afrique (Ifriqiya) would give him control over coastal shipping - and named after him. A large settlement was laid out on the peninsula, protected by an 11m/36ft thick wall with four bastions and a single gateway with six portcullises, and a Harbor was built. Parts of the walls and fortifications can still be seen. After the completion of this almost impregnable stronghold, in 921, the Caliph moved his capital to Mahdia from his former seat at Reqqada. This was the base from which the Fatimids set out on the conquest of Egypt; then, having achieved this, they transferred the capital to Cairo in 973 and Mahdia fell into oblivion.The stronghold of Mahdia was taken twice, once by the Normans in the 12th century and later by the Spaniards, who laid siege to the town during their punitive campaigns against the great corsair Dragut. When they left the town in 1554 they blew up all the bastions, which were never rebuilt, and thereafter Mahdia sank into insignificance.AccessMahdia lies on MC 82, 68km/42mi southeast of Sousse and 20km/12.5mi northeast of El Djem. It is easily reached by car, and there are good Metro and bus connections with Monastir and Sousse.
The entrance to the old town of Mahdia is through the town gate, the Skifa el Kahla (Black Gate) or Bab Zouila. The gatehouse with its 44m/144ft long entrance passage was formerly incorporated in the 11m/36ft thick wall, 175m/190yds long, which crossed the peninsula. The present gate is not the original Fatimid structure but was rebuilt in 1554 after the destruction of Mahdia by the Spaniards, using stone from the Fatimid fortress. Of the original round towers, on polygonal bases, which stood at the north and south ends of the wall there remain only stumps at the north end. The residential quarter of Zouila lay to the west of the fortress. Here too were the souks, of which no trace now remains.ViewsFrom the roof of the gatehouse there are fine views of the Medina, extending to the tip of the peninsula, the modern Harbor and, to the southwest, the new town. The steps leading up to the roof are on the inner side of the gate, to the rear of the Town Hall (Municipalité). The gate leads into Rue Obaid Allah el Mahdi, on the left-hand side of which is a small covered souk. On the opposite side of the street is the entrance to Dar el Himma, a former Mosque that houses a small Silk Museum.
The Great Mosque in Mahdia was built in 921 by the founder of the town, Obaid Allah el Mahdi. It was the first Fatimid mosque modeled on the Sidi Oqba Mosque in Kairouan. It was connected on two sides with the town walls, and when these were blown up by the Spaniards, the mosque too was destroyed with the exception of the north front. A temporary building was erected to replace it, but when this was found to be in danger of collapse and was pulled down in the 1960s the Great Mosque was carefully rebuilt on its old site in accordance with the original plans.The mosque is entered through a monumental doorway which was originally used only by the Caliph. Over the doorway is a large horseshoe arch, and on either side are tall niches, shallow on ground level and deeper on the upper level.The inner courtyard, 42m/138ft by 50m/164ft, is surrounded on three sides by a colonnade with horseshoe arches.The nine-aisled prayer hall, three bays deep, has the same ground-plan as its prototype in Kairouan. The central aisle leading to the mihrab is wider than the other eight. The bay in front of the mihrab is crowned by a dome.
Bordj el Kebir
From the Great Mosque in Mahdia it is a short distance along the seafront to the Bordj el Kebir. This massive square fortress, built in 1595, is commandingly situated on the highest point on the peninsula. Of the palace built by Obaid Allah el Mahdi in the 10th century nothing is left but a few fragments of masonry from the entrance.In the courtyard of the fortress is a small mosque. In the masonry of the tower at the southwest corner are two reliefs which are believed to have come from an earlier building.The main attraction of the Bordj el Kebir is the magnificent view from the battlements over the town, the Old Harbor and Cap Afrique.Between the Bordj el Kebir and the lighthouse (Phare) at the end of the peninsula lies a cemetery. Near the lighthouse are a number of 10th century Shiite tombs and remains of cisterns.On the south coast of the peninsula is the Old Harbor (Ancien Port Fatimide), measuring 126m/138yds by 57m/62yds, probably the old Punic kothon which was later used by the Romans. The narrow entrance channel, 15m/16yds long, was protected by two Fatimid watch-towers which were incorporated in the town walls and were later linked by an arch. The kothon is very similar to the one at Carthage.
23km/14mi beyond Salakta is La Chebba, near which, on the headland of Ras Kaboudia, are the remains of the ribat of Bordj Kjadidja, built on Byzantine foundations. This was one of a chain of similar forts built by the Abbasids along the coasts of the Sahel in the eighth century. The ancient settlement on this site was known as Caput Vada; the Byzantine general Belisarius landed here in 533 and went on to inflict a devastating defeat on the Vandals.
The Mahdia Wreck
The existence of a harbor at least in Roman times seems to be evidenced by the discovery by sponge-divers off Cap Afrique in 1907 of a Roman sailing ship which had sunk in a storm in 86 B.C. Its cargo, which included dedicatory reliefs from Piraeus and large numbers of marble columns, showed that the ship came from Piraeus. Items recovered from the ship are now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis.
Ras Bou Tria
15km/9mi south of La Chebba is the promontory of Ras Bou Tria (reached on a side road which goes off on the left 8km/5mi beyond Mellouleche), with the remains of ancient Acholla. Excavations here have brought to light the foundations of Roman houses and remains of an amphitheater and baths.
14km/8.5mi from Mahdia, beyond the little town of Ksour Essaf, is Salakta, with the modest remains of ancient Sullectum. This was probably the port to which lions for the gladiatorial contests in the amphitheater at El Djem were shipped.
For visitors to Mahdia interested in archeology a trip down the coast by way of Salakta and La Chebba to Ras Bou Tria (59km/37mi) can be recommended.
In the center of Mahdia, on the narrow rocky peninsula, is the Medina. The new town extends to the west and south; to the northwest is a beautiful sandy beach.
Map of Mahdia Attractions