Built on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean, Mahdia enjoys an easily defensible position. It is named after al-Mahdi, the founder of the Fatimid dynasty who made it his capital from 921 to 973. A century later it served as refuge for the Zirids when their capital Kairouan was overrun in 1050.
Its old port, which is said to have been first excavated by the Carthaginians in antiquity, is now only used by local fishing boats. The the surrounding area is a Muslim Cemetery which might explain why it has not been transformed into a marina for the herds of tourists who flock to the beach resorts north of town.
Mahdia's strategic position was also appreciated by the Turks who built the fort "Borj el-Kebir" in the 16th century on the hill overlooking the old port.
Here is another view of Borj el-Kebir, looking inland over the town.
Below on the left , a couple of girls going somewhere with a fishing net in the old town and on the right, the Mosque on the square just outside the city gates.
The city walls have disappeared but this monumental gate-fortress called "Skifa el-Kahla", defending the city at the base of the isthmus, was fortunately preserved. The white building on the right houses the municipal tourism office which is now probably as important for Mahdia's future as the big gate was in the past...
Rome's development of its African province during six centuries has left traces all over Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The Roman amphitheater in El Jem is one of the most impressive legacies is of that period. It was built in 232 AD by Emperor Gordian and seated 30,000 people. If you pardon the pun, it is really a jem worth visiting.
The amphitheater has been pillaged for building materials but the damage was fortunately limited because it stood in an out-of-the-way place, the closest town being Mahdia, 40 km away. Actually a large part of the damage resulted from political strife in 17th century.
The El Jem amphitheater is smaller than Rome's Coliseum, which could seat 80,000 people, but it is constructed on the same architectural model and parts of it are better preserved as you can see in the photos below.
The big city of Sfax was my next destination. I did not bother visiting the port and the modern quarters of the city but concentrated my attention on the well preserved high walled medina which is really worth seeing.
After the Arab conquest, Sfax developed as an Islamic trading center serving the Berber nomads. Its ramparts, originally erected in the ninth century, were maintained and improved by the Sicilian Normans in 12th century, by the Spanish in 16th as well as by Barbary Coast pirates in 17th and 18th.
Sfax is now Tunisia's second-largest city. The medina's ramparts have been carefully restored even though the focus here is on exporting phosphates, olive oil and canned fish instead of attracting tourists.
The ramparts are the most impressive part of the medina which is small and not tourist oriented.
I found a cheap room not far from the 10th century Grande Mosquée whose minaret you can see below. The museum was closed so I undertook the systematic exploration of the medina and its ramparts.
At one point, I was engaged in a maze of narrow streets close to the eastern ramparts south of Bab Ghergui when I realized that I was in the local red light district. A number of men were walking up and down the alley looking into doorways where the ladies were displaying their wares more or less openly. I was not surprised that the world's oldest business would be as active in an Islamic city as anywhere else but I was impressed by the large size of the ladies who seemed to attract the most attention. Obviously, the men here like to get their money is worth!
This is Sfax's modern City Hall south of the medina. I managed to get on the Tunis - Tripoli bus as it stopped for barely a minute in front of the train station six blocks to the left of this picture. It was an interesting event for I had to wait for the bus until 11:30 at night without knowing, until the last minute, whether there would be a seat for me or not.