Located on the eastern coast of Tunisia, approximately 120 kilometers southeast of Tunis, the city of Sousse has been shaped by its adjacency to the Mediterranean since its founding over 2000 years ago. The city has alternated periods of dominance as a significant military and commercial port with other periods of administrative neglect and declining size, primarily due to shifts in regional political influence. Since the independence of Tunisia in 1956 (AH 1375), Sousse has grown steadily in population to become Tunisia's third most populous city in 2011 (AH 1432). Although the city has greatly expanded to become a modern regional capital, it retains evidence of its vibrant architectural past at its core, with important structures surviving from the Roman, Aghlabid, and Hafsid periods of its history.
Pre-Islamic Period (2nd century BCE-7th century CE)
Sousse was established as a trading centre by the Phoenicians in the second century BCE. Due to its strategic location on the Mediterranean coast and its political alliance with Rome, the city flourished during the Roman era as local capital Hadrumetum. The city enjoyed the protection of a colonial administration for seven centuries as the second most powerful city in Roman Africa, after nearby Carthage. Some urban constructions undertaken during the Roman period survive today, including a vast network of catacombs (secondfourth century CE) and intricate mosaic pavements held by the Musée Archaeologique de Sousse.
Hadrumetum was conquered by the Vandals and renamed Hunerikopolis after the fall of the Roman empire in the late fifth century CE. The Vandal occupation was short-lived and urbanistically insignificant, and the city was soon overtaken by the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century CE. The Byzantines renamed the city Justinianopolis after their emperor, but their administration led no major architectural interventions.
Aghlabid Period (800-909 CE / AH 184-296)
Though the city fell under Muslim control in the seventh century CE, it was not until the rise of the Aghlabid empire in the ninth century CE that Sousse was seriously developed beyond the remnants of its Roman past. Though the city's famous ribat had been erected under the early Islamic rulers during the beginning of the eighth century, it was completely rebuilt by Ziyadat Allah I in 821 (AH 206), during the construction of his Great Fortress, al-Qasr al-Kabir. The ribat remains one of the city's architectural highlights, as a premier example of religious military architecture during the early centuries of Islamic rule in Ifriqiya, the coastal region comprising modern day Tunisia, western Libya, and eastern Algeria. Further, the ribat at Sousse is one of the oldest and most impressive extant examples of the ribat typology. In addition to the renovation of the ribat, Zidayat Allah elected to construct a new naval base at Sousse, including a dockyard and ramparts. The naval conflicts between the Aghlabids and the Byzantines after 827 (AH 212) eventually led to fortification of the city via the construction of a new kasbah in 844 (AH 229), commissioned by Abu 'Abbas, and a perimeter city wall in 859 (AH 245), erected by Abu Ibrahim Ahmed. The Medina, defined by this ninth-century wall, encompasses 31.5 hectares in the center of the modern city. Sousse grew to become one of the largest cities in Ifriqiya following these military expansions, and it served as the primary port to the nearby inland city of Kairouan. Notable mosques constructed by the Aghlabids include the Great Mosque of Sousse commissioned by Prince Abu al-'Abbas Mohamed in 851 (AH 236), and the Bu Fatata Mosque, constructed under Prince Abu Iqal al-Aghlab between 838 and 841 (AH 223-226).
Fatimid Period (909 / AH 296-early 12th century CE)
Sousse suffered a slight decline after the founding of new regional capital Mahdia by Fatimid Caliph al-Mahdi in 917 (AH 304). However, the stagnation caused by this shift was soon overcome, and the city experienced considerable growth and urbanization during the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE. Significant extant buildings erected during this period include the Sidi 'Ali 'Ammar Mosque (late tenth century CE) and the Qubba bin al-Qhawi (eleventh century CE).
After the Fatimid calpihate moved its administration to Egypt in the eleventh century, Sousse fell under the practical rule of the Zirids. This informal arrangement operated smoothly until the Zirids began to support the 'Abbasids in Tunisia in 1056. The change in Zirid political allegiance prompted the displaced Fatimid government to organize an invasion of Ifriqiya by the Hilalians. The attacks severely damaged both Sousse and nearby Kairouan, and in subsequent decades Sousse was isolated from other inland cities, subsisting only through trade connections with other Mediterranean ports. Following a brief and destructive occupation by the Normans between 1145 and 1160 (AH 539-555), the Almohad dynasty arrived to occupy the city for roughly a century of stable rule.
Hafsid Period (1230-1574 CE / AH 627-982)
The next period of architectural development at the urban scale occurred during the rule of the Hafsids, who controlled the city between 1230 and 1574 (AH 627-982). The Hafsids were interested in expanding the power of coastal cities relative to the traditional capital at Kairouan, and consequently Sousse enjoyed a population boom and significant civic investment. Hafsid architecture in Tunisia married artistic techniques and preferences from the eastern Islamic world with traditions typical to Ifriqiya and other western Islamic areas, including Andalusian Spain. Several civic monuments were erected during the centuries of Hafsid rule, some of which have been preserved as examples of the medieval city.
Ottoman Period (late 16th century-1881 CE / AH 1298)
The Ottoman empire moved into Sousse following a brief Spanish invasion during the late sixteenth century. The Ottoman period was marked by several violent political incidents, including the executions of the last Muradid Beys, exiled from Tunis during the rise of the Husaynid dynasty (late seventeenth-early eighteenth century), and maritime attacks by France and Venice (late eighteenth century). After the city supported an unsuccessful rebellion against the Turkish empire in the late nineteenth century, Ottoman administrators punitively suppressed the economy and political leadership of Sousse such that it became a town of little regional significance, shrinking to less than 10,000 inhabitants prior to the French invasion of 1881 (AH 1298).
French Period (1881-1956 CE / AH 1298-1375)
It was during the French occupation of Tunisia that the city acquired the western name Sousse, an adaptation of the Berber "Susa." As in other parts of Tunisia, several early Islamic monuments in the city were restored in the late nineteenth century under the supervision of French archaeologists and architectural historians, notably parts of the kasbah (ninth century CE) and the al-Zaqqaq Madrasa (tenth century CE). Two new city gates were also constructed during the French colonial period: the Bab al-Finga, or Gate of the Guillotine, was built in 1892 (AH 1309), while the Bab al-Jebli, or North Gate, was erected in 1895 (AH 1313). Parts of the historic city closest to the coast were damaged by shelling in 1942 and 1943 during the North African campaigns of the Second World War.
Post-Independence (1956 / AH 1375-2011)
Following the independence of Tunisia from French colonial rule in 1956 (AH 1375), Sousse became the seat of the governorate of Sousse, which covers approximately 2,670 square kilometers along the central eastern coast of Tunisia. The city of Sousse proper comprises four districts: Sousse Atika, Sousse Nord, Cite Riadh, and Sousse Sud. Sousse Nord, also known as Port El Kantaoui, was constructed in 1971 north of the Medina Based on data collected during the 2004 census, the population of the city of Sousse was 173,000 people, while the population of the larger governorate of Sousse was 600,400 people. Sousse is currently the third most populous city in Tunisia, after Tunis and Sfax, with a population growth rate of 3.7% per year (estimated 2011). Sousse's location along the Mediterranean coast continues to define its economy in the twenty-first century, as employment within the city centers on manufacturing, trade, and coastal tourism. Olive oil processing has persisted as one of the citys largest industries since Roman antiquity.
Despite its regional economic importance, in early 2011 Sousse faced the relatively high unemployment rate of 12%. High unemployment rates across Tunisia served as one of the principal triggers of the successful uprising against President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. The Medina of Sousse was named an UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 1988 (AH 1408).
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