Sousse Heritage Under Threat
By Mohammad Ali Khalifa
Medina of Soussse, Tunisia, June,2015 (alikhbaria) – Sheikh Hammadi Al –Mawlawi, 80, slaps his hands together in a sign of despair at the situation that has befallen the ancient medina of Sousse, where building violations continue unabated under the watchful eyes of the powerless municipality.
“I no longer recognize the old city and cannot distinguish its characteristics which have withstood many decades”, says Al-Mawlawi, President of “La Memoire de Sousse” Society.
For that, he blames three parties: the “Municipality”, the National Heritage Institute that was linked to the ruling party of president Ben Ali who was toppled in January 2011 and successive governments since the revolution.
None of the three have laid any plan to save the city, an important commercial and military port during the Aghlabid period (800-909) and a typical example of a town dating from the first centuries of Islam.
The three parties acknowledge their negligence but say “lack of resources” and personnel leaves them unable to intervene. But other local associations trying to salvage the city’s heritage state say conflicting interest amongst the three parties are allowing culprits to harm its historical monuments.
There are no punitive measures cited in the Amended Law for the Protection of Heritage, Historical Antiquities and Traditional Arts. The situation has been worsening since the 2011 revolution as the local administration and court system became weaker.
Hence, the Medina of Sousse, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage in 1988, might lose its status because it is unable to maintain the needed criteria. (refer to frame 1).
The municipality is unable to monitor these sites or control construction permits. It neither has the resources and nor the ability to implement orders to demolish buildings which disfigure the city, as this investigative report shows.
Abuses and Thefts
The palace of the Sanhaji king Al Mu’izz Ibn Badis (1008 – 1061), which lies at the centre of the “Aghlabid’s Way”, the city’s main street, is now deserted, with no restoration, except for some cement work that was carried out by the National Heritage Institute in violation of the preservation methods for antiquities stipulated by UNESCO. This was the scene of a major police raid in February 2015 after the apprehension of a gang that had bought the building from a private owner, who in turn had purchased it from the state. The gang also purchased six other houses in the city. They looted the antiquities of the palace and the six homes and smuggled them. This is the only case being looked at by the Tunisian court because it was the only time the National Heritage Institute had filed a lawsuit against the owners accusing them of stealing and smuggling antiquities.
The societies that look after the welfare of the city have been “warning” to the Institute whenever they have noted a transgression. But these notices do not reach the judiciary.
Najat AnNabli Ayad, member of the Office of the Special Delegation to the city of Sousse, states that societies and persons who wish draw the attention of authorities to wrong doings find it difficult to do so because of intertwined prerogatives.
Restoration and Demolition
This reporter examined the 300-meter long street marking the Aghlabid’s Way that was restored under the supervision of the Sousse Municipality and the Building Renovation Agency between July and October 2014. He documented how several buildings on both sides of the street were effaced. Three stores were added to an ancient house known as Dar Abu Ashour without taking into consideration the architectural characteristics of the city. He also documented cases of random renovations not adherent with special instructions for the preservation of antiquities. The street includes a cafe, 17 stores and 65 houses. Up to 58 of these buildings were renovated in a manner that did not adhere to the architectural characteristics of the city as set by the UNESCO guidelines) – (refer to frame 3).
This survey confirms similar findings of the Sousse Municipality published end 2012: Between 60% and 70% of the facades of the ancient buildings had been defiled, either partially or completely.
The Sidi Abdul Qader Sufi corner has for the last 18 months been undergoing renovation work supervised by the National Heritage Institute. Only two out of four rooms have been completed. The work is needed to remove “the effacing” that impacted the ceramics when an electricity meter was installed. A few meters away a new two-story house was built despite the fact that UNESCO regulations stipulate that any structure should consist of only a ground floor and a floor above it. The Urban Rehabilitation and Restoration Agency (ARRU) operating under the Ministry of Public Works implemented the latest restoration work.
Other defacements that were documented included the installation of aluminium frames around windows and the painting of walls as well as the use of ceramics on the front of the buildings, in addition to adding iron doors and Andalusian tiles that have nothing to do with the characteristics of the city.
(refer to table)
These infringements forced representatives of civil societies including “Sousse Demain” and the “Excelling Artisan Society” to sound alarm bells and to stress that their work to protect “ancient Sousse” was becoming ineffective.
The Sousse Preservation Society which overlooks all forms of maintenance work on the city is only there on paper. No new elections for members had taken place for four years. (Refer to frame 4).
Classifying Sousse as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites was based on the criteria that it represented a specific architectural characteristic that reflected a certain historic time period (The Era of the Aghlabid Dynasty from the 2nd and 3rd Centuries) (refer to frame 5).
Under pressure exerted by magistrates and those concerned with the preservation of the heritage of Sousse, the Tunisian legislature amended on May 25, 2011 the articles of the law for the Protection of the Heritage, Historical Antiquities and Traditional Arts of February 24, 1994 to increase punitive measures.
The law stipulates when the government can intervene to protect antiquity sites and types of transgressions that shall be punished. (Refer to frame 2).
Walid Al Kashbati, legal expert on antiquities, confirms that the problem does not lie with the articles of the law set for the protection of antiquities but with both the lack of mechanisms to implement these and political will. Add to that is poor public awareness regarding the importance of the preservation of these antiquities within their classification as a World Heritage site.
Breaches and Warnings
The transgressions in Sousse – contrary to the conditions set by UNESCO – and as documented by this reporter, consisted of a large number of structures that were randomly built such as commercial stores as well as the use of colour and styles that were new and different from the prevalent architecture that is specific to the city. The image of the city was distorted with graffiti on the walls and by placing notices, placards and hanging goods on the walls as well as installing air-conditioning units on the Eastern wall. The paint used for the stores has been changed and structures were in violation of height requirements (the wall is about 12 metres in height). None of the renovations met requirements stipulated by the National Heritage Institute.
Faisal Abaid, a member of the “Sousse Demain” Society that looks after the welfare of the city says the situation is alarming; the infringements are numerous, the Municipality is incapable of handling the matter and the National Heritage Institute appears absent.
Abaid complains that the buildings surrounding the old city walls are in violation of local and UN laws. He asks how the owners acquired building permits in the first place because the UNESCO regulations stipulate that these structures – which are numerous – should be a distance of at least 200 metres from the circumference of the wall and they should not exceed its height.
The Sousse Municipality does not have a precise number for all buildings built around the wall. Some of these buildings house commercial corporations and the offices of health, housing and a court house. They were erected before the inclusion of the city on the list of World Heritage Sites.
This reporter documented that several buildings are not more than 50 metres away from the wall and are three times taller than the wall. Similar others were demolished and built without permits altering the appearance of antiquity sites such as the Alley Corner and Dar Abu Ashour.
Najat AnNabli Ayad says: “The Municipality is shirking in its responsibilities and has done nothing to fine the owners despite their decision of 2009 stating that these structures should be pushed back by 8 metres.” Ayad confirms that implementing that law was “impossible and the city therefore overlooked the matter.”
She points out that “the infringements within the boundaries of the wall are far worse that those on the outside, since the houses there are small and owners are expanding upwards, building more than the permissible height.
Weakness ….or Complicity?
Sources at the Municipality who requested anonymity, said a technical issue is preventing the National Heritage Institute – a partner in the decision making process on issuing permits – from objecting to issuing such permits and from overseeing work.
Member of the “Sousse Demain” Society, Faisal Abaid says: “The National Heritage Institute is completely absent. In fact the Institute’s representative in Sousse is an archaeologist, not a historian, as stipulated by the Institute’s founding charter.
“We put this forward to the Institute, and Mohammed Al Lawati, its scientific representative, responded: No one denies that many breaches exist in the old city”.
According to Al Lawati, the Institute’s resources are very limited. The 2014 budget for the city of Sousse does not exceed 150 thousand dinars ($80 thousand) while the city needs four times more than this amount. The Institute also does not own a private car, making it difficult for anyone to oversee what is going on in remote areas.
Murad Al Bahri, President of the “Excelling Artisan Society” considers the National Heritage Institute a collaborator in all these violations since it refuses to intervene. It has also overlooked the destruction of the city since 2011.
Worse, chaos seems to have overtaken the city after police forces operating under the municipality and responsible for reporting on building violations and implementing demolition orders, were put under the responsibility of the Interior Ministry in 2011.
The absent Municipality
Employees at the Municipality confirm that they are unable to do much since the police forces were removed to maintain post-revolution law and order under the ministr. Preserving antiquities became secondary.
A dangerous situation….but
Despite all the transgressions, the director of works at the Sousse Municipality Mu’izz Na’eeja confirms that the ancient city is still included among the 966 World Heritage List.
The UNESCO does not remove a heritage site from its world list without first demoting it for three years to a “warning” list also known as the list for “Threatened Sites.” This has not happened to date. However, what is happening on the ground could lead to that, say representatives from societies concerned with the welfare of the city.
When confronted, Mohammad Al Makni, Mayor of Sousse vehemently denied any negligence claims on the part of his employees over the years. He confirmed that they routinely monitor the work that is carried out despite lack of resources and staff. The municipality now has 8 police men, from 60 before the revolution.
Al Makni explains that the municipality can stop improper renovation but the process of issuing such orders takes three days. This grants violators enough time to speed up whatever illegal work is taking place.
Hence, it is impossible to carry out any demolition orders to structures that have already been erected. “The Municipality regrets any violations that the antiquity sites have been subjected to, but part of the responsibility lies with those who sold these historic houses since they do not appreciate their notable value especially if the inheritors are many.”
The mayor, however, said that the municipality will not issue any papers in the future to the owners of the houses who have committed violations, thus obstructing their ability to make use of their property.
The local UNIESCO office said their office in Morocco oversees all heritage and antiquity matters related to Tunisia. This journalist attempted to get in touch with them, repeatedly, but in vain. The Tunis office also did not help.
Frame 1 –
The Criteria for Selection of World Heritage Sites
The UNESCO placed a list of ten criteria that heritage sites should meet in order to be included on the World Heritage List, besides being of “Outstanding Universal Value”
To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural era… or to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared; or to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.
The nominated site must meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.
Frame 2 –
Main Amendments in the Heritage Protection Journal
The Amendments issued in the Heritage Protection Law dated May 25, 2011 included:
– any person permitting the sale of property of protected moveable goods (due to their antiquated nature) without the knowledge of the concerned authorities shall be fined the amount of 3 thousand dinars ($1.500) instead of the previous 300 dinars ($150).
– Any person who hampers the work of the authorities in charge of monitoring and inspecting antiquated property shall face a one-year imprisonment and a fine of 10.000 dinars ($5000) instead of three months imprisonment and a fine of 500 dinars ($250).
– The punishment for any person forging or counterfeiting protected movable goods shall now be six months imprisonment and a fine of five thousand dinars ($2,500).
– The above-mentioned law stipulates that any person who commits any digging, drilling or excavation work or other such acts that involve searching for movable or fixed antiquities whether owned by him or by someone else without acquiring a permit from the authority overseeing Heritage matters shall be sentenced to a five year jail term, and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian Dinars and any attempt shall be subject to the same punitive measures which will be twofold in repeat offenses.
Frame 3 –
Conditions and rules for the restoration of antiquity sites
Antiquity sites included on the List of World Heritage Sites shall be subject to monitoring by the Municipality and the National Heritage Institute.
The owner of a property (house, store, café or other) shall not be permitted to carry out any structural changes to the building without submitting a request to the concerned municipality, where a special committee (consisting of architecture experts and a representative from the National Heritage Institute) shall look into the matter and issue a decision either to permit the owner to carry out the work in accordance with a plan created by one of the architects or to forbid him from carrying out any work if the committee sees that such work will alter the identity of the antiquity.
Frame 4 –
The Sousse Preservation Society
The society was created in 1988 after the old city was included on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It is a financially and morally independent society with no authority having jurisdiction over it (according to its charter). However it does coordinate with concerned authorities to a create a maintenance and preservation program for the old city and looks into matter to enrich its value as a listed antiquity site such as the holding of seminars and awareness campaigns to educate on the special status enjoyed by this ancient city.
The society was attached to the previous ruling party of Ben Ali’s regime and its board consisted of several members from the party. It has not held a board meeting since the January 14, 2011
The society’s activities were suspended after the board members disbanded following the revolution. This explains the negligence on its part at a time when violations and infringements on the old city were on the increase.
A table outlining the infringements on the old city
The main violations against the old city, their form, when and responsible parties, if blame can be attributed, taking into account that any transgression that extends to the total demolition of a house or store, or their renovation in a manner that does not meet with the approval of UNESCO or the National Heritage Institute or changes in their appearance will exclude the monument from the list of World Heritage Sites.
Name of Monument
Description Infringements History of Infringement
Old City Wall A wall that surrounds the city and all that it encompasses is included on the World Heritage List. Built by the Aglabids in the 2nd Century The wall has become dirty. It has become a hanging post by vendors who randomly hang clothes and other supplies for sale These violations and infringements have been taking place since 2000. The situation worsened after January 2011
The Alley Corner An historic school that goes back to the Hafsid period. It includes a prayer area and a unique minaret A two storey building was erected near the Alley Corner which hides it from view Between December 2014 and May 2015, the “Sousse Demain” Society confirmed that these violations were taking place with the knowledge of the members of the National Heritage Institute
Dar Abu Ashour (House) An historic building passed on through generations of the Abu Ashour clan. It was sold to a private buyer two years ago. The houses that overlooked the enclosed market have been torn down and stores selling gold and silver were erected Work was carried out between October 2013 and March 2015, despite attempts by the municipality to stop this work
Al Mu’izz Ibn Badis Palace A historic palace situated in the middle of the “Aghlabid’s Way”, the biggest street in the old city built in the 9th Century The palace façade has been defiled and some of the interior contents were ruined. Historic pieces were looted The looting and infringements started in 1996 according to a resident of the street (his home is beside the palace) The violations increased in the last four years
Sidi Abdul Qader Corner A Mystic Sufi Area Its façade was completely covered during renovations due to a crack in one of the walls as a result of digging to change sanitation water pipes This happened at the same time as the renovation project of the city and the upgrading of its networks – October 2013
Stores in the old city Stores that extend all along the old city and its streets and alleyways Various infringements to their architectural structure with the attachment of air-conditioning units and publicity placards as well as the use of paint different from the original colour used when building the old stores These violation mainly commenced in 2000 but were on the increase in the last four years.
Old city homes, numbering about 800 Houses that are within the boundaries of the wall which are currently undergoing large renovations or expansions Many of these houses are being partially or completely demolished and rebuilt with the use of cement and modern building equipment and painted with colours other than the blue and white used in the city Such violations were taking place prior to the listing of the city on UNESCO’s World Heritage List but they have increased in the last few years
|Name of Monument||Description||Infringements||History of Infringement|
|Old City Wall||A wall that surrounds the city and all that it encompasses is included on the World Heritage List. Built by the Aglabids in the 2nd Century||The wall has become dirty and is used as a hanging post by vendors who randomly hang clothes and other supplies for sale||These violations and infringements have been taking place since the year 2000 and the situation worsened after January 2011|
|The Alley Corner||An historic school that goes back to the Hafsid period. It includes a prayer area and a unique minaret||A two storey building was erected near the Alley Corner which hides it from view||From the period between December 2014 and May 2015. The “Sousse Demain” Society confirmed that these violations were taking place with the knowledge of the members of the National Heritage Institute|
|Dar Abu Ashour (House)||An historic building that was passed on through generations of the Abu Ashour clan and was sold two years ago to a private owner||The houses that overlooked the enclosed market have been torn down and stores selling gold and silver were erected||Work was carried out between October 2013 and March 2015, despite attempts by the municipality to put a stop to it|
|Al Mu’izz Ibn Badis Palace||An historic palace that is situated in the middle of the “Aghlabid’s Way”, the biggest street in the old city built in the 9th Century||The palace façade has been defiled and some of the interior contents were ruined. Historic pieces were looted||The looting and infringements started in 1996 according to eyewitness testimony from one of the residents of the street (his home is beside the palace) The violations increases in the last four years|
|Sidi Abdul Qader Corner||A Mystic Sufi Area||Its façade was completely covered during renovations due to a crack in one of the walls as a result of digging to change sanitation water pipes||This happened at the same time as the renovation project of the city and the upgrading of its networks – October 2013|
|Stores in the old city||Stores that extend all along the old city and its streets and alleyways||Various infringements to their architectural structure with the attachment of air-conditioning units and publicity placards as well as the use of paint different from the original colour used when building the old stores||These violation mainly commenced in 2000 but were on the increase in the last four years.|
|Old city homes, numbering about 800||Houses that are within the boundaries of the wall which are currently undergoing large renovations or expansions||Many of these houses are being partially or completely demolished and rebuilt with the use of cement and modern building equipment and painted with colours other than the blue and white used in the city||Such violations were taking place prior to the listing of the city on UNESCO’s World Heritage List but they have increased in the last few years|
Frame 5 –
The historical importance of the city of Sousse
With its many names and various cultures Sousse represents the different civilizations that Tunisia has witnessed:
– Bonikian Adreem (the name of the city during Bonikan era)
– Hadramaut or Hadrumetum (Roman) – 146 BC to 339
– Hunerikopolis (Vandal) – 439 to 534
– Justinianopolis (Byzantine) – 534 to 670
This investigation was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net and coached by Ameen bin Masoud.