Sousse Ribat Reviews
Sousse Ribat Jul 02, 2016
The Sousse Ribat stands at the far eastern end of the medina, approximately 500 meters inland from the coast. Southwest of the ribat is the Great Mosque, built in 851, accessible by foot across the Place des Martyrs.
The height of ribat construction was limited to the first centuries of Muslim rule in the region. Though initially established by an Abbasid governor in 796, the ribat at Sousse was demolished and fully reconstructed by Aghlabid caliph Ziyadat Allah I in 821. It is this ninth century structure that survives today, restored but largely unaltered.
It is the oldest and most typical surviving example of the ribat from the medieval North Africa. The Sousse ribat is a part of a broken chain of defence that extended all along the southern shore of the Mediterranean from Ceuta to Alexandria. Ifiriqiyan ribats seem to take their inspiration from two sources: their Abbasid equivalents( which were established to defend the northern borders against the Byzantine threat and the eastern borders against the danger represented by the Turkish populations of Central Asia) and the Umayyad buildings that used to be known collectively as “desert castles”.
Numerous small ribats i.e.fortifications were constructed along the North African coastline during the ninth and tenth centuries to accommodate both military and religious functions. Small garrisons of devout Muslim soldiers lived within the ribats and provided protection for their cities from maritime attacks. During times of peace, these volunteer warriors devoted themselves to their faith and served as religious teachers to the community.
Ribats were typically simple in design and mostly unadorned, due to their principal function as a military fortification. The design of ribats such as the one at Sousse strongly influenced later madrasa design in the region, prefiguring the arrangement of multiple levels of small cells surrounding a central courtyard.
The ribat is square in plan, composed of four thickened walls enclosing a central courtyard. At the center of each exterior wall there is a semi-circular tower. Circular towers are located at the northeast, northwest, and southwest corners.
The sole entrance to the ribat is located in the center of the south elevation, announced by a shallow porch. The entrance portal is flanked by antique marble and granite columns and capitals from the Byzantine settlement which predated Aghlabid Sousse. The entrance porch encloses a small square hallway roofed by a groin vault. In addition to its decorative features, the entry porch incorporates machicolations, slits in the floors of the upper level of the fort that allowed soldiers to drop rocks onto enemies attempting to gain access. The porch also featured a type of heavy gate known as a portcullis, which could be dropped to bar entry through the portal. This portcullis, the machicolations, the exterior arrow slits, and the narrowness of the single entry were all defensive strategies employed to create a formidable barrier against invading forces.
The entire structure of the ribat was constructed in stone. A small freestone dome, located above the entrance porch, rises from an octagonal base supported by squinches. This dome is the oldest of its kind in existence, and a precursor to the dome of the nearby Great Mosque of Kairouan.
An inner courtyard is rising over two levels with thirty-five cells opening onto it. It is lined with arcaded porticoes which lead to the cells once occupied by the soldier-monks. Along the south side of the courtyard are two staircases that allow access to the upper level of the ribat. These unroofed stone staircases both begin at the center of the south elevation, just beyond of the entrance hallway. The staircases open onto an uncovered ring of walkways located atop the arcades On the first floor, the cells occupy three sides of the building, while the southern side housed a prayer room. This room is plain and austere in style, with simple barrel vaults supported by large cruciform pillars and a few arrow slits providing light. According to archaeologists, this is the oldest mosque in Africa. A tower, that was added in 821, served both as a minaret and watch tower from where signals could be transmitted to Monastir. There is a commemorative inscription located above the door that provides access to the watchtower. This carved inscription is the oldest in Tunisia, listing the date of reconstruction of the ribat as 821 and its patron as Ziyadet Allah I. From the top of the nador- watchtower, there is a superb view of the medina, the port and the sea.
As one by one the countries around the Mediterranean fell under Muslim domination, ribats gradually lost their military function and were often re-used as a caravanserai for religious pilgrims, in particular for teaching. The ribat at Sousse was damaged during the 1943 shelling of the city during the North African campaign of the Second World War. It was subsequently restored between 1951 and 1953. Today the ribat is frequented by pilgrims, architectural historians and tourists.
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