Mahdia is small city which keeps its original traditions, where the women cover themselves with gold jewelry and the houses are decorated with embroidered hangings. Its monumental gateway calls back to its glorious past: it was the first capital of the great Fatimid dynasty, who would go on to reign in Egypt and Syria. Its medina stretches out along a narrow peninsula, surrounded by deep blue waters; its sumptuous beaches delight the tourists. A charming city with many faces.
What to see ?
Medina and fishing harbour
Visit the medina with its timeless charm. You enter through a dark doorway – the “Skifa Kahla”, topped by an imposing tower: it was once the entrance to a true forbidden citadel, strictly reserved for the court of the Fatimid Caliph. Today it is a souk, where they sell magnificent wedding garb embroidered with golden sequins. The narrow streets still keep an air of a certain nobility with their beautiful green doors framed with carved stone. Take a break under the fig trees in Cairo square. On either side, the sea is just a stone’s throw away: the medina stretches the length of a long peninsula. Go down to the charming marine cemetery, where the simple white tombs slope gently towards the sea. At their feet, a few boats glide across the surface of a pool cut into the rock: an ancient Punic port. Leaving the medina, you can stroll along the fishing harbour, one of the largest in Tunisia.
What to do ?
History or scuba diving
Bask on the luxurious beaches of golden sand, some of the most beautiful in Tunisia, and take advantage of the activities on offer from your hotel. Go scuba diving in the azure depths, relax in a thalasso spa. In the medina, delve into a weaver’s workshop (see page 47) or into a beautiful historic house where the rooms are draped in coloured hangings. Visit the Great Fatimid Mosque: founded in 916, devoid of minaret, it astonishes visitors with its simplicity and majestic entranceway. Visit the Turkish fortress Borj el-Kebir, where the privateer Dragut masterminded important battles with the Spanish in the fight for control of Tunisia. In the local museum, you can admire Roman mosaics, gold coins from the Byzantine era and the superb traditional garb of Mahdia’s brides. Nearby, don’t forget to visit Monastir, another historic city, and the great El Jem Roman amphitheatre, the “Coliseum of Africa”.
What to eat ?
Octopus and olive oil
In Mahdia, a major fishing port, the local gastronomy naturally places fish in high regard, whether served with couscous, or baked in the oven with spices and slices of lemon. For a light meal, choose a refreshing octopus salad, seasoned with lemon and a splash of olive oil, or a spicy chakchouka – a stew of peppers, tomatoes and potatoes garnished with an egg. For dessert, taste an indulgent speciality: the “Mahdia brick”, a triangle of flaky pastry stuffed with almonds. Depending on how you feel, you could lunch facing the port, where certain restaurants are particularly well-reputed, or choose a light meal in a medina cafe above the waves.
Where to sleep ?
Clubs, palaces or guesthouses
The magnificent golden beaches that stretch out from the city’s boundaries simply can’t be ignored. Mahdia now has a large number of coastal hotels each more superb than the last, from luxurious palaces to all inclusive holiday clubs. Other options include smaller hotels in the city, or a guesthouse on a deserted beach, just a few kilometres from Mahdia.
The city of the Mahdi
An ancient Carthaginian trading post, the peninsula, known as Cape Africa, had its moment of glory in the 10th century with the birth of the Fatimid Caliph dynasty in Tunisia. In fact, this is the place where the first, known as Mahdi (the “well-guided”), decided to found his capital. He had an impregnable fortress constructed on the peninsula. Later, the Fatimids would conquer Egypt and build a new capital there: Cairo. Mahdia thus became a base for privateers, and finally, a peaceful port where numerous Greek and Sicilian fishermen would settle. In 1907, Mahdia became famous among archaeologists around the world thanks to the discovery of an ancient wreck full of statues and precious artifacts. The ancient era left another exceptional relic nearby: the amphitheatre of El Jem, as well preserved as the Roman Coliseum and almost as large, proof of the wealth of this oil-producing region in Roman times.
The weavings of Mahdia
In each Tunisian city, the clothing worn by brides is different. Tunics embroidered with gold, bustiers spangled with sequins, lace trousers, draped fabrics… each piece of this traditional female garb is more extraordinary than the last. In Mahdia, under their gold jewellery and gleaming bustiers, the brides drape themselves in bolts of silk in shimmering colours. It is in workshops of the city that the weavers create these precious fabrics with coloured bands, embellished with narrow stripes of silver and gold and geometric patterns. The medina buzzes from the sliding of shuttles launched at high speeds along the wooden looms… Stop to admire the dexterity of the artisans who juggle with the multicoloured spools. Their expertise goes back a long way: “Very fine and beautiful fabrics are made there, known as Mahdia fabrics, and thus a constant and considerable export, as these fabrics are inimitable by all respects” the famous geographer Al-Idrissi had already noted in the 12th century.
Mahdia is served an international airport in Monastir, 50 km away. A regional train line allows easy travel to Sousse passing through the villages of Moknine (pottery workshops) and Lemta (archaeological site). As in the rest of Tunisia, visitors can also get around by louage (shared taxi with fixed route) and taxi.
Treat yourself by buying a precious silk scarf woven in a medina workshop, a symbol of the ancient knowledge of Mahdia’s artisans. Or choose two or three foutas, long hammam towels, made in the area: their bright or pastel colours, livened up by fine stripes, make them a veritable fashion accessory. You can also find brightly coloured ceramic tableware, carpets from Kairouan, and even more handicraft pieces.