In the Medina, Turbe al-Bey Road, Tunis, Tunisia
Around hegira 1191 / AD 1777
‘Ali Bey II, son of Husayn ibn ‘Ali.
The necropolis (turbe) of the beys shelters the tombs of 14 of the 19 Husaynid sovereigns who reigned over Tunisia from AD 1707 to 1957. The monument also houses the remains of their families and some of the more privileged of their ministers and slaves. The complex is arranged around two courtyards, linked by a succession of halls with domes, which were added on as the need arose.
From the outside, the monument looks imposing due to its façade of dressed blocks cut from ochre-coloured shelly sandstone relieved at regular intervals by pilasters. These pilasters, and also the light-coloured stone copings, stand out against the ochre background and are decorated with bas-relief sculptures with floral motifs in the Italian style.
The current entrance door is late. It opens onto an initial hallway and precedes a second, older door set into a Moorish arch edged with marble in two colours. Beyond a second hallway one arrives at a porticoed courtyard. The paving, door and window frames, columns and capitals of this courtyard are all constructed of white marble from Carrara in Italy.
The west hall, which is the largest, contains the tombs of the enthroned beys, that is, those that actually reigned.
Square in plan and measuring 15 m on each side, the turbe conforms to the classic Ottoman mosque plan, in spite of its small size. A large central dome, slightly bulbous, is held up by four sturdy cruciform pillars. The main dome is abutted by four lateral semi-domes and by four mini-domes at the corners. The interior decoration mixes Italianate influence perfectly with local traditions. In fact, the lower parts of the pillars and the walls up to a height of 2.5 m are covered with multicoloured marble panels. Ochre and garnet-red occupy the upper parts of the walls, whilst the insides of the domes are lined with sculpted plaster. The hall accommodates 13 tombs, covered with marble richly ornamented with motifs in bas-relief. This ornamentation, extending over a period of one and a half centuries, is a boon for students of styles and techniques in marble sculpture.
On the opposite side of this courtyard is the princess's hall, covered in domes with pendentives lined with sculpted plaster. The walls offer a rich panoply of tiles. Some, of local origin, reproduce the mihrab panels of the Qallaline district of Tunis. Others have been imported from Italy and Spain.
Three halls are arranged around the second patio, dating from AH 1299 (AD 1852). The one on the south side is notable for its ovoid dome measuring 18 m x 5 m. Its smooth plaster coating creates a plain background for the extremely fine motifs sculpted in black.
Apart from its architectural interest, this necropolis contains some of the most important funerary inscriptions. All the tombs bear dated steles, differing according to the sex of the defunct person. The tombs of women have two plaques, one at each end, with an engraved headstone. On those of the men a cippus stands at the head, crowned with a turban or fez carved into the marble. The first form (a turban) dates from before the dress reform dictated by the Sublime Gate in 1828–9. This reform substituted Western dress for the kaftan and replaced the turban with the fez or the tasselled chechia.
This is the necropolis of the beys of Tunis. It contains the tombs of the princely Husaynid family and those of some its privileged faithful ministers and servants. The complex is arranged around two courtyards linked by a complex succession of domed rooms as a result of successive extensions. The tombs were set in the ground and covered with marble decorated with motifs in bas relief from which rise prismatic columns engraved with epitaphs which are topped with a hat if the deceased was a man.
Ben Achour, M.E.Z., “Tourbet el-Bey”, IBLA review, Tunis, 1985, t. I, pp.45, 84.
Ben Mami, M.B., Les Tourbas de Tunis, Tunis, 2004.
Marçais, G., Architecture musulmane d'Occident, Paris, 1954, p.473.
Ifriqiya: Thirteen centuries of Art and Architecture in Tunisia, pp.74–5.
Mohamed Béji Ben Mami "Turbe al-Bey" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. 2019. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;tn;Mon01;12;en
Prepared by: Mohamed Béji Ben MamiMohamed Béji Ben Mami
Né le 27 janvier 1950 à Tunis, docteur en archéologie islamique, Mohamed Béji Ben Mami est directeur général de l'Institut national du patrimoine et vice-président de la Municipalité de Tunis. Il a restauré, sauvegardé et mis en valeur plus d'une cinquantaine de monuments de la médina de Tunis, dirigé les fouilles de grands sites islamiques et organisé diverses expositions relatives à la civilisation arabo-islamique.
Depuis 1996, il est vice-président de l'Union des historiens arabes et représentant de l'Union des archéologues arabes de Tunisie.
Mohamed Béji Ben Mami a pris part à divers congrès internationaux et publié plusieurs articles et ouvrages, parmi lesquels Tourbet el-Bey (Tunis, 2004) et Les médersas de la médina de Tunis (Tunis, 2005).
Copyedited by: Margot Cortez
Translation by: David Ash
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: TN 12