Reviving Historical Urban Quarters Using Creative Industries

February 9th, 2016 Reviving Historical Urban Quarters Using Creative Industries

Tunisian Japan Symposium 17 – 19 Sept. 2016, Management Strategy Towards the Establishment of Innovative Society


The purpose of this work is to revive the historical urban quarters of Tunis Medina, through improved socio-cultural urban dynamics of creative industry and public private partnerships for historical building adaptation and reuse. A field survey was conducted as a starting point, to understand the available arts, crafts and building stock; as well as their potential to regenerate urban dynamics. Based on findings, initiatives were designed to enable traditional crafts to create a new socio-economic opportunities and historical buildings were analyzed for potential reuse to current community needs and building repurpose potentials.  This work highlighted important findings in terms of available historical building stock as well as traditional arts and crafts potential to initiate economic opportunities, hence becoming a factor for historical urban quarter’s regeneration. To create sustainable urban shift, private public sector partnerships were developed, to partner on specific initiatives aiming at improving the socio-cultural dynamics in the Medina. This work proved that creative industry could be a powerful tool for socio-economic development and historical urban quarter’s regeneration.



Urban, crafts, arts, development, revival, socio-economic, culture, heritage, preservation, Tunis, Medina, revival, ASM Tunis, MEDNETA, creative industry, Tunisia


1. Introduction:

Founded in 698 around Zitouna Mosque, the urban fabric of the Medina of Tunis has witnessed a north- and southward expansion during the Middle Ages. In addition to the central Medina, there are two suburbs, Bab Souika in the north and Bab El Jazira in the south, in addition to the Kasbah district which includes palaces and the military garrison in the west. The Medina of Tunis had become the capital of the powerful Hafsid kingdom, which was a religious, intellectual and economic center oriented towards the Middle East, Maghreb, Africa and Europe. It includes several monuments mixing Ifriqiya, Andalusian and Oriental styles with Roman or Byzantine pillars and column capitals.


The retrenched situation of the city was not advantageous before the Arabic conquest; yet the city had since then adopted a defensive and strategic position as a main hub in the Mediterranean Sea, close enough to the sea and far enough from it to be protected from its dangers. It is located near the top of a hill between the gulf of Tunis and the lake on one side; and surrounded by the Sebkha Sijoumi on the other side.


Following the independence of Tunis in 1956, several changes reshaped the morphology of the Medina. On the one hand, the city emptied of its people because of the exodus of the Christian and Jewish population, while on the other hand the Muslim population moved to the new city while rural families fleeing misery settled in abandoned buildings. These shifts caused the impoverishment of the population as well as the weakening of buildings. Houses were split into several parts and rented to several families; this phenomenon is called “oukalisation”. Stripping-off ornaments, in addition to overpopulation, deeply affected the Medina. In order to counter deterioration, the Association for the protection of the Medina had been created and took several actions to preserve the historical space. The Medina has a central position within the cityof Tunis; it is the biggest urban agglomeration in Tunisia. It is surrounded by the European city and a recently built dense urban area.


The city of Tunis had greatly expanded during the colonial era and in the time following the independence, due to densely built urban areas. The old city however, kept its pivotal position despite its stressed degradation during the 1960’s. This is due to its historical and patrimonial importance, the multitude of administrations and ministries in its outskirts, the importance of its commercial and service-oriented activities as well as its high concentration of craft activities. In addition to that, the growing interest of private investors in restoring old mansions and the emergence of boutique hotels have emphasized this phenomenon.


The surface of the central Medina of Tunis is 100 ha large and houses 100.000 inhabitants, which are spread across 15.000 homes. Within the capital, it houses various urban functions as well as the majority of historic monuments. Besides being a religious, administrative and political center (more than half of the ministries, including the prime ministry and city hall, are located here) the city is registered as UNESCO world heritage. The Medina is rich with educational structures, a great craft and commercial network and important cultural and touristic facilities that, thanks to the involvement of the private sector, are developing.


1.1 Master artisans in today’s society

Five words describe the system under which each corporation of craftsmanship were traditionally regulated in the Medina: El Orf: which is the collection of craft dos & don’t, that must be respected to be part of the related craft corporation; El Souk: which is the physical space where artisans part of the corporation should/could only produce and commercialize their products; El Amin: a master craftsman who is appointed/elected to head a corporation of craftsmanship; decides who could become part of the corporation, ensure that Orf is respected, resolve commercial and production disputed and regulates trade within the craft’s souk; El Mallem: is a master craftsman who masters all production details, have proven a certain level of quality, ethics and leadership to have been ‘promoted’ to Maalem; El Saana: or artisan-worker, who produces for a Mallem and learns everything related to craftsmanship from his Maalem. If the Sanaa becomes exceptionally good and is lucky, he could request to become one day a Mallem himself.


ASM conducted a survey in 2014 to evaluate the effectiveness of the above traditional model, in light of today’s economic needs and social developments. Findings show that the socio-economic changes have caused tremendous expectations gap which makes the above described system inefficient today. On one hand there is the master craftsman, who is comfortable with traditional trainee integration into the souk model, which is totally controlled by them, and on the other hand there are young craftsmen eager to break El Orf, step away from souk, and compete with masters as entrepreneurs.


As we researched craftsmanship sustainability in the medina, we asked the master artisans; do you recruit youth or train them; and the answers were the same for all master craftsmen across all crafts “there are no more artisans” … “Today’s youth, they want to know their pay, before learning” … “Where are the artisans, they don’t exist anymore” … “They want to learn the craft after 16years of age, which is too late” … Obviously, El Maalem, or master artisan, definition of trainee has not evolved, and their expectations of El Sanaa are that of total submission to the master.


In days where you could only learn something useful in life when you work with a master-artisan; families preferred that their 12year old son stop going to school, and sit at a master artisan workshop, learn a craft which will help him build a prestigious life. Today, you can learn anything from the internet, hiring a 12year old is considered child abuse and a master artisan is certainly not all knower about life, business and craft; in fact, a master artisan is probably considered as a very innovative entrepreneur stuck with a traditional product and old fashioned business methods. Despite youth mentality changes, master artisans still think that new artisans should be thankful to get a job with them, and surprised that they want to know what salary they will get before starting the job at their workshops!


The traditional relationship between Maalem and Saana, was paternal with a strong sense of loyalty, almost ownership, where jumping from one maalem to another could even hurt the reputation of the Sanaa. This might make sense if masters made good money to keep artisan-workers happy, and everyone made exactly the same product in respect of Orf; but in a free world full of economic hardship and competition, why should an underpaid Sanaa not try to do it differently since his master is struggling to pay him. As a result, the Maalem’s of today are even struggling to get such expected loyalty and commitment from their own sons, who found alternative income generating opportunities.


For the few Amines and Master artisans that are left in the shrinking dedicated Souks, the system is patriarchal, Tunisoi and has a clear hierarchy; the ones at the top make the market rules that protect the souk, product and trade from unwanted newcomers or product innovation that could threaten loss of craft traditions. The corporation, created a collective market monopole, which made penetration challenging thanks to souk boundary restrictions and amine’s acceptance based on Maalem’s recommendations; where sons of Maalem were privileged. The system is convenient, controllable and competitors are “within the circle of friends”. The ecosystem is anti-entrepreneurial, but is perfect in protecting traditions with traditional people.


The many youth that want to be artisans today are eager to learn from the masters. Unfortunately the masters do not appreciate the shortcut to becoming artisan-entrepreneur and consider them unfit to move into the souk. The artisan corporations and their amines did not stop new artisan-entrepreneurs, from initiating their workshops in abandoned homes in the medina, making master artisans complain about the “unethicality” of their existence. The ‘new comers’ created a new form of shared economy, far away from the hierarchical system, but a horizontal system as they outsource production between them and each excel in what they are best at. The ‘new comers’ are not Saana anymore, they come from an individualistic society where differentiating yourself is a survival must ; they see Orf that freezes product specification suicidal in the new free market. The ‘new comers’ do not set the market rules, they listen to their clients which have lower purchasing power, and hence produce lower quality products using cheaper raw material, and by so doing create a job for themselves which is heroic in the current circumstances, but unfortunately unprotected, sidelined and under-mentored since they do not play by “the souk rules”.


Today, young artisans are bringing a new life to the medina; they are an integral part of medina’s craft revive and sustain. This has caused several artisan corporations to seize to exist and the souk concept transformed to make artisan workshops spread all over the medina. This proposal takes into account those trends, embrace market needed changes and helps create a new open system where youth could comfortably play an active role in designing an inclusive shared economy system with the help of the master-artisans.



2. Survey and Results

 Craft production and trade has been, throughout the history of the Medina of Tunis, an important sustainer of life through commerce and continuous cultural exchange. Since its foundation, the Medina embraced within its walls, immigrant jewelers from Italy, Andalusian silk weavers, Jewish carpenters, Ottoman embroiderers and saddle makers. Some grandchildren of immigrants still carry on the legacy of their ancestors today, as they continue producing, adapting and exporting. The Medina has managed to reinvent itself throughout its 1300 years of existence. Its dense agglomeration of alleys and covered passages full of intense colors, noise and scents, has kept its trade activities, thanks to its ability to continuously adapt itself to new comers, new life styles and dynamic socio-economic factors. New Medina culture emerges as new cultures settle in their new Medina homes, to create a blend of traditions specific to the Medina, that have sustained themselves throughout time.


The MEDNETA survey localized over 500 artisan workshops practicing over 20 crafts. Even though the numbers are considerably high for the area covered, they demonstrate a decline when taking into account that in the 18th century, the medina housed over 27000 artisans and in the 19th century, there were more than 13000 artisans.

A study conducted by ASM in 1987 shows a concentration of artisans within their dedicated souks; today (2014 MEDNETA study results) show a scattering of artisan workshops all over the Medina of Tunis.


The surveyed artisans are of all ages, the oldest was 81 and the youngest 21. The education level, 50% are at primary school level and it is rare to find artisans who have attended vocational training, 46% have learnt the skill through a master artisan and 33% through the family. What was impressive is the number of years of experience, and it is clear that the Medina holds some human treasures, as about 50% of artisans have between 26 to 45 years of experience.


3. Discussion:  

The decline of artisan workshops, is due to several factors; one obvious factor is industrialization, which brought all needed consumer goods to the market and through lower pricing, faster production and larger variety, lead to the obsoleteness of various types of craftsmanship. Additionally, inefficient government control over international trade since the recent revolution has opened doors widely to smuggled goods and souvenirs, that have made sustainability for artisanal businesses, a struggle.


The outdated union of artisans, who were the guardians and legislators of trade, has caused tremendous degradation in craft trade control and transformed craft skills know-how transmission. New socio-economic factors and youth expectations are no longer in harmony with the traditional model of the master artisan – apprentice model. The market has changed significantly over the past few decades, yet the corporations, which for a large part focus on ethics and customs have not developed with time.


The lack of an appropriate legislative frame of work adapted to the micro-business needs of an artisan and the complicated national loans for MSME have encouraged a large part of artisans to operate in the informal sector, and in the case of designers and artists, there is no legislation at all under which they could structure their business sector.


Today, most artisans are either producing the same, or in some cases similar products to those that have been produced in the Medina for decades; there is very little adaptation of products tothe changing needs of the current markets demands. This is mainly due to poor vocational training, where entrepreneurship and marketing are not part of the curriculum. Schools of arts and design focus on industrial design and impose little incentive to direct student creativity towards national identity.


Other less obvious factors are the continuous increase of commodity prices, which does not reflect as similar increase in the prices of handicraft products. Pay for artisans decreased, giving the sector, especially in the perspective of the youth, an unattractive image. Economic hardship also leads to the decrease of innovation, as artisans became forced to custom produce rather than innovate, which requires saved assets.


Nevertheless, the Medina of Tunis provides a variety of strengths that encourage the continuation of crafts, arts and design as a form of economic activity in the area; for it is a rich touristic site with over 100 historical monuments. Also the fact that craftsmanship throughout the Medina’s history, has always been a central part of its socio-cultural scene and encourages the continuation of the crafts legacy within the Medina’s walls. Until today, the Medina of Tunis attracts designers and artisans to settle in, as it remains an important area that flourishes with industrial urban creativity. This has also made the Medina logistically convenient, due to the presence of an important shared economy model between architects, designers, raw material suppliers, distribution networks as well as vendors and customers that are all geographically attracted to the centralization within the Medina.


The opportunities in the Medina are countless; to improve the integration of artisans in the Medina, an artisans center, which could host temporary exhibitions, trade fairs, and a library where traditional arts and crafts are documented and shared, could be of great value in terms of its preservation. Also tours of craft workshops and workshops to teach crafts could become new attractions and further advocate craft preservation and the transmission of skills. Further actions taken might include the development of Medina’s artisans database; this would be useful for research andfor public institutions and would greatly support the development of the creative industry in the Medina as it capitalizes onalready existing arts and craft wealth.The Medina hosts several yearly festivals, such as the Festival of the Medina, Dream city, Rachidia and others, which could integrate artisans workshops in its festival program,since it would improve the visibility of artisan and artist workshops.


One of the threats caused by artisans in the Medina,is the negative impact it has on the historical buildings in the Medina; as the survey showed that several production workshops are starting to settle in formerly abundant residential homes, many of which that aren’t built in an appropriate manner for the needs of a workshop needs. The use of these homes harms the environment by increasing pollution, noise and waste and therefor negatively affects the residents of the Medina.


4. Conclusion

Three main lessons were extracted from the survey results and project implementation:

1.      The importance of representing artisans: The absence of an artisanal corporation has weakened the sector and left the government without a vis-à-vis to participate with in decision making, tha timpacts the growth of creative industry, legislation and development.

2.      The urgent need for the documentation of traditional arts and crafts and vocational methodology adaptation: many traditional arts and crafts have already disappeared, leaving behind no documentation on production techiniques  or documentation on national arts; while vocational training has proved itself unfit to create economic opportunities in arts and crafts.

3.      The adaptation of products to markets: including the need to semi-industrialize some craft production to improve pricing and market positioning as well as an urgent necessity to improve product design and qualiy to improve it market readiness to today’s consumer needs. There is also the need for international consumers, to further increase and sustain economic opportunities created through arts and crafts, which could be mainly achieved through cross boarder collaborations.

The growing number of artisans in the Medina are part of the informal sector, and are not part of any union that represent their sector. This marginalizes the whole creative industry sector fromthe mainstream business sector, making it unablefor it to sustain itself,  to attract new-comers or to create a new market and job opportunities. Hence, there is an urgent need for alegistlative reform, which isinclusive of all creative industry sectors and comprehensive to socio-economic challenges thatartists, artisans and designersface. Once legistlation is adapted, the sector will have clear players, that could then unite under a body that represents them.They could then function vis a vis to the government, which enables them to become part of the decision making process,which isrelated to market control, quality control and is an advocate for sector challenges and threats.


For a more successful arts and crafts vocational training, the acedemic methodology needs to take the social concerns and needsof todays youth into account; become more inclusive of master artisans, entrepreneurs and designers; adapt an open system that enrichesapprentices through the exchange of diverse know-how, economy and cross cultural dialogue.  Such a model, will become more attractive to the youth, preserve national arts and crafts and create a more sustainabale socio-economic model for creative industries.


Finally, the initiation and development of cross boarder opportunities around the Mediterranean, are great incentives for the development of socio-economic opportunities on both sides of the sea. These incentives spark creativity and innovation,preserve skills through their enrichmentand improve economic dynamics between historical cities, therebysustaining life and prosperity on both sides.




 This survey was conducted by/for the Association of Tunis Medina Preservation (ASM Tunis) as part of MEDNETA project implementation in the historical urban querters of Tunis. MEDNETA is financed by the European Union, where the objective were to enhance cross-border cultural dialogue and cooperation among multiple stakeholders with the aim to support creativity in the Arts, Crafts and Design as a means for the regeneration of communities inhabiting the historical cities in the Mediterranean Basin.

I would like to thank Mr. Zoubeir Mouhli,  project manager, who provided insight and expertise that greatly assisted the research. I am also gratitude to Ms. Fousoun Belhadj and Mr. Marouan Zbidi for sharing their pearls of wisdom during the course of this survey, their team spirit and postitive attitude which kept us all going. I am also immensely grateful to the artisans of the Medina who shared information whithout which this paper would have been impossible. Finally I assume full responsibility for the content of this paper which should not tarnish the reputations of the esteemed persons mentioned above.


Leila Ben-Gacem


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