Glimpses from selected projects

Many conservation projects across the Muslim world have been recognised by the prestigious Aga Khan Award. These projects vary in size, location, contextual particularities, and impact on the local communities. They also differ in conservation approaches adopted to preserve, protect, and reuse the built heritage. Demonstrating key aspects of various project approaches, this section discusses sixteen projects: thirteen winners of the Award and three shortlisted projects.

Conservation of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia (awarded 1977–1980)

Sidi Bou Said is a small cliff-top village on a site overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, in the northern suburbs of Tunis. The site is of historical significance and dates back to the 11th century; it is a major pilgrimage spot for the tomb of Shaikh Abu Sa’id al-Baji (Holod and Rastorfer, 1983). However, by the 17th century, the settlement of Sidi Bou Said, which at the time was known as Jebel al-Menar, started to develop as a marketplace, mainly serving the pilgrims. In the 18th century, wealthy residents moved there during the summer months to get refuge from the city heat. By the mid-19th century, the village was a well-known religious centre. Eventually, because of its beautiful locale and proximity to Tunis, Sid Bou Said attracted artists and intellectuals who made it their home (Yucel, 1980). The village was declared a Commune Musulmane (Islamic Commune) and was officially declared a village in 1915. This was when the first legal efforts began to preserve Sidi Bou Said’s unique cultural and architectural heritage. Today Sidi Bou Said is no longer a summer village resort; instead, it has become an up-market year-round residential suburb of Tunis.

Most of the buildings of old Sidi Bou Said are a mix of Mauresque and Italianate elements that line the streets surrounding the central mosque (Elnokaly and Elseragy, 2013). The site contains rich vegetation and lush gardens. The majority of the houses have whitewashed walls, vaulted or domed roofs, narrow windows with iron trellises, and balconies that are enclosed by a characteristic blue wooden mashrabiya (Figure 3.1). Most houses are generally two storeys of a similar size and scale; this, combined with the luminescent white walls and turquoise blue enclosed terraces, balconies, window frames and grills, and doors gives the village a unified feel.

Conservation of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, Municipality Technical Bureau/ Mohamed El-Aziz Ben Achour, Sanda Popa

Figure 3.1 Conservation of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, Municipality Technical Bureau/ Mohamed El-Aziz Ben Achour, Sanda Popa

Source: © Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Christopher Little (photographer)

The buildings use a simple stylised geometry, which further presents a fused vernacular typology. The area is renowned for its authenticity and unity of scale, form, and colour (Holod and Rastorfer, 1983).

The main objectives of the Sid Bou Said restoration project were the recreation of the traditional urban fabric and the upgrading of the infrastructure; this included the rehabilitation of 600 housing units along with the construction of 400 new housing, commercial, and office units to retain a harmonious relationship with the morphology of the old city (Elnokaly and Elseragy, 2013). To meet the project objectives, the design concepts adopted and integrated a conservation programme that took into consideration the town’s historical, spiritual, and symbolic significance. The project also included user interaction and engagement for certain self-preserved sites.

Two aspects of the Sidi Bou Said project have made it a focus of interest; the first was the integrity and charm of its authentic architecture, and the second was its historical importance, closely linked to religious and symbolic features. Tourism offers an insignificant economic contribution, but it brings heavy motorised traffic that has contributed to the erosion of the cliff face ensuing in a geological threat to the site. This poses a major risk for the houses situated there (Yucel, 1980). Under the French protectorate, in 1915 Baron d’Erlanger, a retired French banker, issued a decree to preserve the beauty of the village; he provided prescient guidelines for growth and change. In the early years of the 20th century, the French protectorate issued a number of decrees to protect the architecture and structures of Arabo-Islamic designs such as palaces, monuments, medinas, mosques, and mansions. Since then decrees have been revised and ratified by further legislation, including the prescient decree of 17 September 1953 to protect historical sites and monuments across Tunisia (Holod and Rastorfer, 1983). These decrees enforce strict regulations to keep the growing problems of tourism from affecting the restoration efforts.

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