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The Ribat of Sousse

One of the premier tribes of Arabia, that is, the Arabia of old, is the Banū Tamīm. The name derives from the roots of solid, strong, or perfect. The family tree of this ancient and highly regarded tribe is worth noting: from Tamim, son of Murr, son of 'Id, son of Amir, son of Ilyas, son of Mudar, son of Nazir, son of Ma'ad, son of Adnan, son of Isma'il Ibn Ibraham.

Timeless Across the Sands

These worthies were all great men unto themselves and researching them would be good reading for any history buff or scholar of the Islamic world. The relevance to this blog about the Ribat of Sousse is that that lineage was the progenitor of the Aghlabid Dynasty. A dynasty of emirs who ruled Ifriqiya and Sicily for approximately one century. They were the Arab-Tunisians. They ruled this part of North Africa until overthrown by the Fatimids.

Ibrahim the Great constructed the Ribat of Sousse in the 8th century. Modest at first, it was later expanded in 821. Battlements were added, thirty rooms for guards, bathroom and toilet, and a water basin to collect rain water. A mosque open to the citizens of Sousse was established on the terrace and is one of the first mosques built in the city and proceeded the Great Mosque of Sousse.

A ribat is simply a small fortification. Many of these were built during the Muslim conquest of North Africa. A large watch and signal tower was a key feature to all of these. The men stationed in a rabat were the city guards, the defenders of dar al-Islam...a place where Islamic law prevails. The word ribat can also be seen as a verb meaning the voluntary defense of Islam. In a greater sense, a place to house the fighters who would defend Islam in Jihad. Over time the ribats would act as a hostel to merchant voyagers, and as a refuge for mystics such as Marabout Sufis.

All have a square configuration with an inner courtyard. There are battlements with arrow slits, and bigger openings in walls for small catapults and ballistas. Machiolations were built in above the gates for pouring boiling liquids and other means of mayhem down onto invaders. The towers have many arrow slits and command a 360° view across the city. Atop the towers sits a place to build signal fires.

My wife and I were able to clamber the stairs and ramps of this rabat. The arched supports lent an eerie atmosphere, making it easy to imagine a day in the life here. The stone work is amazing and the artistic appeal of the crenellations, arches, chambers, stairways and ramps is mesmerizing. We were alone here as late November is definitely the off season around Sousse. So much the better to let imaginings go where they may.

We climbed the tower on the inner, tight winding stone stairway, the treads long worn into dips and swales by thousands of steps across the ages. We sat at the top looking out across the Medina and the brilliant blue sweep of the Mediterranean. We took a long while up there to feel the breeze and feel the stones with their memories that burst with stories.

The stairway in tower is dark. Many times Jess and I have found ourselves going down dark stairways, taking care not to trip where the treads were deeply worn. We wonder about the people who wore down those treads over the march of time. From rock hewn churches and chambers in Cappadocia, narrow passages in the red temples of Bagan, the underground cities such as Derenkuyu, Moorish castles in Portugal, the ancient watch towers of Svaneti in Georgia, the battlements of Kotor, the small stone stairways snaking up the vertical mountains at Zhangjiajie, we have felt the presence of the myriad who have come before us and wondered about them, their concerns, their daily lives, their desires.

I have to include the Break Neck Steps at old Quebec. Although not ancient, our wonderings were answered in a most uncanny way. This is where it all began for Jess and me. At the top of the steps we got engaged. There was a person who crashed their bicycle at the bottom being seen to by an ambulance. At the bottom, in a small restaurant named for a ghost ship, down some dark stairs, in a dark hallway I found a photograph. It was date stamped by the postal service. October 13 and 14, 1903. The day we were there was October 14, 2003 and we had been there since the 13th. The photograph was from the bottom of the Steps looking up. There was a man who had crashed his bicycle at the bottom and who was being attended to by an ambulance. There was a couple standing close together at the top corner just as we had been moments ago. We felt the echo and our wonderings were deeply satisfied for the moment.

What stairs will we descend next? At week's end we are off to South Tunisia and the troglodyte cave houses made by the Berbers to stay hidden during military incursions by the Romans.

I wonder about the men who carried the design of the ribats in their heads, made them come to fruition over and over along the coast of North Africa. The walls are straight, the corners perfect right angles, the ramps in symmetry with the arches. It was easy to see the Ribat of Sousse as a refuge. Outside the walls, in the medina, the merchants were hawking their wares as they have for century upon century. In the early times were trumpets blown to alert the marketplace of danger coming? Was there a flurry of action as the people poured into the ribat for protection?

How I would like to view life there on any random day in the eighth or ninth century. To smell the odors of bread frying, meats and vegetables bubbling in iron pots, fish drying in the courtyard sun. To stand on the top of the tower and hear the call to prayer while looking out at the wide blue sea and see the other towers down the coast. I can get a sense of it well enough simply because all of those smells, sights and sounds are present at the very moment we stand atop the tower.

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