Handicrafts in Tunisia

Tunisian andicrafts get support from the government and provide employment forover 120,000 people. Each region has its ownspeciality: Kairouan is famous for its carpets;Nabeul and Jerba for their ceramics; SidiBou Saïd for its birdcages; Douz andTozeur for shoes. It tends to be womenwho produce the carpets, decoratepottery, and weave baskets and matswhile the men attend to carpentry,metalwork and, above all, selling.

CERAMICS

THE TWO MAIN centres of ceramics in Tunisia areNabeul on the Cap Bonpeninsula and Guellala onthe island of Jerba. Nabeul isknown for its brightlycoloured, glazed pottery.Much of this is producedsolely for visitors and it canbe very good quality. Theinhabitants of Guellala catermore for the home marketand their workshops offerevery type of utility ware –from items used for coolingwater and storing food, toenamelled products and “AliBaba” jars. The northerntown of Sejnane and someof the surrounding villagesare famous for a primitiveBerber pottery that stillemploys techniques used inNeolithic times. All threestyles are availablethroughout Tunisia.

CARPETS

TUNISIAN CARPETS aremainly producedin Kairouan and Jerid. All are handmade butthere are two basictypes, those that areknotted and thosethat are woven. Theknotted variety costmore and have up to160,000 knots persquare metre. Most ofthe designs tend to bebased on a centraldiamond shape that isthought to derivefrom the lamp in theGreat Mosque inKairouan. Knotted carpetscome in two main types:Alloucha and Zarbia. Zarbiacarpets use reds, greens andblues while the Allouchacarpets are produced inbeiges, browns and whites.Woven or Mergoum carpetsare cheaper to buy and haveBerber origins.

COPPER AND BRASS PRODUCTS

IN SMALL WORKSHOPS, tucked away in the narrow streetsof most medinas, men canbe seen bent over hammersand copper sheets, whichthey shape into bowls, traysand garden ornaments.Bronze is used for makingjewellery boxes and jugswith distinctive narrownecks. Intricate birdcagesare also plentiful andtypically Tunisian; theirshapes resemble smallmausoleums and theirpatterns are borrowed fromthe moucharaby – thelattice-work window orscreen seen in traditionalArab houses. Gleamingcopper and brass plates arealso plentiful and come in awide variety of sizes – someare bigger than dustbin lids!

WOODWORK

POPULAR WOODEN items on sale in Tunisia includesalad bowls and containersfor salad dressing, andwooden dolls dressed incolourful clothes. Whilestrolling through the streetsof medinas or exploring amarket it is worth steppinginto a carpenter’s workshopto see how they makecupboards, trunks andtraditional Tunisian doors.The material used in thenorth of the country ismainly olive-tree wood –suitable for making bowlsand oil containers. In thesouth, palm wood is themost popular material.

LEATHER GOODS

TUNISIANS WERE ONCE famousTfor producing saddlesthough sadly these skills haveall but died out. Instead, theyproduce ottomans andfurniture upholstery. Othercommon products includetravel bags, wallets, leatherjackets, handbags and avariety of souvenirs. Look outfor the babouche slippers,with flattened heels, whichare worn mainly in the southof the country.Try to do some shoppingin a craft shop run by ONAT(Organization Nationale del’Artisanat). These, and theSOCOPA shops, which aregradually replacing them,sell quality Tunisian items atreasonable prices.

MOSAICS

MOSAIC WORK IN Tunisia dates back to Punictimes but flourished with theRoman occupation. Whenartists first began to produceintricate patterns usingtesserae – finely polishedpieces of brick, glass andmarble – the workshopscould not keep up withdemand. Mosaics were usedeverywhere – from thefloors in publicbaths, to thedomes and thewalls of publicbuildings. Afterthe 3rd century,they also beganto be used inprivate homeswhich led to adistinctive naturalisticTunisian style.

Pottery

TUNISIAN POTTERY GOES BACK to the Neolithic period when large jugs and vases were used T for storage. In the early years of the Muslim era, during the Aghlabid dynasty (649–909), a new technique was introduced known as “mirror” dyeing that involved the use of metallic dyes. The periods of the Fatimids and Zirids (10th and 11th centuries) mark a revolution in the decorative arts of this region when figurative images began to appear on vases and mosaics. During those days, Tunisian ceramics were in high demand and were exported to Andalusia and Sicily.

OTHER HANDICRAFT PRODUCTS

JEWELLERY IS popular in Tunisia. It isproduced from silver,gold and other metals,with precious andsemi-precious stonesused in traditionaldesigns. The largestjewellery centresinclude Tunis, Sfaxand Jerba. Tabarkaproduces lovely coraland amber items.Another typicallyTunisian product is the chechia – a distintivered woollen cap. It wasoriginally worn under theturban, but with time itbecame an item of headgearand a symbol of Tunisiannational identity. Theproduction of mats, basketsand fans is also widespread.These are woven using grassand date palm leaves. Inrecent years increasingnumbers of artists havereturned to the tradition ofpainting on glass, an artform inspired byEgyptian andSyrian examples.Items to lookout for includebeautiful mirrorsand intricatelydecoratedglassperfume jars.The Cap Bonpeninsula is known for theproduction of perfumes andessences; orange blossom,rose and jasmine essencesare particularly highlyvalued in Tunisia.

 

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