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Tunisia’s El Kef city is rich in heritage: centuries of cultural mixing give it a distinct identity

A landscape view with at the spires of a mosque foregrounded above a great plain.
The Sidi Bou Makhlouf mosque in El Kef. DeAgostini/Getty Images

El Kef is a city built into the southern face of Jebel Dyr mountain, which is linked to the High Atlas mountains in the north-western region of Tunisia that borders on Algeria. The breeze that sweeps off the mountain and through the city’s streets offers relief from the hot weather and becomes part of the identity of a city whose riches are little known to the rest of the world.

El Kef is rarely on the list of tours organised for international visitors who flock to Tunisia every year to enjoy sunny beaches and local culture. The city’s magnificent natural and built heritage is also all but missing from academic research publications.

A courtyard with a large tree in the middle of old  buildings.
The Medina of El Kef. Majdi Faleh

Tunisia has not recognised the value of El Kef’s historical and cultural diversity, nor promoted the region as an international heritage asset. The city’s festivals for jazz and short film are promoted, but there’s unrealised potential for economic growth and alternative tourism through El Kef’s many heritage sites.

As architects and cultural heritage specialists who teach and conduct research about north Africa more broadly and El Kef specifically, we wish to highlight some of these unrecognised national treasures here.

The city

Because of its steep geography, El Kef has a unique circular pattern with different heights that distinguish ancient and modern urban zones. It has its origins as an ancient Numidian city before it became Roman and Byzantine colonies, beginning in 241BC. It was then an Arab-Islamic medieval centre (688-689) and later fell under Ottoman Rule (1700s-1800s) before French colonialism and Tunisian independence. The social, economic and cultural dynamics of this history have left a tangible imprint on the urban environment.

A large square fortress looms above high walls.
El Kef’s Kasbah of Ottoman heritage. Majdi Faleh

El Kef’s heritage sites, many unrecorded, are evidence of centuries of religious cohabitation, with notable Jewish, Christian and Muslim populations as well as the multitude of Sufi currents. The city was home to renowned Sufi saint Sidi Bou Makhlouf. Through meditation and asceticism, Sufism in Islam (at-taṣawwuf) embraces the philosophy of divine wisdom and love that are present in the world to understand God and the nature of humanity. The growth of Sufism in the 1500s encouraged the building of mausoleums, marabouts and mosques that are now an essential part of El Kef’s cultural landscape.

From its medieval historical core atop Jebel Dyr to the contemporary grid-layout neighbourhoods, the sloping city’s wide range of architectural styles include Mediterranean, Roman, Byzantine, Arab/Islamic, and colonial influences.

An ancient courtyard with a curved centrepiece.
St. Peter’s Basilica. Majdi Faleh

It is history that gives El Kef its distinct identity. Serving as a hub for Tunisian theatrical arts, the city cultivates a blend of tangible and intangible heritage.

The Plateau of Jugurtha

The Plateau of Jugurtha (Jugurta), 70km south of El Kef, is an important natural heritage site, covering 80 hectares and at an altitude of 1,200 metres. It is a mesa (flat-topped mountain) that has been linked to many legends.

The mountain is said to have stopped the Romans in their long war with King Jugurta of Numidia. The Kingdom of Numidia emerged around the 3rd century BC in modern-day Algeria and parts of Tunisia and Libya. Its king, Masinissa, ruled between 201 and 148BC. He is said to have built his first fortress on the mountain in 200BC.

A table-like mountain in a vast landscape.
Table of Jughurta. Wikimedia Commons

The area was also important during the Aghlabid era (800-909), a period marked by the dominance of this Arab dynasty who once conquered parts of Italy. In other accounts, the fortress was used by local inhabitants during the Fatimid era (909–1171). The Egyptian Fatimid caliphs were known for their patronage of the arts and architecture. In the 1700s, it is recounted that rebels, led by Senan, one of the chiefs who valiantly resisted the Bey of Tunis for an extended period, seized this expansive rock, using it as their fortress.

Read more: These African World Heritage Sites are under threat from climate change

Jugurta has many water reservoirs (mejel) and its distinctive geological formation still preserves the fossilised remains of ancient creatures, including sharks. Ancient graves offer insights into burial practices and commercial activities a long time ago. Similar tombs exist throughout the El Kef region.


The town of Jerissa is to be found 50km south of El Kef. It was historically on the ancient route between the Islamic city of al-Qayrawān and the Mzab Valley in Algeria.

With its colonial buildings, it developed around the largest iron mine in Tunisia. Jerissa was once known as Petit Paris (Little Paris), a name favoured by the French colonials. It was a diverse little town with miners from Italy, Malta, Spain, Algeria, Morocco and Senegal – and all religious groups. One can still see the few architectural components of the French colonial city.

A sepia photograph of an old town, larger buildings on either side and a dozen or so houses between them.
View of Jerissa in 1907. Picryl/Wikimedia Commons

One of Jerissa’s main resources is antimony, a semi-metal used in the electronics industry, essential for the traditional kohl make-up. Today Jerissa is all but forgotten despite its rich history.

What should be done

An official development plan for the sites described here – and many more besides – is much needed. It can help grow tourism. Protecting the diverse and rich heritage of El Kef would boost the cultural, economic, social and environmental qualities of the region.

Responsible tourism will need to reflect a sense of awareness about the needs of local communities so that all can reap the benefits of the historical riches of El Kef and its surrounds.

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