The Ribat of Monastir is undoubtedly one of the most significant historical treasures among many others in Tunisia. It is an outstanding example of Islamic military history and architecture.
Ribat of Monastir: A Historical Fortress
Built in the eighth century, when Ribats or Islamic fortresses were acquiring prominence, this is one of the oldest surviving structures from the conquest of the Maghreb.
Continuous expansion of the Ribat was ordered by Harthama ibn A’yan, the Abbasid governor of Ifriqiya, to defend the territory’s coastline. Even today, the massive ramparts and walls of the fortress remain intact.
A spiral staircase leads to the soaring watchtower, which offers panoramic views of the Gulf and the city of Monastir to visitors. With ongoing preservation efforts, the Medieval Ribat is undoubtedly one of Monastir’s most remarkable attractions.
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History & Architecture of the Monastir Ribat
The Monastir Ribat is a fortress with circular and polygonal towers on both sides. Five flat niches surrounded by horseshoe arches embellish the entrance portico. A frieze of floral patterns adorns the compartments, as is typical of the Fatimo-Zirid style.
A chicane door bearing a Hafsid inscription in the Naskhi script leads to a corridor that provides access to the original ribat. The interior lobby is flanked by porticos, each of which leads to a cell. The prayer chamber on the first floor has two bays and seven naves. The central nave is the largest of the three. This architectural layout, which was utilized for the first time in a prayer hall, was to become the standard for all of the major Ifriqiyan mosques.
At the front of this area, on the first floor and south side, is a room with seven naves and two aisles, except for the central nave, which is covered with barrel vaults. The southern half of the central nave is surmounted by a spherical dome without a pendentive.
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There are indications that this was a prayer hall with a sealed mihrab. This room’s architectural design is suggestive of the original ribat, which was situated directly across from it. This structure dates to AH 335 (AD 966) and was mentioned by al-Bakri in the middle of the fifth century AH (AD 11). Later on, it became a ribat for women.
In AH 1115 (AD 1704), the ribat changed by adding polygonal turrets to the southeast and northwest corners, as well as a circular tower to the northeast corner. These structures accommodated the military innovation of accommodating artillery components.
During the construction undertaken by Husayn Bey between 1238 and 1250 AH (AD 1835–35), additional towers, including bastions, were erected. This explains the fragmented appearance of the exterior walls, which were altered between the 11th and 13th centuries AH (the 17th and 19th centuries AD).
Visiting the Ribat of Monsatir
When you visit the monument today, you will see the small cells in which the first Ribat inhabitants lived. You will enter two prayer rooms, one of which contains a collection of objects from the Middle Ages.
You will also see the successive expansions, the round or square towers, and the cannon platforms added during Turkish rule.
But you mostly have to go at the top of the watchtower to contemplate the panorama of the city and the sea. A hundred-step climb up a spiral staircase that is moderately challenging, but well worth it!
The name of the master-builder is unknown but the building works were carried out by Muhammad ibn Qadim.
It is the oldest Islamic fortress in North Africa, once a pilgrimage and religious centre. It is now a main attraction site in Monastir, Tunisia.
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