Named after the 13th-century Sufi whose tomb is there, Sidi Bu Sa‘id, Tunisia’s celebrated “blue and white village” is truly enchanting. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it drew to it a number of well-known writers, artists and musicians from Europe.
Seen from a distance, the village of Sidi Bu Sa‘id, only 18 kilometers from the Tunisian capital, shimmers under the Mediterranean sun. From inside, it’s a labyrinth of winding streets, crooked flights of steps that lead to hidden gardens and wooden gates opening onto flower-filled courtyards. Everywhere you look, there are the signature colors – dazzling white walls and staircases, with everything else – doors, window frames, shutters, decorative iron grilles and elaborate latticework window screens (known as “moucharabiehs”) – all painted in vivid turquoise blue. Only the larger doors show some variation, with splashes of chrome yellow, white or red. Ancient, huge and heavy, they’re studded with traditional motifs of crescents, minarets and stars. Some lead into small shops while others mark the entrance to large houses with cool, mosaic-tiled courtyards, fountains and orange trees.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Sidi Bu Sa‘id, was a hideaway for European writers, artists and even musicians visiting North Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and André Gide were among the writers who fell under its spell. Gide described staying there as “bathing in a fluid, mother-of-pearl sedative”.
Visiting artists included Henri Matisse, Michael Foucault and Paul Klee. Klee arrived in 1914, with fellow-artists Gustave-Henri Jossot and August Macke. For Klee, his time in the village marked a decisive turning point in his use of light and color. “Color has taken possession of me,” he once wrote. “No longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever.”
In 1914 Klee painted The Tunisian Journey. The same year, Klee’s companion, August Macke painted a watercolor of the Café des Nattes or “Café of the Rush Mats” which has come to be one of the most enduring images of Sidi Bu Sa‘id. Today, locals and visitors alike crowd the steps and balconies of the café to drink glasses of traditional “thé aux pignons” – sweet mint tea with pine-nuts floating on the surface – and to people-watch onto the street below.
Interestingly, the third member of Klee’s group, Gustave-Henri Jossot, had converted to Islam a year before arriving in Tunisia, taking the Muslim name Abdul Karim. Around ten years later, he followed the well-known Algerian Sufi shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi. Jossot was not the only French painter of his time to convert to Islam and Sufism. Others included Ivan Aguéli and Étienne Dinet. Jossot continued to draw caricatures and to paint in the Orientalist style until he died in Sidi Bou Said in 1951.
A must-see in Sidi Bu Sa‘id is “Ennejma Ezzahra” (the Star), a hill-top palace built in 1922 by Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger. Born on June 7th, 1872 in Boulogne into a wealthy merchant banking family, d’Erlanger was only 16 years old when he boarded a steamship from Marseilles heading for North Africa. Abandoning all thoughts of a career in merchant banking, he returned to Paris to study art. Between 1903 and 1905 he travelled many times to Tunisia and Egypt in order to paint. He eventually returned to Tunisia with his wife and son to permanently settle in Sidi Bu Sa‘id.
In addition to being an artist, Baron d’Erlanger was also a distinguished musicologist specializing in Arabic music. Over eighty-five years have passed since the publication in 1930 of the first volume of Baron d’Erlanger’s book “Arab Music” which has since become an indispensable work for students of the genre. In his later years, when not working on his seminal six-volume history of Arabic music, Baron d’Erlanger devoted his energies to leading a revival of the Arab-Andalucian musical genre known as “maluf”. He also learned to play the “qanun” a descendant of the old Egyptian harp.
Carved into a niche in the rock face so it wouldn’t obstruct the views of more modest homes, “Ennejma Ezzahra” was built with the greatest respect for local heritage and painted in blue and white, which in traditional Islamic art suggest light, sea and sky. Today, the palace is open to visitors, not only as a stately home, but also as Tunisia’s National Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music The palace’s peaceful, dimly lit exhibition rooms house the Baron’s extensive private collection of traditional musical instruments, many of them hundreds of years old and stunningly beautiful. The main recital room and magnificent outdoor balcony provide an exquisite setting for concert performances, all dedicated to preserving the traditional musical forms that the Baron championed in his lifetime. In recent years, the Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music has hosted the annual “Musiqat” festival celebrating a unique blend of Eastern and Western music.