Majdi Faleh is a Teaching Assistant at the University of Melbourne, School of Design. His research mainly focuses on Islamic architecture and art and the influences of globalization. A polyglot, architectural designer, researcher, artist, and activist, Dr. Faleh holds a PhD of Architecture and Humanities from
the University of Western Australia and a Master of Architecture from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
This research stems from a theoretical study of the Medina of Tunis, as a continuity of the author’s doctoral research. The broader study from which the concepts are drawn is part of a PhD project, in architecture and humanities, focused on the effects of globalization on the Medina of Tunis. Studies and publications of the houses of the Medina of Tunis are lacking from the literature, in the Anglo-Saxon world, thus the interest of the author is to build a new body of knowledge examining historical restoration projects in Tunisia.
2 Journal of Heritage Management
Heritage Management in Tunisia and the Medina of Tunis
Tunisia, a crossroad of civilizations, has a long history of architectural legacies that are not well-known
in the world. Tunisia’s heritage ranges from Punic, Roman, Carthaginian, Ottoman, Muslim and Colonial
French and consists of important archaeological sites, historic buildings and cultural landscapes. Since
its independence in 1956, Tunisia relied on its leading organizations specialized in heritage management
to overcome the marginalization of its historical sites and Medinas, or traditional and historic Arabic
and Islamic cities. Some of Tunisia’s heritage leading organizations include the Association of the
Protection of the Medina (ASM) of Tunis (Association de Sauvegarde de La Médina de Tunis), which
was established few years after the independence, precisely in 1967, to protect the quarter of the Medina.
According to Bejaoui (2015, p. 50), the association was established as a result of the project that links
the Avenue Habib Bourguiba to the Kasbah passing by the Medina and leaving merely isolated
monuments including Ezzitouna Mosque and Hammouda Pacha Mosque. The project itself was a brave
political decision that transcends its time. In fact, she adds,
The project was planned at a time when fighting against underdevelopment was much more important than
concerns with cultural, traditional and patrimony concerns…The Medina was then an old capital that had suffered
from the loss of her economic, political and cultural roles as well as her social content. (Bejaoui, 2015, p. 50)
To describe the history and the geography of the Medina (Figure 1), Escher and Schepers (2008)
explain that this traditional settlement is one of the first old Arab Medinas, and it is classified as a world
heritage by UNESCO. Covering an area of 299 hectares, the Medina of Tunis, listed as a UNESCO
World Heritage in 1979, is made up of a central Medina (8th C) and two suburbs (13th C). Housing
100,000 inhabitants, this Medina is home to hundreds of historical sites and 15,000 houses strengthening
its urban structure over time (Z. Mouhli, personal communication, 15 January 2016). The mayor of Tunis
of that time suggested founding this organization (Escher & Schepers, 2008, p. 129). Hassib BenAmmar,
Figure 1. Streets of the Medina of Tunis
Source: The author.
a militant, politician and editor of the first independent journal, Errai, was the mayor of Tunis between
1963 and 1969. He was also the founder of the Association of the Protection of the Medina of Tunis
(ASM; Tunisie, 2018). The mission of ASM involves protecting the old town to advance the sustainable
revitalization of traditional neighbourhoods and infrastructure as well as scientific research in the area
of heritage management and historical preservation. The ASM, supported by its Atelier d’Architecture et
d’Urbanisme, still continues to protect the Medina. Its diverse missions include consulting, project
management, restoration, training and engineering consultancy.
and the Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina de Tunis (ASM) aimed to protect historic buildings and
reclaim slums since the year 2000. Between 2008 and 2016, both institutions aimed to revitalize
the traditional neighbourhoods of the Medina and to showcase the facades of neighbourhoods like the
Andalous neighbourhood. These participatory projects were run closely with artisans and residents,
which triggered more reflections to restore old buildings, thus promoting crafts while spreading
knowledge about crafts and buildings. Beyond the ASM, preserving cultural heritage even started with
the government of Tunisia in the early 1990s. It would then be relevant to examine some of the past
legislations that aimed at protecting and managing Tunisian heritage to understand their effects and
shortcomings, and to suggest alternative strategies.
In 1994, the government of Tunisia implemented a new law to protect cultural heritage. The new
Code du Patrimoine (law on cultural heritage) implied many structural changes. The National Institute
of Archaeology (INA or Institut National de l’Archéologie in French) was transformed from a research
centre into the National Institute of Heritage (INP or Institut National du Patrimoine). This agency
is in charge of the ‘protection, management and presentation of Tunisian heritage’ (AMVPPC, n.d.).
In 1997, the government established the Agency for the Development of National Heritage and
Cultural Promotion (APPC). In fact, this same agency was established in 1988 under the name
of National Agency for the Development of Archaeological and Historical heritage (or ANEP), but it
was later modified by the law 97–16 of 3 March 1997. As it stands today, this non-administrative and
public agency is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage Conservation
The APPC agency focuses on large-scale projects, which aim to promote heritage and culture, and
previously, it ‘embarked on a large-scale scheme to present and promote cultural tourism based on
projects with cultural, educational, environmental, social, touristic and economic objectives’
(AMVPPC, n.d.). A modernization phase has followed in the year 2002, when with the support of the
World Bank, the Tunisian government started a 33-million-dollar project to manage and enhance
cultural heritage in the country (World Bank, 2001). Tunisia’s cultural and heritage institutions have
been exposed to international support but Tunisia’s approach in this period attempted to empower its
heritage through national programmes. Integrated heritage management approaches happen at several
scales (governments and entrepreneurs) but the process can and should rely on national initiatives and
programmes, such as the 2002 Cultural Heritage Management and Development Project in the MENA
The government of Tunisia after a long and mixed experience with piecemeal donor support for one or another
of its historic monuments, conclude that it was in the country’s best interest to adopt a national program.
This approach consists of developing a countrywide strategy for CH preservation and management, defining
criteria for site selection, and piloting the feasibility of each strategy objective on a suitably chosen site.
Monitoring the pilot phase of the strategy yield lessons for subsequent phases. Tunisia’s relatively strong
institutional and legal framework justified the adoption of this countrywide approach. (Cernea, 2001, p. 66)
4 Journal of Heritage Management
This supporting programme, known as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) tourism
investments in the MENA region, is provided by the World Bank through the IFC to cover private sector
hotel construction. Such approaches or bank-assisted operations have limitations in relation to supporting
CH matters even though they facilitate cultural tourism. This approach tends to be limited because of
the nature of the foreign funds, the limited period of time of these funds, the lack of knowledge and
experience of CH matters, and the pressing agendas of international organizations sometimes overloo-
king community and local skills. Cultural tourism can be supported differently following an approach
that empowers and revisits local historic buildings. Locally driven support encourages a comprehensive
transformation of the Medina’s quarters based on cultural, economic and social wills and needs. One
should even question, however, how local initiatives or national programmes are facilitating this area
of cultural tourism through preservation and heritage management. It would be even of interest for
architects and heritage specialists to examine the heritage management projects that happen at micro
scale reflecting grassroots movements within the Medina of Tunis.
National-scale initiatives are certainly valid attempts involving complex processes and several scales
to support the preservation of heritage. This process and programme, which started in 1967 with ASM,
remained limited and controversial in the past few years. Issues of heritage management have been
taking place in the past few years. Since the revolution, more debates about heritage management can
be seen in the Tunisian media. According to Belhassine (2014), in countries where heritage works much
less archaically, the use of the private sector—patrons or promoters in the field of heritage—has been
making its way for years… In Holland, Italy and in the United States, the management of sites and
museums, considered as an economic action, relies on private institutions and foundations. In France,
the arenas of Nîmes, for example, are managed by Culture Espaces, a company that promotes museums,
monuments and historical sites, and manages 12 other establishments, including the Palais des Papes
d’Avignon and the Théâtre Antique d’Avignon.
In view of the almost universal drastic reduction of public funding for heritage, and also the widening
of the concept of the architectural and historical heritage (we have moved from the archaeological site
to the monument and the city of the nineteenth century), UNESCO has been recommending for nearly
20 years to set up public/private partnerships for the preservation and enhancement of ancient sites. But
UNESCO does not forget to recommend to the authorities to adopt, in parallel, legal, institutional and
administrative frameworks likely to guarantee the durability of the sites ceded in concession to the
private ones, as well as their cultural function (Belhassine, 2014). It seems that the case of Tunisia has
the potential to foster these kinds of partnerships in light of existing legislation and institutions.
In this research, the article attempts to examine the effect of micro-scale initiatives on heritage
management by analysing the case study of Dar Ben-Gacem, an entrepreneurial project that started in 2006
in the heart of the Medina. This project is unique as it took place during the Arab Spring, a very sensitive
and risky period, for investors. It is also a project that was started by a Tunisian female entrepreneur and
intellectual who once lived and worked in the dynamic environment of business entrepreneurs in the UAE.
History and Transition of a House to a Luxury
Boutique Hotel: Telling the Story
The traditional Tunisian dwelling, Dar Ben-Gacem, is an eighteenth century house located in the heart
of the Medina of Tunis. This house was transformed from an abandoned property to a boutique hotel.
In an interview I conducted on 16 October 2018, on the history of the house and its importance to the
legacy of the family who owned it, its current owner Leila Ben-Gacem (Figure 2) explains,
Anoun family lived here for 300 years, they were here since the seventeenth century, and actually according
to the national archives they bought it from another family. We couldn’t trace for how long but probably from
around the fifteenth century; that’s around the period when most houses in the street were constructed. So it was
on sale in 2006, that’s when I bought it thanks to my family that lend me the money to buy it. All the licensing
and the restoration work took about seven years, so the business actually started at the end 2013. The family who
lived here were perfumers; they owned many perfume shops in Souq el-Attarine (The Souq of the Perfumers)
and perfume making was inherited from generation to generation. The children of Mister Ahmed Anoun, who
sold me the house, are not perfumers anymore but teachers and bankers. They were not so interested to come
to the Medina so luckily I was there to buy it. (Personal communication)
Small-scale entrepreneurial projects constitute a new trend in the Medina of Tunis and in other Medinas
in North Africa. In Marrakech, for instance, the process of investing in old Riyadhs started in the 1960s
and 1970s and continued to the mid-1990s, and ‘Europeans had become increasingly interested in buying
houses in the old town.At this time, the first inns (maison d’hôtes) and several exclusive restaurants were
built. During the final years of the twentieth century, the real estate business boomed in the old town’
(Escher & Schepers, 2008, p. 34). In our case scenario, this entrepreneurial trend started to be shaped
by the cultural and political changes taking place in the country. Thus, one should evaluate its impact on
the structure of the Medina and the impact of heritage management from a social, cultural and economic
angle. Recent debates about politics, society and cultural identity (LeVine, 2015), which continued in the
country after the Arab Spring, show that the scale of change has happened at a micro level from within
Working with the expert architects from the Association of the Protection of the Medina (ASM) was
a crucial step towards the success of this entrepreneurial heritage and touristic project. The project was
developed with the Association of the Medina Preservation, an organization that continuously aims to
Figure 2. Leila Ben-Gacem (Portrait: Wajjahni)
Sources: Blaise (2017); http://wajjahni.com/fr/leila-ben-gacem-entreprendre-pour-valoriser-la-m%C3%A9dina-et-le-patrimoine
6 Journal of Heritage Management
protect the Medina’s architectural houses, palaces and madrasa. Based on Ms Ben-Gacem’s accounts,
it was important for the owner to work closely with ASM during the restoration process. First, ASM’s
architects know the master artisans who would best preserve whatever needed to be restored or redone.
Second, they are the most qualified architects to bring such a seventeenth century house to the modern
needs. The owner also adds: ‘you can imagine that when we bought the house there was only one tap of
water, so just to put a bathroom in every room, if we do it without restoration professionals, we might
destroy the house’. In relying on the local expertise, the owner followed a well-defined approach that
promotes local skills and the management of heritage from within the Medina itself. The network of
professionals and craftsmen is also a real advantage to restore this historical house.
This restauration project reflects a willingness to reuse and readapt an existing historical building,
thus activating its historical, cultural and economic functions. The restoration of Dar Ben-Gacem
(Figure 3) effectively activated the building and its intermediate surroundings. Such an approach is also
detrimental as it supported heritage management given the limitations of government programmes and
the complex procedures and regulations. The issues grappling Tunisian heritage range from the lack of
funding to the lack of maintenance (Nsiri, 2016). According to Steinberg (1996), monuments that are not
utilized tend to decay rapidly and others that are still in use have higher chances of being maintained. In
Figure 3. Entrance to Dar Ben-Gacem
Source: The author.
fact, as he points out, the strategy of adaptive reuse and reconversion is an effective approach to self-
finance and sustain monuments.
This approach is exceptionally relevant in the case scenario of the Medina as it is difficult for the
government to sustain and maintain all buildings. In third world countries, including in the Middle East
and North Africa, as Steinberg (1996, p. 465) points out, ‘there is a tremendous shortage of funds for the
upkeep and maintenance of government owned, registered monuments…private owners may consider
the maintenance of a (registered or un-registered) monument as a burden due to the inability to afford the
necessary maintenance’. Innovative mechanisms, of repurposing a building, telling a story and engaging
with the community offers a sustainable and sustained response to its environment in the case of Dar
The spark of the Arab Spring seems to offer more support to entrepreneurial and grassroots projects
of heritage reconversion. Mass tourism, however, occasionally isolates culture and history in gated
villages and hotels away from the city. As Ben-Gacem (personal communication, 16 October 2018)
notes, the tourism industry in Tunisia has not been offering much to tourists. Here, the concept she
tries to promote is about telling the story of the Medina through its walls and crafts. ‘I think we have
an amazing story that we are almost trying to hide by putting tourists in hotels that almost give their
back to the city’, she notes. In this house, the entrepreneur attempts to offer an authentic experience,
or what she calls ‘the real authentic experience with a little touch of luxury’ through architecture, the
interaction with the community and the lived experiences in the immediate environment (smells,
noise, and so on). The vibrant streets, with craftsmen, school children and inhabitants, the smells of
cooking coming from houses and shops, and the sense of surprise created by the narrow streets, create
a vibrant atmosphere. These urban features set a dynamic and interactive scene where all senses are
engaged. Both tangible and intangible elements participate in creating a social and cultural enterprise
through heritage reconversion at a smaller scale.
Integrated Approaches of Tangible and Intangible Artefacts in
Architecture and Social and Cultural Entrepreneurship
The project of Dar Ben-Gacem gave life to the physical environment surrounding it. The fabric of the
street remained untouched and the interior of the house was preserved and adapted to the new use (Figure
4). The reconversion of the house into a Boutique Hotel required, as Ben-Gacem explained, additional
spaces like the bathrooms. The special historic character and the architectural features of the house,
including the transition from public to private domains (Figure 5), were preserved to protect the cultural
values and aesthetics of Tunisian architecture. One can even notice how the work of tiles, gypsum
carving, Qadhel local stones and the Hafside style arches were preserved to ensure the sustainable
rehabilitation and revitalization process. The typical and essential architectural qualities and materials
are preserved to ensure an ethical and aesthetic rehabilitation approach preserving the physical structure
and qualities of the historical quarter.
In addition to its material architectural features, this project has balanced between the reconversion of
tangible and intangible elements. Tangible elements include architectural heritage and intangible ones
comprise revisiting culture through local crafts. The management of this heritage touristic project follows
a multi-scalar approach that targets social, economic and cultural factors aiming to empower traditional
architecture, community members, and their local businesses and crafts. On this approach, Ben-Gacem
(personal communication, 16 October 2018) reflects,
8 Journal of Heritage Management
Figure 4. Courtyard of Dar Ben-Gacem, Ground Floor (Credits: ASM)
Source: The author.
Figure 5. Courtyard of Dar Ben-Gacem
Source: The author.
I’m very passionate about craft microbusinesses, empowering them, and helping them to export and when this
house was on sale, it was the first thing that came to mind when I stepped in. All the beautiful craftwork in every
corner of the house telling a story of master artisans who carved some gypsum or stone or painted a tile. This is
what first of all we’d like to preserve. So, in restoring the house, it creates a lot of jobs for an important number
of master artisans but also in furnishing. We tried, as much as possible, to refurbish old furniture or buy furniture
from new trendy designer artisans today. And we continuously try to make publicity of course. Our guests come
from all over the world, they like the furniture, they like the trays, they like the towels and they always ask us
where we got them from. And of course we always orient them to the master artisans.
Empowering and revisiting urban heritage does not only include tangible elements such as monuments
and buildings but it also comprises non-tangible elements such as customs and belief. The latter have a
major role to articulate the built environment and its constructed spaces (Steinberg, 1996). In the case of
this project, Ben-Gacem worked closely with master artisans to empower and promote their tangible
craftsmanship and to, indirectly, support the customs and culture of making that exist in the Souqs of the
Medina. By doing so, the project has stimulated the economic and cultural precincts of the Medina thus
activating the connections between entrepreneurs, craftsmen, dwellers and tourists. The use of local
materials and techniques in furniture making (Figure 6) and local symbols and icons (Figure 7) reminds
the visitor of the dynamics and old symbols of a living culture.
The female and male symbols (Figure 7) derive from the Tunisian popular culture, where both wear
traditional garments. The male figure is distinguished by a traditional hat, probably a Tunisian Chachia,
on his head, and a very typical Jasmin or Machmoum on his ear. The female figure is distinguished by
her attire, a traditional full hijab or Tunisian Safsari, large earrings and a typical face used by Tunisian
traditional painters. One can even notice noticeable similarities between these symbols and the tradi-
tional faces used in the paintings of Tunisian artist Hedi Turki. The use of these icons in this project
reflect a conscious attitude of revisiting heritage with all its important icons.
Figure 6. Tangible and Intangible Crafts in the Making
Source: The author.
10 Journal of Heritage Management
Figure 7. Use of Traditional Icons in Rooms
Source: The author.
Figure 8. Calligraphy and Book Binding Workshops at Dar Ben-Gacem
Source: The author.
The house of Dar Ben-Gacem acts as a dynamic incubator to revive heritage through local crafts.
Encouraging local crafts (Figure 8) enhances the socio-cultural and economic collaboration between
small and traditional businesses and smaller-scale hotels. Whether it is calligraphy, book binding or
gypsum work, enhancing the connection between diverse sectors and people promotes sustainable
environments, businesses and communities. In this boutique hotel, the owner continuously promotes
what is termed ‘The Medina Experiences’through several workshops that guests might choose to attend.
Unlike large and secluded hotels, this approach tends to be more inclusive as it introduces guests to a
different mechanism that balances touristic needs, financial needs, and a larger exposure to heritage.
Working with local craftsmen and organizations can also promote innovative and sustainable ideas
like recycling tiles or any other materials (Figure 9). This design feature can be seen on the terrace of the
Figure 9. Terrace of Dar Ben-Gacem and the Restoration
of Tiles (Credits: ASM)
Source: The author.
12 Journal of Heritage Management
boutique hotel where existing tiles were recycled and placed to cover the space. This patchwork of
glazed tiles of different colours, patterns, and textures also supports the conservation of tangible and
intangible heritage and exhibits an interesting approach of reusing local materials. Such an approach
supports a coherent environmental approach that promotes innovation and limits excess and waste.
These features also reflect how the architects and owner work with a limited budget, local materials and
knowledge while attempting to meet the challenges of heritage conservation.
Cultural Heritage and Challenges of Best Practices
This project took place during a very critical phase of the modern political history of Tunisia, namely,
the Arab Spring. Several administrative challenges in relation to this project, including working with the
Ministry of Equipment, the Ministry of culture and other government bodies, are important to consider.
This process can be, at times, overcomplicated by a lack or disturbance of political support. As Ben-
Gacem (personal communication, 16 October 2018) explains,
Well, just like any project, I think we had an important number of challenges.Although, first the whole restauration
process was during the revolution so with all what happened in Qasbah, just bringing a pack of cement was a big
story. There were often tear gases or workers wouldn’t come. We had a curfew and workers didn’t come. Also,
the big challenge that after the revolution the dinar devalued rapidly and raw materials became scarce. It was a
challenge to find what we needed so that the restoration process doesn’t stop. Of course, with the administration
in Tunisia, you can imagine the paper work. It took us a year and a half to get permission to start restoring, and
you know the house degrades. In the meantime, I was going back and forth but there was always a missing paper
or someone you need to meet. We needed two licenses from both the city council and the ministry of tourism.
The license to restore and the license to start a project here.
On the alternative solutions to improve the process of restoration and partnerships, Ben-Gacem
explains that the new law of public and private partnership is an underestimated opportunity in bringing
a lot of Tunisian heritage back to life. The Ministry of Culture has an important list of historical buildings
owned by the government that are closed, in need of repurposing and restoration. Obviously, one should
understand the economic political, and social struggles that Tunisia is currently facing. For the
government, this type of project is not a high priority but if there is a real political will for private-public
partnership, the cultural scene will be a lot more dynamic. It will create more jobs if policymakers
activate the private-public partnership for historical buildings restoration and repurposing. Not enough
heritage and entrepreneurial projects were started recently, as Ben-Gacem notes, given the multiple
challenges, the long return on investment, and the need for a passion and dedication to establish such
Public and private partnerships need to be encouraged by the Tunisian government and its respective
ministries to activate the sector of heritage management. One such project includes the private-public
partnership between the government of Punjab, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the World
Bank for the conservation, renewal and regeneration of Lahore’s Walled City in Pakistan. In 2006, the
AKTC’s project of urban regeneration of historic sites, and many similar projects in the country, restored
monuments with tourism potential. The AKTC’s Historic Cities Programme also followed an integrated
approach and ‘has been able to demonstrate the significant development potential of the cultural assets
of historic districts when linked to integrated economic, social, and environmental redevelopment
initiatives’ (Abedeen, 2007). An integrated approach aims to establish a balanced conservation project
that considers different stakeholders and different factors. This can be applicable in the case of the
Medina of Tunis to activate the sector of heritage management and tourism, not only through international
partnerships but also through local initiatives. One should, however, examine the extent to which
a private stakeholder is in control of the project and the repercussion that such an approach could have
on its success.
In Tunisia, there is also a debate about the ESS law (Economie Solidaire et Sociale), which is an
initiative of social entrepreneurship. This approach was made a national priority by the Tunisian
government in its 2016–2020 plan, and ‘the sector has real advantages: well established throughout
the country, a large supply of voluntary work, an intimate knowledge of the terrain, and a potential for
creating jobs, wealth and social utility’ (Elachhab, 2018). It is more of a co-op sense than a business
sense. Recently, the government is looking seriously to pass a law that regulates a sector dealing
with socio-economic impact institutions but the whole concept is still vague, as the project owner
mentions. On the contribution and implementation of such heritage management projects, Ben-Gacem
(personal communication, 16 October 2018) reflects,
Well, first of all, if I were to live in a house like Dar Ben-Gacem, I wouldn’t be able to afford and maintain it so
this is a good case to make it a business because it is restoring itself with what it generates. It is a crucial point to
create dynamics. Secondly, we are a social enterprise so all our staff are from the Medina community, and most,
if not all suppliers around us are microbusinesses. So we try to create as much as possible a shared economy
because I think that’s the best way to rehabilitate such a community. And also we try to create a shared economy
with the artisans around us, hammams, tour guides, taxi drivers, so after five years, we have a good network of
friends that are part of the business.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.
Abedeen, H. (2007). Lahore Walled City project to benefit from a public-private partnership between government of
Punjab and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. AKDN. Retrieved from https://www.akdn.org/press-release/lahore-
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Majdi Faleh is a Teaching Assistant at the University of Melbourne, School of
Design. His research mainly focuses on Islamic architecture and art and the
influences of globalization. A polyglot, architectural designer, researcher,
artist, and activist, Dr. Faleh holds a PhD of Architecture and Humanities from
the University of Western Australia and a Master of Architecture from Ball
State University in Muncie, Indiana. His doctoral dissertation examined the
influence of globalization on architectural ethics and aesthetics in Tunis and
Dubai. Some of Dr. Faleh’s most exceptional academic achievements include
being awarded the prestigious grant, the Fulbright Scholarship in 2009 and the
Australian Postgraduate Scholarship in 2014. Since 2014, Dr. Faleh has also taught architecture,
engineering, and planning at the University of Western Australia, and he was a visiting lecturer at NEFU
University and Xi’an XUAT University in China. With experience in working on several architectural
projects, Dr. Faleh has worked at international firms such as HKS in the U.S. andAS-Architecture Studio