Fort Santiago Chikly, Tunis’ Ancient Citadel

Fort Santiago Chikly at its fullest glory

photography by: Hassene nostra/ Wikimedia Commons

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Throughout its tumultuous past, the Tunisian capital has changed hands multiple times, something which vastly shaped the city’s architecture, cultural fabric and economic development. It is here that one can find intricately designed mosques alongside bustling bazaars and Roman ruins, an eclectic mixture that earned the city its rightful popularity among tourists. Well-ensconced from this swarm of foreign gawkers, though, is Fort Santiago Chikly, a former Roman citadel whose unusual location and history make it an alternative attraction to explore for the intrepid ones.

Since the day of Ancient Carthage, the Lake of Tunis played a major role as a military, trading and agricultural hub by the various empires who controlled the area, including the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Spaniards and the Arabs. Jutting out of its shallow waters is a 3.5-hectare islet whose history far-predates that of the city it is now a part of, Tunis.

 

Nestled in the northwestern part of the lagoon, Chikly Island is a grassy speck of land, punctured by a handful of murky marshlands. However, what really sets this tiny landmass apart is a millennia-old fort that underwent profound transformations throughout its existence, so much so that its current form is light years away from its original structure.

 

According to archeologists, Fort Santiago Chikly can trace its roots back to the Roman Era, when it functioned as a cluster of ramparts. After the area was captured by the Vandals, the citadel was razed to the ground and left abandoned for one thousand years or so. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Spanish settlers in the 16th century that this isle regained its strategic importance.

 

Upon their arrival and conquest of Tunis, the Spaniards under the leadership of governor Luys Perès de Varga constructed a massive fortress atop the skeletal foundations of the Roman stronghold. It was then further expanded in 1574 only to be ravaged later that year by the invading Ottoman army during the Battle of Tunis.

 

Following nearly a century of complete disuse, the building was reconstructed once again by the Dey of Tunis (an Ottoman term for a military commander), Hadj Mustapha Laz, who operated a prison within its isolated confines. A century later, the Ottoman ruler of Tunis, Hammouda Pasha, converted the edifice into a lazaretto where pilgrims were quarantined upon their return to the city by boats.

 

In 1830, the place was abandoned for the very last time, subsequently falling into a state of disrepair as the elements and occasional looters gradually disfigured the structure beyond recognition. Luckily though, the turn of the 1990’s decade ushered in a much-needed lifeline when the fort was declared a cultural heritage site and soon thereafter underwent a series of restoration works, where mosaic murals and artifacts were unearthed. It has since been opened to the public, but remains well off-the-beaten-path.

 

In addition to its historical merit, the island serves as a habitat for several species of migratory birds, most notably the clamorous colony of nesting egrets.

 

Fort Santiago Chikly is accessible through a 9-kilometer-long causeway that runs across the middle of the lake. The bikeable path is also a great vantage point of downtown Tunis, and better yet, the landings and takeoffs of airplanes at the nearby Carthage International Airport.