Monastir, a traditional fishing port, is built on the site of the ruined Punic and Roman city of Ruspina, on the eastern coast of Tunisia, 10 miles south of Sousse, an important tourist centre. Its name Al-Monastir obviously comes from the same Greek source as "monastery," or relating to a hermits cell.
It was here in 46 BCE that the Battle of Ruspina was fought between Julius Caesar and the Republican forces led by Titus Labienus on behalf of Pompey the Great, during the Great Roman Civil War. Though greatly outnumbered Caesar lured Labienus into a trap, and following a bloody battle with large losses on both sides, Caesar claimed the victory.
The city is dominated by the Ribat of Harthema, whose construction began around the end of the 8th century. A ribat is obviously a heavy fortified complex, and it was originally built as part of a line of fortifications to defend the newly conquered Arab territories in North Africa from attacks by the Byzantine Empire. Its high watchtower giving it early warning of any attacks from both land and sea.
Traders travelling in camel caravans stopped at them for protection on their journeys, and whole communities lived in them. However by the 10th century, as the areas became more established and peaceful, they attracted religious mystics, especially those of the Sufi religion. It is probably from this that the city got its name. They also developed as centres of Islamic teaching, and Monastir was the first ribat to accept female students and teachers. Over the centuries it has come under military attack many times and several sections have had to be rebuilt causing exasperation when trying to date their construction.
The first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, was born in Monastir and his death dominates the city as did his life! The Bourguiba Mausoleum is a large edifice, whose construction started in 1963, built in the style of a mosque, with twin minarets on the approach to the main building, set under a large golden dome.
Following his death in 2000, President Bourguiba was buried under a large white marble sarcophagus in the circular central chamber. In two side rooms lie the remains of his parents, wife, and other members of his family. Although there is space for another two or three interments, the Bourguiba family have been stopped from adding new burials so as to prevent it becoming dynastic.