25 November 2012

Cemeteries: Part 14

Tunisia is a secular country, estimated at 97% Moslem. It is the most liberal Arab country I have visited. Here I had more opportunity to see Moslem cemeteries than in any other country. Burials are generally made within a day of death, avoiding the embalming process that interferes with a body. While all mourners attend the funeral prayers led by an imam, only men accompany the body to actual burial in the cemetery. The deceased are buried on their right side facing Mecca. In general, elaborate grave markers and flowers are not encouraged; prayers are preferred as memorials. 
The main cemetery in the town of Hammamet is located outside the walled old town (medina) along the Mediterranean seafront. Many tombs have traditional mosaic decoration. Here, the customary marker is the representation of a book: the left hand page identifies the individual with name and dates; the right hand side has a quotation from the Koran. Grounds maintenance does not seem to be a priority. You can see the litter dumped in one section. A small Christian cemetery is nearby with many Catholics of Italian origin. 
The city of Kairouan is Tunisia's spiritual centre, location of the Great Mosque, the holiest Moslem site in Africa; the original portion dates to the 9th century. It is the overall fourth holiest site for (Sunni) Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Outside the walls of the medina can be seen (with the mosque's minaret in the background) the small old Ouled Farhane burial ground no longer in use. A certain tribe had requested this location close to the mosque. I could not ascertain when the burials began or how old they are. All inscriptions have long vanished over time and whitewashing seems to be the only maintenance.
A visit to the small seaside town of Monastir was to see the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000), the enlightened and revered father of modern Tunisia. He became the first president at the time of independence in 1956. Among other reforms such as banning the burkha and niquab, Bourguiba instituted universal health care and compulsory education up to full high school level. A processional avenue leads up to his grandiose monument with its golden dome, within the town's extensive el-Mazeri cemetery. Inside it has private rooms for family visitors and a public room serving as a small museum of his life. Separate rooms have comparatively plain burial slabs for members of his and his second wife's extended families.

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