“Tripoli’s Medina, in the north of the city, is the heart of the Libyan capital. It is inhabited by many foreigners, and these days only a few Libyans reside there. Nevertheless, the Medina’s souk represents a cultural heritage of Tripoli,” says local resident Mohamed Khalifa.
The old city marketplace and the historic buildings spread across the walled Medina are home to many manufacturers and artisanal products. The overwhelming majority of the historic buildings inside the Medina were built during Ottoman rule and Italian occupation.
The market sells a wide range of products – textiles, clothing, gold jewellery, leather, silk. There are both artisanal handicraft and imported goods. Entering the old city, one cannot but notice the vibrant tight market halls, like arched tunnels.
Souk al-Mushir, in the southeast suburb of Quz Zanata, is one of the most important markets in the Medina. Souk al-Mushir borders Martyrs’ Square to the south, the al-Rabaa souk and the Clock Tower to the north, the Red Castle (Assaraya Alhamra) to the east and the souks of the old city (the al-Turk souk and the Silk souk) to the west. It was built between 1906 and 1908 under governor Al-Mushir Rajab Pasha, and was named after him.
Souk al-Mushir has symbolic significance for both residents and visitors. It houses numerous historic and archaeological buildings, such as the mosque of Ahmad Pasha al-Qaramanli, one of the most important mosques in the old city, commissioned in 1736 by governor Ahmad Pasha al-Qaramanli.
The al-Naqah mosque (Camel mosque) is one of the oldest in North Africa, more than a thousand years old. Shaib al-Ain mosque, which borders the big shrine, is inside the al-Mushir Souk. The big shrine/mausoleum (al-Zaweya al-Kabira) is a historical landmark dating back to the 17th century, and is the headquarters for Sufi Muslims to practise.
“The residents of the old city have the chance to learn a handicraft to make a living. The lifestyle of the Medina has given us a chance to earn a living and learn to co-exist,” says Haji Jamal al-Dagiz. In his fifties, he has spent most of his life in the silk weaving business. He says he did not find hard to learn this profession, which he inherited from his father, who himself inherited it from his grandfather more than 100 years ago.
After serving us a plate of dates, a tradition he inherited from his father to welcome guests and clients, Haji Jamal al-Dagiz explains that the raw silk is imported from China. Weaving machines are used to weave the silk; his machine has four wraps and three wefts ¬– two fixed and one movable. The process of weaving silk differs from one place to another, depending on the traditional costume of that area or city. Al-Dagiz personally assists in the tinting and weaving process.
Despite the deterioration of the Libyan market in recent years, demand for silk is still strong. It is mainly used to make traditional costumes (Farmla and Kat) and wedding dresses (Badla Kabira, Badla Saghira and Houli al-Boudra). When the weaving process is finished, Haji Jamal delivers the merchandise to a broker, who moves between the craftsmen and the merchants to sell and promote silk.
Haji Jamal says silk weaving is more than just a business to earn his living. He treasures the tradition and the authenticity of this craft, which he inherited from his ancestors and will in turn pass down to his children.
“The residents of the old city have a special connection to the handicraft; only they are able to feel it. Undeniably, it is part of their identity and their culture. It is surprising that people complain about the high prices of imported goods while they have a rich market full of handicrafts that could be turned into a living.”