Why are the Doors Blue in Tunisia?
A distinctive, beautiful color palate catches the eye of millions of tourists in Tunisia, a country tucked in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. The vibrant array of blue doors, blue windows, and blue trims stand out in the white-washed architecture. The display reminds many people of Greece’s southern islands. However, what led to the trend of blue doors in Tunisia was not a simple game of copycat. The reason for the blue doors of Tunisia lies deep in its history, shaped by culture, religion, and art. Dive in with us into the history of blue architecture:
Table of Contents
- The Stories of Blue Doors in Tunisia
- Other Blue Architecture Across North Africa
- What About You?
Stories of Blue Doors in Tunisia
Following the history, there are actually two different stories behind Tunisia’s blue architecture. There is an account in the Northern region and an account in the South. Parallel to each other, both areas developed their own reasons for painting their homes blue. They are both equally true, and each gives unique insights into the country’s values and history. Namely, the North’s account surrounds a history of art and Medditernain feel. And aside, the South’s reasoning entangles values and religion.
Surely, no brief answer can capture the whole cultural story around blue doors. But those who take the time to hear their story with a curious and open mind will gain greater love and insight into the country’s history and values. Perhaps, we can even learn a thing or two from how they think and the things they do. Read along the two stories behind Tunisia’s famous look, one from the South and one from the North.
Why Doors are Blue in North Tunisia (Sidi Bou Said)
In the Northern part of Tunisia, the most prevalent spot you can find blue designs is in Sidi Bou Said, a town outside the nation’s capital of Tunis. Its romantic cobble streets and view overlooking the mountainous Mediterranean make it one of the most popular destinations in middle North Africa. Here, the blue-white color palate comes to life more than anywhere else. Blue doors, window bars, shades, and roofs stand out on every corner. The site’s beauty and popularity led it to be included in the Carthage UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979
The Artist Who Set the Trend
While there is debate about who first introduced the town’s color scheme, Rodolphe d’Erlange, a French painter and musicologist is most credited with popularizing blue in the village. His interest in Arab culture and music settled him in Sidi Bou Said in 1907, a French colony at the time. At the time, architecture in the city was simpler. Citizens used white-wash paint to reflect the sun’s heat. Understandably, as an artist, he found the look boring. He thought adding blue to the white city added charm, a Medditernian feel.
Hence, for much of his life, he promoted accenting architecture with blue paint. To achieve this, his wealth and status came in handy. He built a great palace, called Dar Ennejma Ezzhara, with blue windows and fences. Eventually, he even lobbied the government to establish and protect the town colors as blue and white. And by legend, he sponsored and painted other local buildings the same way.
Colonialism and Heritage
Like most African regions at the time, locals did not have much influence in whether they liked the change or not. Primarily, the french-instated government served the opinions of the French nobility, such as d’Erlange. Resultingly, many cultures lost much of their heritage. Traditions were suppressed and had to evolve.
This history can cause many to look fondly at colonialism’s footprints, such as the blue-white colors. However, there is no reason for dismay. Tunisians are a persistent people. They did not forget their native Amazigh heritage. In midst of the changes, locals adapted their styles into designs on their doorways. If you look closely at their blue doors, you may find many of their symbols blended in with metal studs.
Furthermore, Tunisians today have no bad feelings about how their city looks. Rather, over time they have fallen in love with it. They continue to build their houses along the unified blue and white architecture. Perhaps Rodolphe d’Erlange was right. It really is a beautiful look. It gives a calming, paradise feel to the coastal city. A city of good taste in art and architecture. A perfect place for a romantic getaway, if you ask us. That’s why we offer a weekend tour of the city. You should give it a look.
As blue developed in the North to now make it a beautiful, artistic tourist destination, blue colors in the south has a different connotation. They are their own artists, they did not copy anyone else’s work. The wider adoption of blue doors on the faraway island of Djerba has its own, older tale.
Why Doors are Blue in South Tunisia (Djerba Island)
Djerba is a touristy island in the southern region of Tunisia. It is a popular spot because of its warm culture and climate. Similar to the North, blue colors are very prevalent throughout the island, from the busy markets of Houmt Souk to the village of Gualala. Nearly every house has a blue door and white walls. It is truly a unique icon of the island’s architecture. Culturally, this unified color scheme holds much significance in the local culture and is closely linked to the island’s values. Understanding these values is key to the answer to why doors are blue in Djerba.
Religion and Values
Residents of Djerba are known for their emphasis on peace and tolerance. It is considered one of the most tolerant communities in the Arab world. This is evidenced by its long-standing local Jewish communities, one of the last and oldest in the Arab world. The island’s harmony derives from a unique religious sect that was established there, Ibadi Islam. Ibadis are known for their principles of simplicity, acceptance, and love. While this religious group no longer holds a majority in Djerba, locals still hold these values tightly.
Consequently, many locals painted their doors blue in Djerba, Tunisia to reflect these values. To them, a sea blue symbolized peace, openness, and unity on their Medditernian island. Painting one’s doorway these colors connected the home’s identity with these values. So, when a visitor knocked on their door, it indicated a warm, open home. It was as if they were announcing: ‘at this house, we are unified with the rest of the island, to peace with those like us, and with those unlike us.’ Blue doors meant peace. It’s the same reason the United Nations flag is blue and white, too.
Another factor that influenced the growth of the colors in the area was unity. Communities that are more isolated, and hence dependent on each other, tend to have a greater sense of unity. They feel more connected to each other. They make decisions together. Think: it’s like High School Musical’s We’re All in This Together. It’s (kinda) the same way on Djerba Island. Once the color caught on, everyone started to paint their doors blue in a show of unity.
Even today, the island is unified in many ways. It is unified with a strong native Amazigh heritage. Everyone works together in some way to maintain their crucial tourism industry. They have their own unique sub-culture, a unique small-town-like feel. And they all paint their doors blue—because that’s just what Djerbans do.
Blue Architecture Across North Africa
Nowadays, despite their different stories and connotations, both the North and South are unified in their Tunisian look. The Medditernian blue doors and window shades are something you have to see and enjoy for yourself. View our custom, private tours of Tunisia for an authentic adventure.
Or instead, maybe you’d like to hear some more stories of blue?
Blue doors and architecture is not unique to Tunisia, or Greece, or any other one place. Mediterranean blue has a wide history of many unique stories on how they adopted it into their cultures. Keep reading for some more stories of blue décor throughout the Mediterranean. Just like the story of Tunisia, it will grant you a new perspective, and an appreciation of cultures and architecture in Africa.
How Blue Became Popular
Following far back in history, blue pigments were first pioneered in Egypt and Afghanistan back in 2,000 BC. The color’s connection to rain and the sky brought connotations of blessing and peace. Even today, most cultures still point to this connection as to why they favor blue. Over time, blue coloring ingrained itself into many North African cultures, as seen in their jewelry and artwork.
When the Middle Ages arrived, blue had its mainstream breakthrough. New blue dying methods spread across Mediterranean trade routes as an affordable color. Every place that it arrived adopted it in a different way, with its own cultural spin. Hence, there is a wide variety of reasons communities use blue (even within Tunisia). Here are three bonus stories of blue in Morocco, Algeria, and Greece.
Blue Streets in Morocco
Of all the places that adopted blue into their architecture and society, one world-famous city stands above the rest: Chefchaouen, Morocco. Eye-catching shades of blue cover every corner of the ancient city. The arrival and reasoning for the blue love go back to 1492 when a large number of Jewish refugees arrived after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The community there, which expanded during Hitler’s regime in the 1930s, painted their houses blue symbolizing the sky and God’s power. They suggested that as much as the sky is blue, so God is watching over them.
In 1968, the last of the Chefchaouen Jewish community departed for Israel. Nevertheless, their legacy and tradition with the color lived on, adopted by their Muslim neighbors. As tourism grew, the blue city became a phenomenon. Thousands of tourists visit for stunning, photogenic shots of blue walkways and artwork. You can visit Chefchaouen in our 14-day Highlights of Morocco Tour.
Blue Roofs in Algeria
A much less known country with a flavor of blue is Algeria. Isolated in the dry Sahara Desert, the oasis communities in the M’Zab Valley use a light, sky blue to paint their rooftops. The orange-blue skyline makes for a unique view over the palm tree oasis. Locals say that the blue hue is intended to keep mosquitoes away, implying that flying critters avoid water. Additionally, it brings a peaceful effect to those relaxing on the rooftops, which are exclusively reserved for women.
Besides blue roofs, there are many other fascinating traditions that make the M’Zab Valley’s communities a cultural must-see. The five small sub-communities share an interesting, unique utopia-like feel. They are known for their all-white conservative clothing, social support systems, and city planning. Truly, to understand it all, you must see it for yourself. We offer tours of Ghardaia in our History and Culture Tour and our Highlights of Algeria Tour (which includes a camping trip into the deep Sahara Desert!).
Blue Doors in Greece
Finally, there is Greece, home to sites that look most similar to the blue doors in Tunisia. However, compared to Tunisia and the rest of North Africa, Greece was late to join the trend. The Cyclades Islands in South Greece adopted the iconic “Greek” look in the 20th century. For many years, islanders adopted white-wash paint to keep homes cooler in the summer. Locals bored of the all-white city opted to highlight their homes with an affordable dark blue cleaning product. They plastered it on the windows, doors, and railings. Some people held superstitions that the color itself had disease-preventing ability.
In 1967, the blue-white color scheme was made official. Seeking to promote unity and pride, a new government regime painted all houses in this pattern of white and blue. This turned out to be a good decision as the tourism industry took off, and it was codified into Greek law in 1974.
What About You?
If you ask an African at random why they use blue in their architecture, you may hear dozens of other reasons. There are even more aside from the ones you heard today; mosquitos, spirits, health, or simplicity. Certainly, in such a diverse country every home has its own reasons and legends about the color. Just as every door has its own unique look and story, of faded paint and scratches, they may have their own story.
So, how do you feel about the color blue? Leave a comment below with your thoughts. Or better yet, get out there and take an adventure. Hear the stories of local Africans for yourself. Click here to see our popular custom Tunisia tours.