Why the Name: Sfax ?

View of Sfax from Ksar Ben Romadhane (Source: Wikipedia)

I have always loved the name of the second city of Tunisia, Sfax… think about it for a second: S-FAX… the name does not seem to sound one bit Arabic… it would seem so reminiscent of Rome…


Well, it is said that a  Cucurbitaceae gourd plant (such as a cucumber) gave its name to the city of Sfax, or rather that fakous which means cucumber in a local Tunisian language (most likely Berber) gave rise to the name Sfax.

Bab Diwan and Old view of Sfax in 1954

Thomas Shaw who visited Tunis in 1732 claimed in his book Observations geographiques sur le royaume de Tunis, Voyages de M. Shaw dans plusieurs provinces de la Barbarie et du Levant, ed Jean Neaume, La Haye 1743, P. 249, that, “Sfakès is the city of cucumbers.”

However, in his book Fastes chronologiques de la ville de Sfaks, Antoine du Paty de Clam, mentioned that Sfaks could be decomposed into s fa ekez, meaning in Berber, « the one who extends the surveillance » and whose Greek translation is equivalent to Taphrouria (look-out post or monitoring station or surveillance post) transcribed to Taphrura by historians such as Ptolemee.

View of the Medina in Sfax

Other historians have assumed that the name of Sfax must have originated from the name of the governor of the city, Sfâ. According to them, the governor of the city went to visit the Sultan of Mahrès (Mahares) to solicit his help in building the city’s ramparts to protect it from invasion; he exposed his plan on a cow hide that was drying under th sun. In response, the sultan gave him a pair of scissors while saying, “Sfâ qoçç” or “Sfâ cut!”

So which meaning do you think it is?

The city was founded in AD 849 on the ruins of the Roman city of Taparura. It is located on the Mediterranean, and is a major port. The main industries are phosphate, olive, nut (almond) processing, leather, wool, fishing, and international trade. After the capital Tunis, it is the second most populous city of Tunisia. Rich of its prehistoric, Roman, and Islamic heritage, Sfax is a vibrant port city full of life. If you ever visit Sfax, do not forget to visit its museums, enjoy the history, and the city, and maybe look for a fakous?

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