Tunis Big Ben

Page update - Feb 5, 2023

The clock tower in the "14 January 2011 Square" is the first place tourists see in Tunis during the excursion. This tower is also called the "Tunisian Big Ben", and there is indeed some analogy.

The tower (on the photo below, click on the photo to enlarge) does not make a strong impression and is used more as a landmark. The guides say, "Go from the clock tower towards the bank where our bus will be waiting". However, the tower can be very surprising, especially if you come to the city of Tunis on your own and come there in the evening. Let's start with the history of the place.

A bit of history

Until 1987, the place was called 'Africa Square' with a large statue of Habib Bourguiba, leader of the liberation movement and first president of independent Tunisia, in the center.

Habib Bourguiba stepped down as president in 1987. The new leader of the country was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who renamed the square to '7 November 1987 Square', in honor of his inauguration day. The monument to Habib Bourguiba was moved to La Goulette, and a clock was put up in the center, but it is not the clock that tourists now look at!

That clock was nicknamed by Tunisians the word "Alarm Clock". It had a unique feature, under the dial in place of the number 6 was the number 7. The reason was again the day of President Ben Ali's inauguration - 7 November 1987. The square was dedicated by the new President Ben Ali to himself.

In 2001, President Ben Ali carried out a major reconstruction of Tunis's city center. The Alarm Clock was removed, a lighted fountain was installed in the circle, and a tall obelisk with a clock on top was placed in the very center - a place now watched by tourists.

In 2011, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown during the Jasmine Revolution and fled to the Arab Emirates where he lived in exile and recently passed away (19.09.2019). The square has been renamed 'Place du 14-Janvier 2011' ('14 January 2011 Square') to commemorate the day of his overthrow. Magnificent irony!

Facts and figures

The clock stands 37 meters (121 feet) high and the total height of the obelisk exceeds 40 meters (131 feet). The diameter of the circle in which the tower is located is 35 meters (115 feet).

Many websites on the internet claim that the clock tower was built to commemorate the country's independence or to celebrate the Jasmine Revolution. The first is dubious, the second absurd.

What structures were the tower's designers inspired by? What do its parts symbolize? It is not known for certain. The official version of the Ben Ali administration is rather vague, stating that "the tower symbolizes a new era in the history of Tunisia". The tower itself is thought to replicate an Egyptian obelisk from the New Kingdom, and the clock copies the famous Gare de Lyon clock in Paris.

In January 2014, to mark the anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution, the tower was completely wrapped in the Tunisian flag. It was very beautiful.

Installing the clock tower and arranging the fountains around it in 2001 cost the budget 4 million Tunisian dinars. See the actual exchange rates in our review "Money in Tunisia".

The tower glistens with bronze. It is made of steel but covered with bronze paint.

The British have a joke for tourists. They ask, "How many arrows does Big Ben have?" The correct answer is "0", since Big Ben is the bell in the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, not the clock itself. For this reason, the name "Tunisian Big Ben" is completely incorrect.

When is the best time to visit

There's nothing interesting to see on an organized tour. You'll be lucky if the fountains are turned on, but more often they just don't work.

If you come to the city of Tunis on your own and come there in the evening, you can see a real show of dancing fountains. There are loudspeakers along the perimeter of the square, the jets of fountains go up in time with the music, the lights illuminate the tower and the fountains with different colors.

The show is completely free. The timetable is not publicly available and you'll have to take your chances - we have no information about the working hours at the moment. We recommend "catching" the show on Friday or Saturday.

Incident November 10, 2016

On Thursday November 10, 2016, Tunis's clock tower made headlines around the world. A young Tunisian climbed the tower in the early hours of the morning and started shouting different phrases, of which only "Give us back Barack Obama" could be clearly heard. Probably, the young man was very upset about Donald Trump's election victory.

A crowd gathered around the tower. The man was filmed on video, a frame from which you can see near, click on the picture to enlarge. After a while, the offender of the incident was persuaded to come down and was detained by the police.

Neither the offender's name, nor demands, nor motives were made public. The police said that the man was drunk, which is very strange given that the sale of alcohol in Tunisia is severely restricted.

If you look closely, the clock tower is very handy for climbing and is covered with holes - a climber's dream. Luckly, this incident hadn't made climbing it a dangerous tradition.

Incident September 15, 2016

On September 15, 2016, an unidentified man parked his car in the square. He went around the clock tower three times while shouting Allah's name. Recall that Muslims circumambulate the Kaaba during the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The unidentified man was arrested and taken by the police to a psychiatric clinic. His further fate is unknown. The car was surrounded by police, fearing there was an explosive device, and the square was temporarily closed. All ended well, nothing explosive was found in the car. The Tunisian Interior Ministry said the perpetrator of the incident had long been suffering from a psychiatric disorder.

Be careful, if you walk around the clock tower in Tunis, you'd better keep quiet.

Important tips for tourists

- The clock tower is a great landmark. If you walk from it towards the trestle, you'll get to the TGM train station behind the trestle. This train takes you to Sidi Bou Said, Carthage, La Marsa;

- If you go in the opposite direction, you will reach Avenue Habib Bourguiba, then at the end of the avenue is the Medina of Tunis, before the French embassy on the left there is the main railway station, on the avenue in the building before the medina you will find a large Magasin General.

Have a great holiday in Tunisia and read our interesting pages about the country (find the pages list below). © 2020-2024