The Ennejma Ezzahra Palace (an Arabic term meaning “Star of Venus”) is the first historical monument to have been listed since the country’s independence and it is rightly considered to be a jewel of Arab-Islamic architecture in Tunisia.
A masterpiece in the proper sense of the term, this life’s work will forever remain linked to the destiny of the man who imagined, designed and built it.
In 1911, Rodolphe d’Erlanger established himself in el-Qubba el-Beidha, a small house with a white cupola built on land purchased in 1909 during one of his trips to Tunisia. He started to build his house, helped, during the first few months by an architect. The latter contributed to defining the layout while the general plan and in particular the stylistic aspects were the domains of the owner.
The palace took a little over ten years to build (1912-1922) and was a true school of craftsmanship. The best craftsmen from Tunisia as well as from Morocco were called in and it is even said from Egypt, to work marble, carved stucco (naqsh hadida), sculpted, carved or painted wood. And for the amenities, such as electricity, plumbing and heating, Rodolphe d’Erlanger brought in specialists from Europe (France and Italy).
The way in which Ennejma Ezzahra Palace was laid out within the site is in itself a lesson in architecture. The steeply sloping Cape Carthage promontory dominates the bay of Tunis, yet the house fits unobtrusively into the setting. Built as if it were two giant steps, each one-story-high, carved into the hillside, the line of its upper roof terraces follows that of the garden. Seen from the village, only the garden and the white terraces are visible, whereas from the sea the high, long, white façade stands imposingly, with its strict lines marked by balconies closed with blue mashrabiyehs ( latticed woodwork protecting balconies) topped with green glazed tiles.
It is characteristic of traditional Tunisian and Maghrebi houses to shield themselves from the eyes of passers by. One may ascribe it to the discretion of the erudite or the aristocrat but this need to integrate may also stem from the desire of the aesthete to withdraw into a secret Thebaid . With respect to materials and the decorative repertoire, the baron d’Erlanger’s preferences went towards Maghrebi Andalusian traditions with a particular taste for the geometric arabesque. The overall impression is one of purity of forms and a great chromatic sobriety.