The red gold of Tabarka

Tracing Mediterranean coral routes

This article is part of the series Mediterranean routes

In northern Tunisia, seaside Tabarka has played a central role in coral fishing and cross-Mediterranean trade since at least the 15th century. Today, red coral continues to be traded across the sea, despite reef degradation and the informal workings of coral trade networks.

On top of a small peninsula guarding the town of Tabarka in northern Tunisia sits a fortress made from large, uneven ochre rocks. From afar it looks like a lone castle, the only construction on a rocky piece of land surrounded by the sea from almost all sides. It was built in the 16th century by fishers and is known by the town’s inhabitants as the Genovese fort. It used to sit on top of an island a mere half-kilometre from the mainland, sheltered by currents strong enough to kill ambitious swimmers and destroy small boats. But in the 19th century, the French colonial authorities built a large sand road linking the fort to the town, transforming the island into a peninsula. Since then, asphalt connections make their way across the narrow stretch of land which also accommodates the modern port of Tabarka.

Right below the fort near the sea are a few tables set up on the corniche, displaying the typical souvenirs of northwestern Tunisia: wooden figurines, key chains with letters and shellfish bracelets. Amid all the knick-knacks lay brilliant red necklaces in neat rows: some with round pearls, others made from broken pieces in a multitude of shapes. The necklaces are made from red coral, a water species that throughout time has been used to make religious objects and jewellery. Beyond the rather mundane scene of seaside tourist traps is the trade routes of the Mediterranean: that of the precious Corallium rubrum, less known than the Pacific Ocean coral and unique to the western Mediterranean basin, surrounded by Sicily, Sardinia and the coasts of Tunisia and Algeria.

The trade of red coral links the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean and dates back to antiquity, when the Romans used coral as talismans with protective powers.

Coral fishers have been operating in these regions throughout history, usually fishing at shallow depths of 50 to 200 metres. The trade of red coral links the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean and dates back to antiquity, when the Romans used coral as talismans with protective powers. The trade intensified in the 15th century, as coral’s reputation as a noble material grew. Routes were not limited to the Mediterranean but extended to the Levant and Central Asia, where coral was used as a substitute currency in the Middle Ages. Around the same period, it played part in the Transatlantic slave trade, as it was brought by Europeans on Saharan roads down to the Gulf of Guinea in order to serve as payment for slavery. 

The oldest and most prominent coral centre was established right here on the island of Tabarka, where coral was extracted from the surrounding shores. From Tabarka, the raw material was sent to northern Italian port cities such as Genoa, and onward to the southern kingdom of Naples where it was processed.

The island of Tabarka

Tabarka is a place entangled in history, with legends and stories dating back to Phoenician interactions in antiquity and the ruthless Berber queen El Kahena dying there during the Battle of Tabarka some time around 700 AD. In the Middle Ages, the by now almost forgotten island rose to prominence as a crucial location coveted by Spanish and Sicilian kingdoms and Italian port-cities. 

In 1542, the Genovese Lomelli family acquired the concession of Tabarka from the Bey of Tunis in exchange for taxing the coral they traded and established the island as a central trading post of the southern Mediterranean. In doing so, they developed an entire system of coral fishing linked to the unique culture on the island. Families settled there over the course of generations, became known as Tabarkinis, and developed a community at the crossroads of Italian and North African heritage and spaces. Through coral fishing, a self-enclosed minority emerged and developed its own language, customs and belonging. The small community of about 2000 people grew in that period. Sheltered on the island, they spoke the Ligurian language with borrowed Arabic words and mixed Christian and Berber traditions, like veiling their religious statues. 

Through coral fishing, a self-enclosed minority emerged and developed its own language, customs and belonging.

The island remained its own world, centred around coral fishing which at the time was an extremely human-intensive work, requiring groups of men to scrape the bottom of the sea. Most likely, it was organised generationally with older men teaching the peculiar fishing practices to younger generations. Tabarkinis often mingled with Sicilian fishers who came down in the spring or summer seasons. For those involved in coral fishing, it was never a practice separate from other forms of fishing but always part of Mediterranean sea culture and economy at the time. Coral fishing sites like Tabarka were complex places, both “advanced postings for Europe” and “third-spaces or simple passages between two interpenetrating worlds”. 

As the modern era ushered in the Mediterranean, tensions over land increased. The Ottoman provinces of today’s Tunisia and Algeria often found their battlegrounds in the Mediterranean sea. For the Tunisian Ottoman province, the presence of a Christian minority on Tabarka, gatekeeping a precious resource, became a growing source of concern. In 1741, the authorities of the Bey of Tunis invaded the island and forced the Christian families to flee. 

The fishing technique used in Tabarka and elsewhere after the 10th century was known as “Croix de Saint André”, from the cross-shaped wooden instrument used by the coral fishers.

Their displacement mirrors the trajectory of Mediterranean coral networks. Some moved to an island near Alicante, renaming it Nueva Tabarka, while others went to Sicily and carried on coral fishing. The last families moved to Tunis, where they opened coral jewellery shops in the medina. In consequence, and without an authority managing the exploitation of the coral reefs, the southern Mediterranean became a marginal coral route in the 18th century. 

Scraping the sea 

The fishing technique used in Tabarka and elsewhere after the 10th century was known as “Croix de Saint André”, from the cross-shaped wooden instrument used by the coral fishers. Using a boat, they would scrape the sea bottom with the crossed beams, breaking off coral that was brought back to the surface by divers with nets. But the technique, which destroys even nascent coral plants, was harmful to the bountiful Mediterranean, eventually stopping the growth of coral in entire parts of the sea. 

Coral grows slowly, sometimes taking five years to expand only 5 millimetres.

Despite this, it would take until 1985 before it was banned across the Mediterranean. Since then, it is only picked by hand, but older fishermen of Tabarka still remember the large crosses they would bring on their boats – and their destructive effects. “After a coral boat had passed by, it was impossible to throw a net in the sea,” Fathi Aoudi, a Tabarkan fisherman, says. The coral fishing equipment, he says, was so invasive that it even scared fishes away. Aoudi, now in his sixties, started fishing in the 1970s, learning from his two older brothers. He worked on small boats and large sardine ships, but never on coral boats. The coral fishermen were his friends and neighbours, but he always stayed away from the trade himself. 

Coral grows slowly, sometimes taking five years to expand only 5 millimetres. A coral plant, as small as it is, only comes to maturity after twenty years. When sold, the value is based on weight and diameter. “Mature coral plants are more expensive than younger ones, and they give you very different shapes to craft as jewelry,” explains Chedly, a Tabarkan jeweller. Each part of a coral branch is used for a different design. The branches on top, which break more easily, are known as “peppers” and can be made into thin necklaces; the center pieces are used to make cylindrical or round shapes. 

They often joke that, contrary to fishers in other regions, the Tabarkans know how to do everything.

Coral fishing requires more than knowledge about the underwater plant; it also asks you to do any kind of work related to fishing: diving, conning a boat, transporting heavy coral bags – and adapting to the times. In order to regenerate coral in the Mediterranean, divers in Tabarka have had to learn how to fish only for mature coral, leaving smaller plants in the sea. They often joke that, contrary to fishers in other regions, the Tabarkans know how to do everything. 

Colonising coral

In 1830, as the French began their imperial conquest of Algeria, the eastern border region with Tunisia where Tabarka is located was among the areas most staunchly refusing submission. Called “Kroumirie” (from the Khumayer people who ruled it) by the French authorities, the region spans the northeastern mountains of Algeria and parts of northwestern Tunisia, all the way to the current city of El Kef. The main coral fishing towns were La Calle, a port on the Algeria side and, a mere twenty kilometres away across the border, Tabarka. 

In other words, coral became colonised. 

French colonial documents paid little interest to coral fishing. As the archives show, two French militaries, Guérard and Boutineau, were sent to the Kroumirie to write a report encouraging colonisation of the region in 1892, just a few decades after taking Algiers. In their report, the men merely brush over coral fishing. Instead, they favour the annexation of the region for other economic reasons: its valuable land and large forests. Indeed, when the French established the Tunisian protectorate in 1881, taking land for large agricultural projects was central. But since the French already owned many postings for coral exploitation – and attempted to position themselves as the ruling empire of the Mediterranean, whether on shore or at sea – they saw benefit in Tabarka’s coral wealth. In other words, coral became colonised. 

Today, the French colonial legacy is omnipresent in the built environment of the region, with an entire European town set against the backdrop of the old Genovese fort on the island. While Berbers and Arabs traditionally lived scattered on the top of the mountains, Tabarka’s shores quickly became populated with Europeans, settling in the distinct white houses with red tiles that grew plenty during colonial times. Historically, Italian families had been the main coral traders, but colonial diversification of trade and agriculture brought a mix of French colonisers, Arabs and more Italians, all of them mingling with the island’s tuna and sardine fishers. 

In Tabarka, both local identity and the island-turned-peninsula’s tourism economy remain deeply tied to coral.

Coral trade today

Despite some enduring practices, Mediterranean coral trade today looks radically different from a century ago. Two cities have remained central sites: Tabarka and Torre Del Greco, near Naples in Italy, which is the region’s major hub. In Tabarka, both local identity and the island-turned-peninsula’s tourism economy remain deeply tied to coral. In the centre of the small town of 20,000 inhabitants, a bright red coral statue decorates one of the roundabouts and coral jewellery can be bought from stores and street vendors. 

In Tabarka, everyone knows the coral boats. In the port, the small red, yellow and blue “floukas”, small fishing boats typical of the region, mingle with the handful of pleasure boats that usually arrive for the summer season. Next to them are the coral boats – easily spotted because of their large white round cylinders, known as decompression boxes. The box serves two purposes: it first brings the diver down underwater and then, once back above the surface, helps them regain their regular oxygen levels. 

At times, Italian coral businessmen make the trip to Tabarka to buy coral and organise for its shipping themselves.

Mongi, a coral diver in his fifties, is well-known in the port. A tall man with large hands and skin browned by the sun, he first started in the coral trade but now owns a scuba diving school and advocates for the protection of Tabarka’s rich submarine life. Besides raising awareness about harmful extraction techniques, Mongi and other concerned fishermen try to transform the coral trade route to one of alternative tourism, where tourists dive to the remaining reefs. 

For fishers still involved in the trade, the coral season is determined by both regulations and weather considerations. “The season is open for four months,” says one diver: diving is impossible at the height of winter, and government rules allow coral extraction only in summer and fall. 

Coral is usually sold by weight to a host of intermediaries and buyers. Top quality coral is exported through middlemen from the ports of Bizerte and Tunis, where each person has contacts among Tabarka’s divers. The rough coral is sent to Italy and Spain where it is sold, again, and thereafter polished and cleaned before reaching coral jewellers. At times, Italian coral businessmen make the trip to Tabarka to buy coral and organise for its shipping themselves. 

Coral workshops

In Tabarka, the local coral economy is inherently informal. Divers sell small quantities, often of lesser quality, to local jewellers they know personally. Every jeweller in town has their preferred  diver. Mohamed, for example, is a coral jeweller with a small shop in Tabarka. A thin, blue-eyed man in his seventies, Mohamed immigrated to France in the 1960s, where he worked in construction for almost twenty years. He then took his savings and returned to Tabarka, where he bought the front end of a building next to the old colonial Hotel de France. For more than ten years, he also ran a small workshop with three workers, processing, cleaning, cutting and assembling the coral into jewellery. They made necklaces, bracelets, brooches and rings that Mohamed sold in his shop. When the covid-19 pandemic hit, he closed the business. “There aren’t enough tourists anymore making it worth creating new pieces. I barely sell what I already have,” he says. 

While prime quality coral is sold to Italy, jewellery made in Tunisia is sold for cheap.

A few doors from his shop is another store, that of Weld Margoum (“the son of Margoum”). It is more luxurious than Mohamed’s shop, with small sculptures of coral mermaids and unique pieces on display in glass cases “We still sell a bit here but nowadays, we mostly make basic pieces and send them to Italy. There, they remake and sell them, sometimes for ten times the price,” Weld Margoum says. “Italians love coral, even more than gold. We’ve lost that culture here.” 

While prime quality coral is sold to Italy, jewellery made in Tunisia is sold for cheap. A good necklace is often not more than 40 euros. Tabarka only has one coral jeweller known for his original creations these days: Mokhtar, who owns a small stand at the entrance of Tabarka town. He has a workshop in the nearby mountains, where he works with precise cutting and polishing equipment to make mermaid sculptures and jewellery. “Most of my work is not even sold in Tabarka. I bring my pieces to the jewelry market in the medina of Tunis where it sells better.” 

One of the workers in his workshop is Rebah, a woman in her mid-fifties from one of Tabarka’s mountain villages who has worked in the workshop for seventeen years. “It’s an unstable job. Sometimes we have coral, which means that we can work, sometimes we don’t and then the workshop closes for days,” she says. The women working in the workshops do everything: clean, cut, polish and assemble the jewellery; yet they are considered as mere informal workers, without any legal rights. The wages are low, often only 100 dinars, or 40 euros, a month – the price of a nice coral necklace. Yet when one looks at such a necklace, it has been created almost entirely by these workers, who are never considered as craftswomen or artisans. Coral jewellery is seen as a subset of jewellery-making rather than a craft in itself, with its own unique processes and history. 

The women working in the workshops do everything: clean, cut, polish and assemble the jewellery; yet they are considered as mere informal workers, without any legal rights.

This mirrors a bigger issue in the Mediterranean coral industry. The chain of production is mostly informal and everyone – from divers to customers in Tunisia or Italy – operate through informal networks where people know each other and rely on long-term relations of exchange. 

Coral smuggling

At Mokhtar’s workshop, all production is based on how much coral he is able to buy from the divers. Yet, as many people in town know, coral doesn’t always come from Tabarka. Big jewellers smuggle material through the border with Algeria, where coral is cheaper because the coast is less exploited. Algerian law says that coral may only be fished in very limited quantities, which has preserved the reefs. 

In Tabarka town, people often joke that they are a mere suburb of Torre Del Greco, the southern Italian town where large smuggled coral end up.

The absence of a coral industry in Algeria has led to a smuggling business to Tunisia and, from there, to Italy. “Sometimes the smugglers get caught and the coral is confiscated. Other times, they manage to get it in,” Majid, a town elder explains. “The customs know about it but they turn a blind eye.” As the border with Algeria has been closed since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, Mokhtar’s workshop has worked slowly, at times closing for weeks, because no decently-priced coral can be found. 

But the petty contraband of coral jewellers operating in the region is only the tip of the iceberg. Countries like Italy and Spain have restricted their coral exploitation since the 2000s over overfishing concerns. Because of low coral prices in the Mediterranean south, large-scale smuggling networks have begun to take over the routes in the past decade. 

In May of 2019, the Tunisian National Guard dismantled a coral trafficking network with Tunisian, Spanish and Algerian members who operated an export front to launder illegally cut coral. In Tabarka town, people often joke that they are a mere suburb of Torre Del Greco, the southern Italian town where large smuggled coral end up. “Before covid hit, we would see expensive boats with Italian flags. Everyone knew it was the Italian coral mafia from Torre Del Greco. They come here for coral but know Tabarka so well that they stay for holidays too sometimes,” a young man from the city says. 

These contrabanders are usually traders with formal import-export companies who play with the quantities and types of coral sent from Tunisia to Italy, disclosing lower amounts or passing coral for other products to avoid taxes and customs. The FAO has tried to bring coral countries into a shared agreement to protect the unique species, but no common agreements have yet been signed, and the coral mafia continues to use regulatory loopholes in existing regulation to traffic coral across the Mediterranean.

Today, the coral trade epitomises many of the issues faced by the sea where it is found: environmental degradation, exploitation and scarcity.

As small as the species is, red coral has been witness to a series of events in Mediterranean history: the rise and fall of regional powers, the formation of the Roman empire, the emergence of Italian port-cities and Ottoman provinces, and the rise of French colonial rule. Today, the coral trade epitomises many of the issues faced by the sea where it is found: environmental degradation, exploitation and scarcity. It has become endangered and caught in the midst of an unequal trade between the northern and southern shores, signified by far-reaching networks smuggling coveted goods across the fragmented Mare Nostrum

In Tabarka, with diminishing tourism and slowly disappearing reefs, the future of red coral seems more uncertain than ever. In town, the ildeness of summer has weaned off and been replaced by humid fall winds and rainy storms. Outside the port, under the roof of a large coffee shop gathering Tabarka’s seamen, fishers and divers alike, Chokri, an old diver turned tourist guide, takes a sip of his cold espresso. “The time of coral has passed. I know this because in the old days, I picked so much coral that I couldn’t hold it in my both hands.” He shows one of his palms. “Now, I look at what the divers find, and it’s just a few grams that can fit right here,” he says. 

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All illustrations for the Mediterranean Routes series were produced by Atelier Glibett in Tunis. 

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union within the framework of the regional program Med Dialogue for Rights and Equality. All content is the sole responsibility of Mashallah News and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. The Our Mediterranean project (#ourmediterranean on social media) has four partners: Maydan, Civitas Institute, Réseau Euromed France and Mashallah News.

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