Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Thanksgiving Trip to Kairouan, El Jem (Tunisia) - 2002

Thanksgiving Weekend Trip to Kairouan, El Jem

This Thanksgiving weekend, I journeyed to central Tunisia. Thanks to the generosity of one of the school parents in the hotel businesses, we were able to stay at the 5-star Hotel Amir Palace in Monastir with our meals being our only cost. What a deal! With less than a two and a half our drive, we were in the area that the guidebook called “central Tunisia.”

Once again back in the countryside, undulating hills exchanged places with flat plains. Olive tree groves dotted the landscape, providing green color over the plowed fields and up the steep hills. Shepherds tended flocks of sheep, sometimes with only a few and other times having to manage large flocks – precariously close to the busy toll road. As we neared villages, more trucks were seen hauling veggies and fresh oranges to markets or produce stands. Whether on foot, bicycle, or motorbike, many carefully balanced purchased produce, likely for consumption in the meal after dusk.

As shopping was one of our goals on the trip, our first stop was at Nabeul, a village known for its pottery. I had seen some of the colorful plates and other wares in Sousse and other medinas and hoped that the prices and selection would be more attractive at the source. Lining the main shopping street were tiny shops selling goods catering to tourists: cheap stiff stuffed camels, T-shirts, leather goods, and pottery – to name a few. Vendors attempted to guess your ethnicity, hoping that any conversation would lead to entry into the store and an overpriced purchase. After some negotiation, I finally did buy a few bowls of varying sizes, each with hand-painted blue designs that reminded me somewhat of a kaleidoscope. Hungry, we decided to stop for a quick bite at one of the few places that seemed to be serving food during Ramadan. After that, we headed south towards Monastir.

Monastir – the Emir Palace Hotel
The tourism industry has given Monastir, once a sleepy fishing village, a different look. Large hotel complexes catering to the package tourists (especially Germans) line the beaches at an increasing rate. Exploring Monastir’s unique sights would not take that long, so we decided instead to use the city of 40,000 merely as our base for day trips. Situated about 4 km outside of the city center, our hotel was among the many along that strip. Opening the doors of the all-white building, I noticed that the signs were written in several languages, with German being on the top. In the large reception area, huge marble columns ascended three floors. Two curved marble staircases framed a central glass elevator. The painted ornate wooden ceiling was carved in Morocco, displaying a more traditional tesserae pattern. Along the tops of the high walls were magnificently carved geometric and ornamental designs in the white plaster, also a craft of Morocco. It took 20 men 1 1/2 years to complete the plaster carved designs. We were warmly received and escorted to our rooms with a seaside view. Now in the off-season, most of the 328 rooms were unoccupied. After eating a pleasant meal buffet-style, we were treated to a performance. Several women did the traditional belly dancing while three men accompanied them, two on different local drums and another in a bagpipe found in this region.

After a European-style breakfast, we headed off towards our first destination, the fishing village of Mahdia. The olive tree groves became more numerous and thicker, standing proudly on the rich ground. Perhaps this was one of the areas the Romans grew grains and other items for its empire. Children wearing uniforms walked alongside the road to school, chattering in Arabic as they clutched their book bags. Cows grazed in the grass, happily munching away. Sheep abounded, tended by their master. We arrived when the Friday market day was in full swing. We walked past the local market outside the medina, where food, produce, cheap plastic ware, and lots of second-hand clothes were up for sale. We entered the medina through the Skifa el-Kahla, a massive fortified gate remaining from the original Fatimid city, dating back to about 916 AD. In the narrow, dark vaulted passageway of about 50 meters, women dressed in traditional clothing were selling a variety of clothing and beautiful fabric. The bright sunlight hit us as we stepped out of the passageway and into the cobblestoned medina. Women clenched white shawls between their teeth, revealing only a partial glimpse of their bespeckled face or weathered skin. Men sat and chatted on the mosque steps or beneath the shady trees of central square. Lining the narrow streets were small shops selling jewelry, woven silk, shoes, as well as workers carrying out their trade. Local shoppers carried their goods in woven baskets, sometimes each carrying a handle. Unable to reach the fishing ports and other sites, a return visit is necessary.

El Jem
After our short stay in Mahdia, we headed west towards El Jem, site of one of the finest Roman monuments in Africa. After traveling over rather dry, flat plains, the coliseum suddenly appeared, dominating over the unremarkable town of 10,000 inhabitants. Now on the United Nation’s World Heritage List, the coliseum, built between 230 and 238 AD, is remarkably well-preserved. We were still able to climb up the 3 tiers of seating 30 m. high. Massive in size, the structure is 138 m long by 238 m high. The intense sunlight cast harsh shadows on the arched corridors and walls comprised of huge light-colored blocks. In a few places, we saw remnants of sculptures, further destroyed by graffiti. From a nearby minaret, the call to prayer echoed and filled the arena. Meandering through the levels and numerous corridors, we headed towards the side where the seating was quite intact. Warmed and relaxed by the midday sun, we ate a leisurely picnic lunch. Just think of what sights and sounds must have been witnessed here by the 30,000 capacity crowds! I then headed towards the central arena. Next, I explored the two long underground passageways used to hold animals, gladiators and others unfortunate enough to be thrust into the arena to provide entertainment for the masses. One of the underground entrances was a wide ramp, likely used to escort the captives into the shadowy passageways and impending doom or glory.

As we sat in an outdoor café enjoying fresh-squeezed orange juice, I continued to marvel at the impressive structure in front of us. It was also a great place to watch passers-by, some walking and others riding bicycles. Some of the men wore heavy brown hooded capes – much like the ones depicted in the Star Wars movies (some scenes were actually filmed in Tunisia). Berber women dressed in layers of colorful clothes, strapping their long sacks over their forehead and down their back. Walking along the unremarkable streets of modern-day El Jem, it was rather difficult to imagine that this was the site of Thysdrus and its splendid Roman villas. Visitors in the Bardo Museum now enjoy many of the magnificent mosaics that adorned the homes of this city that distributed goods between the coast and the interior. After spending some time looking in shops and bargaining for a few purchases, we drove back to Monastir for the night.

The next morning we headed to Kairouan, Tunisia’s holy city. It ranks behind only Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem among Islam’s holiest cities. According to legend, when a golden goblet (mysteriously disappeared from Mecca) was picked up after being stumbled on by a horse walking in the sand, water sprang up. People believe that the water source was the same that supplied the holy well of Zem-Zem in Mecca. Kairouan’s name comes from the Arabic word qayrawan, meaning ‘military camp.’ Founded in 670 AD, Kairouan’s medina is still the heart of the city and is quite authentic and colorful. It was pleasurable exploring the multitude of narrow streets, peering in the shops and taking in the details of architecture or the traditional costumes of passers-by. Although we had locals eager to be our tour-guide, we decided to meander on our own.

The Great Mosque
Once in the walled medina, one of our first stops was the Great Mosque, dating back to the 9th century. Very plain and fortress-like on the outside, the appearance changed drastically once through the main doors. The huge marble-paved courtyard was surrounded by an arched colonnade, composed of columns salvaged from various Roman and Byzantine sites. Closed to non-Muslims, I could only catch a glimpse of the magnificent prayer hall through the opened carved cedar doors. Huge conical chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Ornamental carpets were spread over the floor. Woven mats were gathered around the bases of columns.
The Zaouia and Islamic cemetery

Moving on, we stopped at an Islamic cemetery. Whitewashed, the simple graves were unadorned, except for some calligraphic writing on a few. We then stopped in the Zaouia of Sidi Abid el’Ghariani. Recently restored, the building dates from the 14th century and contains some fine stucco and woodcarving. Thin columns and arches framed the small marble patterned courtyard. The black and white striped arches reminded me of Moorish architecture. In a small room with a beautifully wooden carved ceiling, the tomb of the Hafsid sultan Moulay Hassan who ruled from 1525-1543 was on display.

Carpet Shopping
Once again meandering through the narrow passageways, a man approached us, eager to take us to a rug shop. Once inside an upstairs room, we were encouraged to sit down and enjoy a cup of sweet mint tea as the store clerk and his assistants began unrolling rugs lining the perimeters of the room. Some of the wool rugs for which Kairouan is so famous were in the knotted style and others were woven. Prices varied by number of knots per square meter and quality of the weave – although the clerk was reluctant to begin quoting prices until he was satisfied that we had seen a sufficient number of examples. After another cup of tea and intense bargaining, the teaching couple with whom I had been traveling purchased a woven rug with traditional designs.

Typical of Saturdays in Kairouan, there was intense activity going on inside a dark, narrow souk. In heavy, heated Arabic, an exchange of dialogue and money took place between the local buyers and sellers of carpets. If only I had a supply of cash, knowledge of good prices for carpets, and the ability to speak Arabic, I too could have engaged in the process and come away with a famous Kairouan carpet. Perhaps another time…Outside the souk, a short man was busily piling rugs onto his donkey cart, no doubt to be sold elsewhere for larger sums. Soon the pile rose higher than the man.

Traditional market
With the rains from the previous evening, the heavily traveled street of the main market quickly turned into mud. Trucks and donkey carts quickly unloaded their goods, including veggies, fruit, bread, eggs, and other items. Clothes, electronics, plastics, Pokémon items and other cheap plastic toy trinkets were also displayed. An old man was particularly enthralled by the rotating blades of a toy helicopter, unconcerned that one of the blades was broken. More men and women were wearing traditional clothing. Some of the Berber women’s faces and hands were tattooed with traditional Berber symbols. Many drove on motorbikes while others rode on donkey-pulled carts. At times, three people crammed on to a bicycle. Amazingly, even a small girl sleeping managed to hold on as the bike was pedaled forward. Around noon, we had a quick snack of local bread. Coarse and grainy, the flat bread didn’t seem to be composed of any flour or yeast. As we were sitting on a doorstep eating the bread, a few young boys came up to us, rather curious and eager for their photo to be taken.

Medina walk
As in other more traditional medinas, the Kairouan medina is divided into souks. For example, one souk would be devoted to perfumes, where one could purchase jasmine extract, locally made versions of Chanel and beautiful glass perfume bottles. Another souk dealt with fabric, where one could buy the fabric, buttons in another shop, and tailors in still another. Other souks were devoted to creating and repairing shoes, weaving, carpentry, and more.

Common to many medinas, the streets in Kairouan were very narrow. Some of the streets contained arched upper dwellings that joined the buildings at both sides. Many of the doors were painted in various tints of bright blue, apparently believed to ward off mosquitoes. The hand of Fatima was a common component of many doors, believed to bring good luck. For homes of one family, one hand would be on the door; for two families, two hands would proudly be displayed. Barbershops were busy, giving customers an extra close shave in the old-fashioned chair. While on our walk, we went past the Mosque of the 3 Doors. Built in 866, the main attraction of the mosque is the elaborate façade. The mosque’s three arched doorways are topped by three friezes of kufic (early Arabic) script interspersed with floral relief and crowned with a carved cornice.

Back to Monastir
Hungry and tired, we were ready to head back to Monastir. We passed a few abandoned industrial buildings, remnants of the French colonial times. The terrain was flat and rather sahel-like, with more scrub brush than olive groves. Flocks of sheep were scattered through out the countryside. Few villages were seen, all with simple homes. Anxious to pass slow-moving vehicles, some drivers took great risks, sometimes narrowly missing oncoming traffic. The overcast sky dominating the day’s weather began getting darker, with rain imminent. Shortly after we reached the hotel, the gentle rain began. It was a good time for a nice hot relaxing time in the Jacuzzi.

Saturday morning was once again sunny. Prior to our departure, we decided to tour the ribat complex, regarded as Tunisia’s finest example of Islamic military architecture. It is a favorite for film directors seeking authentic Islamic architecture. Scenes from “Life of Christ” and the Monty Python movie “Life of Brian” were filmed here. Although originally built in 796 AD, the fortress has undergone numerous remodeling. Like the ribat in Sousse, there is a large central courtyard. On each corner is a tower. Slits for arrow shooting and other military defenses were visible. Assorted ramps and steps provided access to the ramparts. One hallway had arched columns, probably taken from Roman sites. Some of the rooms were quite dark and small, while others were of modest size. Navigating through the place, we found the stairs leading up the circular nador (watch tower), part of the original building. Climbing the narrow stairs, we were treated to a great view (but very windy) of the surrounding area. The nearby port, fishing boats, and beaches were seen off one side. Directly ahead was the Bourgiba family Masoleum capped in a gold dome, our other destination.

Thanking the friendly staff and complementing them on the well-preserved nature of the ribat, we headed down the ornamental brick path to the Bourgiba mausoleum where the body of Tunisia’s first president lies in state. Friendly uniformed men guarded the entrances. Hearing that we were from the US, they began to recite in halted English the political leaders of the US, including Bush, Cheney, and Powell. The inside was quite opulent, including huge marble pillars from Portugal. In one room, photos, clothing, documents and personal items, and a pen from Ronald Reagan were displayed. Judging from the splendor of the place and the presence of a street named after Habib Bourgiba in nearly every town I’ve visited, it was quite apparent how beloved this visionary leader was.

Back at the hotel, we had a simple lunch of crackers and fresh fruit. After thanking the hotel staff for their hospitality, we headed back to Tunis, satisfied with our purchases and sights.

No comments: