Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Tunisia South Trip- Spring Break 2004

Tunisia, although small, is a country full of diversities. In the 164,000 sq km within its irregular borders, this northernmost country of North Africa contains many ecological systems – from the rolling green hills and flat fields of wheat, to the neatly planted groves of olive trees, to the rocky wasteland and sand dunes of the south. In addition, it has 1,400 km of coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, affecting its climate, trade, industry, and tourism. Due to its strategic position, many have sought to capitalize on its resources – from the mighty Phoenicians and Romans, to the Berbers, Byzantines, Arabs, and French. On our seven-day trip, we would get a taste of Tunisia’s dynamic present as well as its grand past.

Departing by small bus from the Hotel Flora Park in the resort town of Hammamet, we made our first stop to Kairouan. Here, we stopped to admire the two large cisterns (called the Aghlabid Pools) built by the Aghlabids in 896 AD to hold the city’s water supply. In the center of the larger pool, you could still see the remains of pillars that once supported a pavilion where the rulers would come to relax on summer evenings. Our next stop in Kairouan was the Mosque of the Barber. This mosque houses the tomb of Abu Zama el-Balaui, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed, an imam who always carried three hairs from the Prophet’s beard around with him. The pretty tile work is Andalusian in style. Green is a dominant color, signifying the color of heaven. When we were there, two brothers, one about 4 years old and the other around two, were waiting in the central courtyard for their circumcision ceremonies. The guide Driss explained that families often wait until the second child is old enough and have both boys done at the same time, thus making the obligatory sacrifice of a sheep more economically palatable. Both boys were dressed identically, with an ivory-colored traditional robe, white slip-on shoes, white headdress, black and yellow headband, white long-sleeve blouse, and a Western black bowtie. Although the younger boy did not seem to understand what was about to happen, the family doted on the two children and welcomed photographs by onlookers.

Passing through opening in the medina walls and past the cemetery, we reached our next destination – the Grand Mosque. The original mosque of this holy city dates back to 670 AD, but most of what stands today was built by the Aghlabids in the 9th century. Although the thick buttressed stone outer walls conveys a rather austere presence, the look changes drastically as you step onto the large inner marble-paved courtyard. The paving slopes gradually to the center, where an intricately decorated central drainage hole (which reminded me of some of the baptismal fonts I saw at Byzantine sites in Tunisia) delivers the collected rainwater into the 9th century cisterns below. At one end of the courtyard is a square three-tiered minaret, with the lowest level built in AD 728. Also in the courtyard was a sundial that helped ascertain the times of prayer. At the opposite end of the courtyard was the prayer hall. The enormous, studded, carved wooden doors were open to catch a glimpse of the interior, with the enormous chandeliers above and woven carpets on the pillared floor below. The roof around the courtyard revealed a beautiful pattern of archways, created with approximately 450 (it is considered bad luck to count them) columns pilfered from the Roman sites in Carthage and Sousse.

El Jem
Moving south, we headed towards one of Tunisia’s star monuments – the Coliseum of El-Jem, now on the United Nation’s World Heritage List. The well-preserved amphitheatre dwarfs the small town of 10,000 inhabitants. Once a thriving market town on the junction of the Sahel’s main trade routes during the 1st century AD, ancient Thysdrus once contained sumptuous villas. Many of the most beautiful mosaics now housed in the Bardo Museum once adorned the floors of Thydrus’ villas. Even in the town’s peak time, the Coliseum’s seating capacity of 30,000 far outweighed the population of the town. Built in the 3rd century AD, the stone structure was once covered with various colored marble, including white marble imported from Italy. Around the inner perimeter in a few places, traces of the marble still could be seen. Like so many other sites, materials were subsequently removed and recycled by succeeding people. No cement was used, but the structure did contain pieces of lead. Typical of other Roman sites, the coliseum was filled with grand arches, impressively held together with keystones. The bright sun cast deep shadows through the arched walkways. Although some areas were recently blocked off, we still were able to meander through the amphitheatre’s many levels, including the underground passageways where animals, gladiators, and other unfortunates were held prior to being thrust into the arena as entertainment for the crowds.

The Olive Pickers
The landscape of Tunisia is lined with neat rows of olive trees. Cultivated since before Roman times, these hardy trees, about 60 million total in Tunisia, added gnarled character to an otherwise rather semi-arid land. The olives are harvested by hand in winter, used for olive oil and for eating. In fact, Tunisia is third worldwide in the production of olive oil. The hard wood with its distinguishing knots and lines is fashioned into bowls, small carvings, and instruments. The older trees – some over 3,000 years old, had trunks that split into two, nearly separate parts. With the knotty gnarled undulating branches, these squat trees reminded me of geriatric people hunched over with arthritis.
While we were driving through the countryside, we spotted some workers harvesting some of the small black olives in a grove alongside the road. Fine nets were used to catch the olives. Women, dressed in bright assortments of patterned dresses, performed additional sifting with handmade plate-sized sifters. Olives were then placed in large, woven baskets, with two women each carrying the heavy load by the two reinforced handles. Children and donkeys also helped out. I would have loved to stay longer and observe the process and take more photos, but the overseer instructed the people to go back to work and we had to continue onward as well.

Still heading south, we stopped at Sfax for a brief tour. The second-largest city in Tunisia has a well-developed port that handles the export of phosphate (nearly 50 million tons/year) from the mines at Gafsa. Many of the products I’ve seen in Tunisia are manufactured or packaged from this coastal city. The rather unspoiled medina, with its wonderful walled entrance, was used as a location in the film The English Patient. Unfortunately, we arrived at a time in which nearly all the shops were closed, removing the rather chaotic liveliness and interest I have come to associate with medinas.

About 137 km southwest of Sfax, we finally arrived in Gabés, a sprawling coastal industrial city. Once the principal Tunisian destination for the great camel caravans that brought gold from West Africa and slaves from Sudan, the city declined until the recent discovery of offshore oil in the gulf and the subsequent construction of a huge petrochemical complex.
Gabés also boasts of a large pelerine, full of date palms and pomegranate trees. The oases are irrigated by thermal underground springs. The naturally hot water also is used in the hammams. Although there are about 100 varieties of dates, the finest is known as deglat enmuor (finger of light), so named because the flesh is almost translucent. Nearly 50% of Tunisia’s dates, harvested in fall, are of this prized variety. Other parts of the date palm tree are also used. Liquid from the top of the trunk is used as a juice or liquor. After the harvest of dates, the dry leaves are cut off and used for fencing and woven items. The area of Gabés, with only about 200 mm of annual rainfall, aside from the pelerine, is quite sparse in vegetation.
Our bus dropped us off in front of the spice market, a rather touristy spot. Piled high in green pyramids, henna powder was for sale. Made by grinding the dried leaves of the henna tree native to the region, the resulting deep red-brown dye is used by Berber women to decorate their hands and feet, as well as to color and condition their hair. Various spices, some labeled in three languages, contributed to the overall color of the market and provided a wonderful aroma. Incense was also burned in some stalls, sold in crude rock-like forms. In addition to the souvenirs of pottery, stuffed camels, and other items found elsewhere in Tunisia, woven goods with Gabés or names of other southern towns crudely embroidered on the sides.
After about 45 minutes of wandering through the stalls, the bus picked us up and took us to our hotel for the night, the Hotel Chems Gabés. It was a long day, filled with many sights and lots of traveling on the bus. Tomorrow we would take the ferry to the island of Jerba.

We boarded the ferry at Jorf to reach Jerba, the island known according to legend as the Land of the Lotus-Eaters. The high winds blew dust over the dry ground. Women wearing the regional red striped dress covered their faces to shield against the gritty dust. With high winds bringing down the temperature and not much to see on the rough waters, I decided to stay inside the bus for the duration of the ferry ride. Our first stop was the pottery village of Guellala. The town got its name, meaning “strange death,” from the legend in which a stone fell on a tent there, instantly killing a girl inside. Although crushed, her face contained a smile. After seeing a demonstration by a young man creating some local-style pottery using a kick-wheel, we were left to explore the shops on our own. The prevailing winds forced us to scurry between shops. For a place touted by the guidebook for rarely dropping below 60°F, it sure seemed a lot colder! Here, we could find tiles as well as glazed and unglazed pottery with the incised lace-like designs characteristic of the local pieces. Of course, pottery from Nabeul was also present, piled high and scattered in-between the local pieces.

Our next stop was the old El-Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in North Africa. Jerba once had a large Jewish community, but after the state of Israel was formed, the numbers have dwindled down to about 700. The Jewish community of Jerba either dates its arrival in Jerba either from 586 BC, following Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem, or from the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 71 AD. Using either date, Jerba has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. The El-Ghriba Synagogue, founded in about 600 AD, has its present structure dating back only to the 1920’s. Columns and striped arches were painted in the bright blue and white – colors so prevalent in many areas of Tunisia such as Sidi Bou Saïd. Brightly patterned tiles adorned the high walls, complemented by the plain green windows and ceiling. An old man with a snowy-white beard and chechia hat reclined on a simple bench as he read the Torah. To enter the room containing one of the oldest Torahs in the world and numerous silver plaques from pilgrims, we had to wear a hat and take off our shoes. Amongst the plaques were notes, likely stuck in between by the many people who make pilgrimages to the site.
The town of Houmt Souq, situated at the center of the north coast, was our next destination. Judging from the number of amenities catering to tourists, it was quite evident that tourism is a major industry here. Fishing is the other main industry of this town of about 65,000 residents. Once again, there were plenty of shops full of souvenirs. Our guide encouraged us to visit the fish market, where we heard two men auctioning off the catch of the day.
Our bus escorted us to the Zone Touristique, an area full of seaside hotels and more being built. The Hotel Coralia, was a large resort hotel with a great view of the sea and its beautiful shore. On the ground level was a large dining area and a bewildering spread of food. Following our satisfying meal, we went for a walk. Outside around the large swimming pool, Europeans baked themselves in the sun, with even older women tanning topless.

Trip to the Jerban farm
Following a contact provided by one of the teachers at school, I called the cell phone number of a young man who lives in Jerba. Indeed, his extended family was eager to receive us and show us their farm. After taking some photos at a staged Berber wedding at the town of Midoun, he took us by taxi to Mahboubine. Driving down narrow lanes edged with tall cactus plants, we finally reached the farm owned by his extended family. Several members of the family, a few of which could speak English, warmly greeted us. Upon hearing that my father had raised dairy cows, one of the older members nicknamed my father “Cowboy Jim”. We toured the farm – very different from the one we had seen in Beja. Some of the palm trees were very tall. Younice explained that some of the trees were over 300 years old. Here the soil was very sandy. Touring the family-owned farm, we went past a water pump house, beehives and a large grove of orange and almond trees, both in blossom. The air was filled with the pleasant fragrance of the orange blossoms. Khadija, one of the elder women we met, proudly picked bunches of the blossoms for each of us to enjoy. As we went past other trees or flowers, she added those to our bouquet as well.

Inside Younice’s house, we met his four sons, wife, and other relatives. The sweet mint tea followed greetings. Khadija then continued the tour, leading us to her house on the opposite side of the inner courtyard. In her simple house were many crocheted or embroidered items. After admiring one of the floral pieces on the wall which Khadija had embroidered, she promptly took it off the wall and presented it to my mother as a gift. She later presented a black plate with a camel on it as a gift to my father. How warm and generous these people were! Khadija pulled out some clothes worn by a wedding couple. She and Younice proceeded in dressing us up, followed by the photo shots. Man, I hadn’t played dress-up in a long time!

We were then invited into the home of an uncle. Although rather new, this house’s outer appearance (still resembling the traditional Jerban architecture) revealed that this family was slightly better off financially. Inside the furniture, furnishings, and a large TV also indicated this. The uncle and his daughter (who could speak some English) showed us the trousseau (hope chest) prominently displayed in one corner of the living room. Inside this box were items passed down from generations and would go to the daughter when she married. Here, we were treated to a glass of juice.

With evening arriving, we thanked everyone for his or her hospitality but indicated that we should go back to the hotel. The family would not hear of it and insisted that we stay for supper. After realizing that our protests were fruitless, we stayed as Younice’s wife began the preparation of couscous. She took my mother and me into the kitchen at each phase of the couscous preparation, explaining in French the process. In between, we went through the well-worn photo albums, full of photos of the family at weddings (including their own) and other candid shots. Due to the large size of the family present, we ate the meal was eaten in shifts. As honored guests, we were in the first shift.

Now 9pm, it definitely was time to go. Thanking everyone once again, we headed outside. Younice led us out on the dark, lit only by the moon and stars. Taking a different route through the farm and narrow roads, we finally reached the paved main road. With one last good-bye, we hopped in a taxi and headed back to the hotel, bouquet and gifts in hand.

After a leisurely breakfast and a stroll on the beach, the group (3 couples of Italians, a Polish-American mother and her daughter, my parents and I) once again loaded our luggage onto the bus and headed towards the ferry dock. This time, the sky was blue and the wind wasn’t quite as strong. The line to the ferry was long, so we were encouraged to get off the bus and look around. Along the fishing port we saw huge stacks of rather round terracotta pots. Fishermen tie these pots together and cast them out on long lines. Once they sink to the bottom, the octopus, which likes to hide in rocky nooks and crannies, crawl into the pots, at which time the fishermen haul the pots to the surface.

Back on the mainland, we once again passed by the Mareth Line and stopped for a few minutes to capture a glimpse of the flavor of the local market in Mareth. As our guide Driss had mentioned, women were dressed in the local costume particular to the area. Red was a dominant color and others wore striped dresses, many covering their head with a white shawl. Instead of the lighter skin I had grown accustomed to in other parts of Tunisia, here many had very dark skin. Against the bright white shawl and brilliant sunlight, this provided an extra contrast that was hard to miss.

Upon leaving Jerba, the palm trees gave way to drier land, dotted with scrub grass and a few stubby, thin trees. About 36 km south of Gabés, we passed through Mareth, a small market town where the scene of the most important battle fought on Tunisian soil during WWII. Originally built by the French in the lead-up to WWII to defend Tunisia against the Italian forces in Libya, the bunkers fell into the hands of the Germans after the fall of France, creating a formidable defensive line along the bank of the local river. Here, amongst the vast network of bunkers, barbed wire, minefields and antitank defenses, the Allies finally pushed back the Germans in March 1943, in a battle that lasted 12 days. A museum now stands at the Mareth Line.

Just 45 kilometers from Gabés, the lunar landscape of the Matmata region might just as well be another planet. It’s no wonder that it became the home planet of Luke Skywalker. Here, the Berbers of Matmata went underground centuries ago to escape the summer heat. When you look across the landscape, it’s rather difficult to even notice that there are any homes around – if it weren’t for the TV antennas. These cave-like dwellings typically consist of a circular central courtyard dug out of the soft limestone, with the rooms tunneled off the perimeter.

Like most of the tourists visiting the area, we went into one of the homes that took visitors. The tall whitewashed stone wall and its entrance contrasted with the shorter inner doors. Around the entrance were painted blue symbols – the hand and the fish. I saw the same symbols around other doors in the area. In the first room were two women – a middle-aged and an older woman, both wearing a scarf around the head and red colored patterned cloth gathered or pinned together to form a dress. The older woman quietly rested as she sat on a thin foam mattress, revealing a bit of her dyed orange hair and tattoo marks on the chin. She was very willing to have photos taken, so I took several photos and gave her a coin. The younger woman, sitting on a kilim rug, demonstrated how she ground flour with a special stone. Stepping out of the sparse entry room, we entered the circular inner courtyard. Peeking into the rooms with rounded ceilings, I was surprised to see two TV’s! Twenty years ago, according to Driss, the area of Matmata was quite isolated. Now you can see satellite dishes, cell phones, running water, and other amenities. About 800 still live in the troglodyte pit homes.

Continuing onward, we stopped to get a view of the hilltop village of Tamezret. Just 13 km west from Matmata, the homes here are built above ground using the abundant local rock. If we would have had time, a walk to the top of the village would likely have yielded a wonderful panoramic view of the surrounding area. Around the area, fragile flowers, trees, and clumps of grass grew in areas that received collected rainwater. The further we got from Tamezret, the drier it became, with short scrub brush replacing any trees seen eastward. Occasionally, one would see a few palm trees and flowers in tiny pockets. Signs with a camel indicating that this was a camel crossing area were posted. In one instance we did see a large herd of camels being led across the road. Built as a first defense against desertification (the Sahara grows by over 3 meters each year), fences constructed of palm tree branches and other materials helped contain the rippled sand from spreading faster. Piled quite high in areas, the fence reminded me of the snow fences placed in Wisconsin to help stop the snowdrifts. Other ways of halting desertification have been discussed at international conferences. After all, desertification is an issue that affects people worldwide and has far-reaching implications. Traveling from the east to the west really emphasizes how narrow Tunisia is (only 260 km wide) and how diverse its ecosystems are. Soon we would be heading into the desert.

Douz – Gateway to the Desert
Lying on the northeastern edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, the town of Douz is often called the gateway to the desert. Amongst all the sand, it was amazing to think that the largest of all the Tunisian desert oases, with more than 400,000 palm trees, produced so many of the prized deglat ennour dates and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Here, we joined other tourists as we headed towards a large herd of camels waiting for riders to go for a trek 30 minutes or longer. Already riding a camel once before in Timbuktu, I knew what to expect as the camel began its awkward move to a standing position. For others including my parents, this was their first time. All were fascinated by the strange sounds that some of the camels made, as well as the subsequent sight of the camel’s long tongue quivering out of the side of its mouth. It is amazing to think that a camel can go for around 3 months in the winter with no water and 15 days in summer. Many of the camels were tied together with a second camel, enabling the camel guide to lead two at once. Not only did I have a solo camel, I also had the most interesting guide. A short man (not even up to my shoulders) with tanned, aged skin and a short white moustache, a kaki green strip of lightweight cloth was tied to form a loose hood and a tan loose-fitting garment ended slightly above his sandaled feet. Carrying a walking stick, he quietly walked slightly ahead of the camel, every once in a while gently adjusting the ropes around the camel’s face. Occasionally he would balance the stick over his shoulders in a relaxed pose.

The Chott El-Jerid
About 28 km north of Douz and one of the main towns prior to crossing the Chott, Kebili was a good place to spend the night. Although we didn’t have time to explore the town, I did enjoy the beautiful carved plaster designs in and around the dining hall. The ancient town of Kebili, according to Driss, was Rome’s second slave trade city in Tunisia. Some Roman mosaics and sites have been found here. Hot thermal springs are still used in the hammams, the public bathhouses. Early the next morning, we began crossing the Chott, an immense salt lake (once part of the Mediterranean Sea) covering an area of almost 6,700 sq km. Stretching in a series of salt lakes from the Gulf of Gabés westward into the Algerian city of Biskra, the Chott takes up a huge amount of land.

Having read that the Chott El-Jerid can create some stunning optical effects (such as mirages) in the radiant Tunisian heat, it was disappointing to see the overcast sky. Ever closer to the Chott, the sparse, scrubby vegetation soon gave way to nothingness. Carthage was the unfortunate recipient of this destructive material, when Rome sprinkled the salt on the city as punishment for its defiance. Now, the salt is put to good use; around 350-420 tons of it is exported to Scandinavian countries as road salt, and some now is used as table salt. Huge piles of salt dotted the lake that had mostly dried up. Along the way we passed some tourists floating on their backs, enjoying the buoyancy of the salt and the hot spring water. On one side of the flat paved road, a rowboat lay stranded on the dry salt lake next to the rose-colored water. The scene reminded me of frozen lakes in a Wisconsin winter, except for the unnatural-looking colored water that had not yet dried up. Around the edges, salt began to crystallize and form interesting shapes. To one side was a huge mound of salt with a Tunisian flag on top. As I crossed the flat road, there was a large stand with more tourist goods, including the “sand roses,” formed of gypsum that has dissolved from the sand and then crystallized into patterns that resemble flower petals. The primitive Berber doll and leather camel were just too interesting to pass up. The water on this side of the road was colored a deep turquoise.

After traveling a distance through the totally barren chott, a large pelerine became visible in the distance. Soon we would enter Tozeur, one of the most popular travel destinations in Tunisia. After reading some books on Tunisia and seeing photos of Tozeur, I was eager to see the elaborate brickwork in that distinguishes the town. Once part of a defensive line that guarded the southwestern boundaries of Roman Africa, the town prospered during the great trans-Saharan route between the 14th and 19th centuries.

The Tozeur Pelerine
Prior to visiting the old town, we took a horse-cart drawn tour through a section of the pelerine. Tozeur’s pelerine is the second largest in the country with around 260,000 palm trees spread over an area around 10 km. Each section is privately owned. In addition to date palm trees, the section we visited had bananas, fig trees, pomegranate, and orange trees – now in fragrant blossom. The air inside the pelerine seemed fresher and cooler: in the summer, it may be only around 70° in the pelerine, while outside it may be around 120°! The Tozeur pelerine is watered by more than 200 springs that produce almost 60 million liters of water a day. Using a complex system devised by a mathematician in the 13th century AD, each tree receives water for 6-7 hours a week. Driss added that there are over 3,600 distributors of water such as the pipes we saw that distribute the thermal water. Around each tree the ground was mounded into a short wall, preventing the water from flowing away.

Once we were deeper into the pelerine, we stopped for a demonstration. To guarantee the best date and largest quantity, the male tree reproductive part is cut and put into the female treetop. Bees then do the rest, completing the pollination. By counting the “steps” of the tree bark and knowing that 2 steps equals one year, you could determine the age of a tree. A worker in the pelerine demonstrated how quickly and adeptly he could climb up to the top of the tree to reach the dates, using his bare feet to secure footing on the rough peaked shape of the bark. An Italian tour member tried to climb up with his shoes – it just didn’t work. The workers of the pelerine get a percentage of the date harvest, up to 50%.

Mountain Oasis Villages
As a side trip, the group went to visit the old Berber mountain oasis villages of Tamerza and Chebika. Situated close to the Algerian border in the rugged Jebel en-Nageb ranges, the villages were once part of a Roman defensive line to keep out marauding Saharan tribes. Because the Berbers communicated with mica mirrors, the Romans called it the “castle of lights.” These villages, along with nearby Midès, were abandoned after the region was hit by devastating torrential rains that lasted for over a week in 1969. These freak rains turned the earthen homes to mud and forced the villagers to move to nearby settlements hastily constructed nearby. Due to the narrow, windy roads and rugged terrain, we traveled the 60 km from Tozeur by 4WD. As we reached the parking lot at Chebika, I was disappointed to see the numbers of other 4WD tourist vehicles. We would definitely not be alone.

On the way to the old village of Chebika, one could see all the box-like, soulless concrete dwellings constructed after the floods. I can understand why the people were resistant to moving into them. Chebika means “spring” in Berber, named because of the small spring-fed thermal stream that flows from a pretty little gorge down to the pelerine. Still standing amongst the melted mud-brick ruins of the village was a small square building with a domed roof. Here, the imam of the village was to protect the village and warn them of any dangers. He couldn’t protect them from the rains though. Moving past the abandoned town, we continued up through the narrow gorge. Along the way, boys and young men held up mica and pretty stones, hoping for some sales. From the higher vantage point, one could see the likely path of the thermal spring – a mountain oasis of date palms, surrounded on either side by barren mountains.

Further north about 16 km, we headed by 4WD to the largest of the mountain oasis villages – Tamerza. High on an adjacent area, we could see the shell of the old walled town. Near the front of the town was a freshly painted domed building, contrasting against with the devastated brown shells of the mud brick village. Behind the village was the spring-fed pelerine, which locals claim produces the finest dates in Tunisia. Just 6 km from Tamerza, Midès stood high above a dramatic gorge. Only 1 km from the Algerian border, the stunning gorge has been used as a setting for many movies, including The English Patient.

On the way back to Tozeur, we stopped to get a view of a larger waterfall in a gorge below us. Next to the waterfall was a larger tourist shop. Driss explained that the homes in the distance were in Algeria. Above us we heard a military helicopter patrolling the border.

The Medina of Tozeur
Although used in the Berber rugs and architecture of the area, the diamond shape, a symbol of power, can be traced back to the Byzantines. In the 14th century medina, we once again were treated to a maze of narrow alleys. Instead of the white-walled buildings, traditional brickwork used protruding bricks to create intricate relief patterns. In the ceilings of the covered alleys, we could see the date palm tree trunks that were used as ceiling supports. The diamond was frequently used as a motif. This style is found only in Tozeur and in nearby Nefta. The pattern created by a variation in brick height and arrangement was enhanced by the angle of the bright sun.
After our stroll of the medina, we toured the Dar Charait Museum. Here we saw a series of replicas of scenes from the Tunisian life, past and present. Rooms included the bedroom of the last bey, a palace scene, a typical kitchen, a hammam, and wedding scenes with the beautiful local costumes. In one room was a fountain with an eight-sided star bottom. Driss explained that the 8-sided star is an Arab symbol (cultural and not necessarily tied to religion), which was derived from the Chinese, while the 5-sided star is Moslem.

The next day, we headed north towards Sbeitla, passing through the region of Gafsa. Although Gafsa also has a date palmeraie as well as pistachios, but its main export these days is phosphates. Ever since the French discovered around 1886 that the hills west of Gafsa were made almost entirely of phosphates, the area has steadily been turned into a large mine. A layer of fine, grey dust coats the area and the phosphate runoff causes pollution both in the region of Gafsa as well as the coastal areas from where it’s exported to the US and other countries as fertilizer and for chemicals. In fact, Tunisia is the world’s 6th largest producer of phosphates.

Putting on a few more layers to shield us from the strong winds, we got out of the bus and walked over to the Roman site of Sbeitla. As the site is around 50 hectares, we weren’t able to tour it in its entirety in the short time we were there. However, it was quite apparent that Sbeitla was an important, prosperous city for the Romans. The region was an important crossing point area in ancient times, centrally located between Morocco and the rest of Roman North Africa. The ideal olive growing conditions ensured that Sbeitla continued long after other Roman towns declined. Olive oil and golden marble were exported to Rome, while white Italian marble was brought to Tunisia. Sbeitla also became an important center of Christianity during the 4th century.

From a distance, the three temples were prominent in both scale and state of preservation. Unlike other capitols where a niche was created in the one building for each god, this one was split into three temples, one for each god. Prior to the temple area, we viewed the ruins of the great baths. Because the floors were collapsed, we were able to distinguish the under-floor heating system. Like other baths, Driss explained that this one had both hot and cold baths to help bathers adjust to the vastly different temperatures between winter and summer. A cistern acting as a reserve for the baths was visible nearby. Fragments of gypsum and volcanic rock were seen on the walls, acting as insulation for the hot water. Due to adequate rainfall and spring water, the area did not have to concern itself for with a water supply as other places had.

Amongst the Roman ruins were remnants of the Byzantines. A Byzantine military fort was partially visible, containing stones recycled from the Roman site. Olive presses, business remnants, and private baths (with a beautiful fish mosaic) were seen. Driss explained that some of the structures were once 5-6 meters high. Following the well-preserved Roman roads, we entered the main complex through the magnificent triple-arched Antonine Gate, built in 139 AD. From this vantage point, the arches framed the upcoming temples, a converging point for the two main roads. The gate opens onto a large paved forum flanked by two rows of columns which lead up to the temples. The middle temple was dedicated to Zeus. The better-preserved left temple was dedicated to Juno and the right one was dedicated to Minerva. Column tops formed as a composite of both Corinthian and Ionic styles were observed here.

As we head towards the theatre, we saw remnants of pipes in the walls near a Roman road. Driss explained that terracotta pipes were later used to carry water to the citizens of Sbeitla. Unfortunately, lead in pipes and other utensils had been used for so long by the Romans that it likely was one of the contributing causes of Rome’s downfall. Some of the walls were topped off by recent restorations, contrasting with the state of the excavated areas. While it looked neater, the restored areas looked rather artificial to me.

Continuing on, we entered the site of the two basilicas. The Basilica of Bellator was built in the 4th century on top of an unidentified pre-Roman temple. In an adjoining chapel was the basilica’s baptistery. The full-immersion baptistery had its white mosaic tiles recently restored. A beautiful lotus leaf mosaic was visible in front of the plain white baptistery. The nearby Basilica of St. Vitalis was built during the 6th century AD. Although not much of the larger basilica remains, the beautiful baptismal basin was a sight to behold. Left in situ in the ground, the rim is decorated with an intricate floral mosaic in brilliant reds and greens.
Our last stop in the Sbeitla site was the theatre. About 57 meters wide, the theatre is the lowest part of the site. The temples, by contrast, are the highest, signifying their strength and importance. We were told that the theatre had good acoustics. Unfortunately, a busload of kids had just arrived, instantly filling the small theatre with active voices and bodies. The theatre was built in a prime location overlooking the river that kept it slightly cooler in summer. Original excavations uncovered the orchestra pit and some columns, but recent restoration has completed the seating as well.
In the distance we could see the Atlas Mountains. There, Eisenhower and Patton successfully stopped the Germans during WWII. Now back on the bus, we began the journey of 105 km to Kairouan.

Kairouan (part two)
The Moslem holy city of Kairouan became our stopping point on the way back to Hammamet. Here, we stopped for the obligatory carpet demonstration. The carpet seller explained that the women who weaved the carpets worked by memory on a design. The woman working at the loom was creating a rug containing 60,000 knots per square meter. One square meter would take about a month’s time. The kilim is a woven and embroidered rug done by Berber women using vegetable dyes. The mergoum style rug features very bright, geometric designs, with bold use of reds, purples, blues, and other vivid colors. Berber women also weave these rugs. The carpet seller explained that the mergoum rug is worked from the back side. One woman usually weaves and the other embroiders. As we sipped our complimentary mint tea, the carpet seller and his assistants unrolled and placed various rugs in front of us. Designs, colors, and styles varied. The carpet seller explained the meanings of some of the designs and repeated that blue often signified the sky and green was a symbol of Paradise. The silk rugs were especially pretty, containing about 250,000 knots per square meter in these shimmering carpets. Seeing that the carpets were out of our desired spending range, we decided to head on and wander the medina. I did take my parents through a part of the medina including the Mosque of the Three Doors, founded in 866 AD by a holy man from the Spanish city of Cordoba. The mosque’s three arched doorways are topped by the three friezes of kufic (early Arabic) script, as well as floral reliefs, all carved in stone. I wish we had more time, so we could meander the maze-like narrow streets, but a schedule dictated we had to once again board the bus.

Day trip to Sousse, Mahdia, and Monastir
After saying goodbye to our Italian group and American mother/daughter team, my parents and I departed by 4WD and headed early the next morning south along the coast to Mahdia. The town of Mahdia now claims sardine fishing and tourism as its main industries. Much of the medina’s original walls were gone, blown up by the Spanish troops in 1550 when they abandoned the city to the Turks. The original Fatimid mosque was also destroyed in the process. Located on the tip of the peninsula of Mahdia, the large fortress Borj-el-Kebir stood on the highest point. Aside from the panoramic views of the city and the clear water, there wasn’t much left to see in the fort. We then entered the main part of the medina and wandered around for a bit.

Heading north again, our next stop was Monastir. Hungry, we had lunch next to the port. We then toured Monastir’s star attraction – an immaculately preserved ribat complex, regarded as Tunisia’s finest example of Islamic military architecture. Our tour guide took us through the small museum of Islamic art. We then explored the assorted ramps and stairs on our own. After climbing up the narrow, winding stairs of the nador (watch tower) built in 796 AD, we were treated to some great views of the coastline in one direction and the Bourgiba mausoleum in the other. The sun tried to peak through the clouds, highlighting my favorite part of the complex – the wall with the large ramp. It wasn’t difficult to imagine this building as one in Palestine. The movie directors of Life of Christ and Monty Python’s Life of Brian both used it to shoot scenes, seeing the ribat as an excellent example of authentic Islamic architecture. After the tour of the ribat, we then headed to the nearby mausoleum of the country’s first president, Bourguiba. No expense was spared on the building. A large walkway of decorative paving blocks led up to the domed building. Inside, a three-ton chandelier hung above the tomb. Marble from Italy and granite from Scotland adorned the building. Along the sides were niches decorated with gold leaf mosaic. In an adjoining room were some photos and memorabilia of Bourguiba’s including a pen from Ronald Reagan.

Our final stop was Sousse. Here, we toured the excellent archaeological museum. In addition to having some great Punic stones, the star attractions are the mosaics including the Triumph of Bacchus. Still needing some gifts, my parents were interested in doing more shopping. After hearing some ridiculous prices by some vendors, they decided instead to purchase things at a fixed price shop. Gifts in hand, they were ready to call it a successful trip. Indeed, it had been a great week.

Side Notes:

Berber Weddings
While on the bus, our guide Driss provided an overview of the traditional weddings. A marriage begins with an agreement signed and arranged by the parents, often at a young age. About 3,000TD is given to the mausoleum by the husband’s family, at which time the contract is signed. The husband also provides a dowry of jewelry (sometimes over a kilogram in weight) and around 6 dresses, embroidered with silk and often between 150-200 TD apiece. Prior to the ceremony, the woman, who must be a virgin, rests for 20 days in a dark room or cave. Here she is to eat a lot of food and should become as fat as possible.
The mother-in-law, after determining if the bride-to-be is fat enough, then takes her to a hammam. Here, the potential bride is purified. After this, a henna ceremony, lasting three days, is perform. Henna, applied to the hands and feet, purportedly brings good luck and wards off the evil spirits.
On the wedding day, the bride wears a dress she has embroidered herself (or by another person) and all the jewelry she has. The bride arrives at the wedding ceremony in a tent-like structure on the back of a camel. In town, the ceremony goes on late in the night – around 3 am. Large numbers of guests attend the wedding festival, which lasts up to 7 days. Imagine all the food the family must have to cook!

Nomads of Tunisia
Tunisia still has about 2,000 nomads, all registered with the government. These nomads are important to the country’s economy. Many raise sheep, which are used for their wool and meat. Others raise cows (for beef) or camels (skins). Camels are worth quite a bit – about 1,500-2,000 TD per camel. As we traveled in the South, low tents in a dark brown color could be seen in the distance. Along the roads in the South, we could see stacks of gasoline in plastic jugs. Given permission by the government to haul the gasoline from cities and then sell it in the rural areas, this service is likely appreciated by both the nomadic seller as well as their customers.

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