Below is part one of my travelogue on my trip with my parents to the
Tunisian South. I hope you enjoy it!
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 Tunisia¹s 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 city¹s 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 Prophet¹s 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
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.
Moving south, we headed towards one of Tunisia¹s star monuments the
Coliseum of El-Jem, now on the United Nation¹s 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 Sahel¹s 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 Thydrus¹ villas. Even in the town¹s peak time, the
Coliseum¹s 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
amphitheatre¹s 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 I¹ve 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 Tunisia¹s
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.