Melissa's Trip to the Tunisian South: Part 3 - Matmata, Douz, and the Chott El JeridThank you, Melissa, for sharing your trips - I would so love to go to that area of the world.
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From: Melissa Enderle
To: ArtsEdNet Talk
Sent: Thursday, April 15, 2004 1:50 AM
Subject: Melissa's Trip to the Tunisian South: Part 3 - Matmata, Douz, and the Chott El Jerid
Below is the 3rd section of my trip. Several sites in this area were used in movies such as Star Wars and The English Patient.
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. ---