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Melissa's Trip to the Tunisian South: Part 4 - Tozeur and Sbeitla


From: Melissa Enderle (melissaenderle_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Thu Apr 15 2004 - 22:53:31 PDT

Dear all,

Below is the 4th part of my long travelogue of my spring break trip to the
Tunisian south. This time, I will be focusing on Tozeur (with its beautiful
ornate brickwork), its palmaerie, two mountain oasis villages near the
Algerian border where a part of English Patient was filmed, and the Roman
site of Sbeitla. I hope you enjoy it!
I will be posting photos on my website as soon as I have the time.

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. Tozeurıs 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 ³steps² 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 didnıt 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 ³castle of lights.²
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
³spring² 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 couldnıt 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 itıs exported to the US and other countries as fertilizer and for
chemicals. In fact, Tunisia is the worldıs 6th largest producer of
            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 werenıt 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 Romeıs 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 basilicaıs 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.