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Weekend trip to central Tunisia - Kairouan, Monastir, El Jem - part one of two


From: Melissa Enderle (melissaenderle_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Thu Dec 05 2002 - 10:09:43 PST

Thanksgiving Weekend Trip to Kairouan, El Jem
            This Thanksgiving weekend, I journeyed to central Tunisia with a
teaching couple and their son. 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
guide book called ³central Tunisia.²

                        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 Monastirıs 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 sea-side 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 Nationıs 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.
Many of the magnificent mosaics which adorned the homes of this city that
distributed goods between the coast and the interior are now enjoyed by
visitors in the Bardo Museum. After spending some time looking in shops and
bargaining for a few purchases, we drove back to Monastir for the night.