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Weekend trip to central Tunisia - Kairouan, Monastir, El Jem - Part 2 of 2


From: Melissa Enderle (melissaenderle_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Sat Dec 07 2002 - 05:50:36 PST

Here is the second part of the trip. You can view photos at:

The next morning we headed to Kairouan, Tunisiaıs holy city. It ranks behind
only Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem among Islamıs holiest cities. According to
legend, when a golden goblet (mysteriously disappeared from Mecca) was
picked up after being stumbled on by a horse walking in the sand, water
sprang up. People believe that the water source was the same that supplied
the holy well of Zem-Zem in Mecca. Kairouanıs name comes from the Arabic
word qayrawan, meaning Œmilitary camp.ı Founded in 670 AD, Kairouanıs medina
is still the heart of the city and is quite authentic and colorful. It was
pleasurable exploring the multitude of narrow streets, peering in the shops
and taking in the details of architecture or the traditional costumes of
passers-by. Although we had locals eager to be our tour-guide, we decided to
meander on our own.

The Great Mosque

Once in the walled medina, one of our first stops was the Great Mosque,
dating back to the 9th century. Very plain and fortress-like on the outside,
the appearance changed drastically once through the main doors. The huge
marble-paved courtyard was surrounded by an arched colonnade, composed of
columns salvaged from various Roman and Byzantine sites. Closed to
non-Muslims, I could only catch a glimpse of the magnificent prayer hall
through the opened carved cedar doors. Huge conical chandeliers hung from
the ceiling. Ornamental carpets were spread over the floor. Woven mats were
gathered around the bases of columns.
The Zaouia and Islamic cemetery
Moving on, we stopped at an Islamic cemetery. Whitewashed, the simple graves
were unadorned, except for some calligraphic writing on a few. We then
stopped in the Zaouia of Sidi Abid elıGhariani. Recently restored, the
building dates from the 14th century and contains some fine stucco and
woodcarving. The small marble patterned courtyard was framed by thin columns
and arches. The black and white striped arches reminded me of Moorish
architecture. In a small room with a beautifully wooden carved ceiling, the
tomb of the Hafsid sultan Moulay Hassan who ruled from 1525-1543 was on
Carpet Shopping
Once again meandering through the narrow passageways, a man approached us,
eager to take us to a rug shop. Once inside an upstairs room, we were
encouraged to sit down and enjoy a cup of sweet mint tea as the store clerk
and his assistants began unrolling rugs lining the perimeters of the room.
Some of the wool rugs for which Kairouan is so famous were in the knotted
style and others were woven. Prices varied by number of knots per square
meter and quality of the weave ­ although the clerk was reluctant to begin
quoting prices until he was satisfied that we had seen a sufficient number
of examples. After another cup of tea and intense bargaining, the teaching
couple with whom I had been traveling purchased a woven rug with traditional

Typical of Saturdays in Kairouan, there was intense activity going on inside
a dark, narrow souk. In heavy, heated Arabic, an exchange of dialogue and
money took place between the local buyers and sellers of carpets. If only I
had a supply of cash, knowledge of good prices for carpets, and the ability
to speak Arabic, I too could have engaged in the process and come away with
a famous Kairouan carpet. Perhaps another timeŠOutside the souk, a short man
was busily piling rugs onto his donkey cart, no doubt to be sold elsewhere
for larger sums. Soon the pile rose higher than the man.
Traditional market
            With the rains from the previous evening, the heavily traveled
street of the main market quickly turned into mud. Trucks and donkey carts
quickly unloaded their goods, including veggies, fruit, bread, eggs, and
other items. Clothes, electronics, plastics, Pokémon items and other cheap
plastic toy trinkets were also displayed. An old man was particularly
enthralled by the rotating blades of a toy helicopter, unconcerned that one
of the blades was broken. More men and women were wearing traditional
clothing. Some of the Berber womenıs faces and hands were tatooed with
traditional Berber symbols. Many drove on motorbikes while others rode on
donkey-pulled carts. At times, three people crammed on to a bicycle.
Amazingly, even a small girl sleeping managed to hold on as the bike was
pedaled forward. Around noon, we had a quick snack of local bread. Coarse
and grainy, the flat bread didnıt seem to be composed of any flour or yeast.
As we were sitting on a doorstep eating the bread, a few young boys came up
to us, rather curious and eager for their photo to be taken.
Medina walk
            As in other more traditional medinas, the Kairouan medina is
divided into souks. For example, one souk would be devoted to perfumes,
where one could purchase jasmine extract, locally made versions of Chanel
and beautiful glass perfume bottles. Another souk dealt with fabric, where
one could buy the fabric, buttons in another shop, and tailors in still
another. Other souks were devoted to creating and repairing shoes, weaving,
carpentry, and more.

            Common t o many medinas, the streets in Kairouan were very
narrow. Some of the streets contained arched upper dwellings that joined the
buildings at both sides. Many of the doors were painted in various tints of
bright blue, apparently believed to ward off mosquitoes. The hand of Fatima
was a common component of many doors, believed to bring good luck. For homes
of one family, one hand would be on the door; for two families, two hands
would proudly be displayed. Barber shops were busy, giving customers an
extra close shave in the old-fashioned chair. While on our walk, we went
past the Mosque of the 3 Doors. Built in 866, the main attraction of the
mosque is the elaborate façade. The mosqueıs three arched doorways are
topped by three friezes of kufic (early Arabic) script interspersed with
floral relief and crowned with a carved cornice.
Back to Monastir
            Hungry and tired, we were ready to head back to Monastir. We
passed a few abandoned industrial buildings, remnants of the French colonial
times. The terrain was flat and rather sahel-like, with more scrub brush
than olive groves. Flocks of sheep were scattered through out the
countryside. Few villages were seen, all with simple homes. Anxious to pass
slow-moving vehicles, some drivers took great risks, sometimes narrowly
missing oncoming traffic. The overcast sky dominating the dayıs weather
began getting darker, with rain imminent. Shortly after we reached the
hotel, the gentle rain began. It was a good time for a nice hot relaxing
time in the Jacuzzi.
            Saturday morning was once again sunny. Prior to our departure,
we decided to tour the ribat complex, regarded as Tunisiaıs finest example
of Islamic military architecture. It is a favorite for film directors
seeking authentic Islamic architecture. Scenes from ³Life of Christ² and the
Monty Python movie ³Life of Brian² were filmed here. Although originally
built in 796 AD, the fortress has undergone numerous remodeling. Like the
ribat in Sousse, there is a large central courtyard. On each corner is a
tower. Slits for arrow shooting and other military defenses were visible.
Assorted ramps and steps provided access to the ramparts. One hallway had
arched columns, probably taken from Roman sites. Some of the rooms were
quite dark and small, while others were of modest size. Navigating through
the place, we found the stairs leading up the circular nador (watch tower),
part of the original building. Climbing the narrow stairs, we were treated
to a great view (but very windy) of the surrounding area. The nearby port,
fishing boats, and beaches were seen off one side. Directly ahead was the
Bourgiba family Masoleum capped in a gold dome, our other destination.

            Thanking the friendly staff and complementing them on the
well-preserved nature of the ribat, we headed down the ornamental brick path
to the Bourgiba masoleum where the body of Tunisiaıs first president lies in
state. The entrances were guarded by friendly uniformed men. Hearing that we
were from the US, they began to recite in halted English the political
leaders of the US, including Bush, Cheney, and Powell. The inside was quite
opulent, including huge marble pillars from Portugal. In one room, photos,
clothing, documents and personal items, and a pen from Ronald Reagan were
displayed. Judging from the splendor of the place and the presence of a
street named after Habib Bourgiba in nearly every town Iıve visited, it was
quite apparent how beloved this visionary leader was.

            Back at the hotel, we had a simple lunch of crackers and fresh
fruit. After thanking the hotel staff for their hospitality, we headed back
to Tunis, satisfied with our purchases and sights.