That’s us above, in the Sahara at sunset, riding camels while taking this picture.

 

The trip was handled by TunisUSA.  Jerry Sorkin, its president, arranged everything personally for us and accommodated every wish we had - even on very short notice. It was one of the best planned, most efficient trips we have ever taken and we’d highly recommend him.

 

On the left is a map of Tunisia with our GPS tracks in green. We drove a total of 1900 miles. Note the proximity to Sicily and Malta. The borders are in yellow (Algeria to the west and Libya to the east).

 

 

 

 

 

A little bit of Tunisian history in Phoenician/ Roman times.

 

The most famous city was Carthage, home to the Hannibal who crossed France and the Alps with elephants to attack the Romans in 217 BCE. He also took 90,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry along on that outing, on which only 23,000 made it. They managed to defeat a Roman army of 80,000 anyway. More wars took place before the Romans really got mad (Cato ended each speech on any subject with: “By the way, I think we should destroy Carthage”). The Romans completely destroyed the city of Carthage in 146 BCE so that it could never recover.

 

The fertile Mediterranean coast became the bread basket for the Romans who established important centers; the ruins and mosaics are still spectacular sites today.

 

 

 

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Tunisia is a fascinating country with an incredibly rich history.

 

The Berbers were there before everyone else and they are still there. Then the Phoenicians came and the Berbers assimilated, sort of. The city of Carthage was founded at 814 BCE.

 

The aqueduct/reservoirs for Carthage shown on the left are being excavated.

 

The Phoenicians gave the Romans a lot of trouble. After several (Punic) wars, the Romans finally conquered them in 146 BCE. In the 5th c.  CE, the Vandals came and lived up to their name.

 

In the 7th c.  CE, Islam took over. It was from here that Islam spread to the western Mediterranean.

 

 

 

Tunisia has an unbelievable number of beautiful Roman and Byzantine mosaics. On the right is one from the famous Bardo museum in Tunis showing the scene from the Odyssey where Odysseus listens to the Sirens while being tied to the mast so they can’t control him and his companions have their ears sealed with wax so they can’t hear them. The background for this site shows the same picture. The Bardo Museum has 14,000 mosaics in its cellars that have never been hung!

 

 

 

The city of Bulla Regia began in 500 BCE.

 

It grew rich on wheat exports and peaked in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.

 

These are part of the excavations of the huge bath complex.

 

Most of the tourists are European and they go to Tunisia’s beautifully landscaped beach resorts on package tours – two million in July/August alone! Few venture inland except for day trippers to the desert from the Island of Jerba.

 

As we were mostly inland, we had Tunisia to ourselves!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bulla Regia is the only example from classical times of a subterranean city.

 

To deal with intense summer heat and winter cold, the first floor was put underground. This is a courtyard with rooms radiating off of it that would be normal for a Roman house if it were at ground level. The court allowed light and air to enter the lower rooms. A large dining room with a floor of mosaics would be the main room. Bedrooms and a guest room would be other rooms.

 

The floor above had the same room arrangement.

 

 

Dougga is a World Heritage Site.

 

 It is in a setting unlike any other in ancient Rome: it overlooks plains while its streets zigzag up the hill to the capitol at the top (left).

 

The ruins are very complete with a large theater, baths, brothel (still with pay booth and small rooms off the courtyard), 21 temples, villas, and public toilets.

 

The site with its natural springs has been occupied since 2000 BCE. It peaked between the 2nd and 4th centuries when it was home to 5000.

 

This is the view from the forum up to the capitol, whose walls are 30’ high.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mustis is an example of a very rich village. It had large baths, streets, everything but a capitol.

 

Looking down the street here, the shops would have had the homes of the shop keepers above them – as is the case currently in Tunisia.

 

 

 

On the road to Makthar (left) we passed the place where Hannibal was finally defeated by the Romans during the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE (easily remembered by the mnemonics “Zama O Zama”).

 

Makthar is special because it is the only ruined city that has a complete schola juvenum. The school is complete with three “classrooms.”

 

Even better, it has an oval building with booths still visible at both ends. It was at such a place in every city that taxes were paid at one end and alms given to the poor at the other. Archeologists had known this type of building existed, but until the excavations here had never seen one.

 

 

 

 

Sbeitla was a 1st c.  CE Roman city.

 

During Roman times this city’s area grew olives that were traded with mainland Italy.

 

This is the Capitol. Each Roman city had a temple to the same three gods. This is the only city with a temple for each god: left for Minerva, center for Jupiter, and right for Juno.

 

These were right off the forum and market.

 

In the 6th c. CE Sbeitla was occupied by the Byzantines leaving the Basilica of St. Vitalis that has a wonderful baptismal basin rimmed in a floral mosaic.

 

 

 

Here we’re “hiding” in the ruins of Sbeitla eating wonderful bread and not so wonderful processed cheese for lunch. We traveled during Ramadan which wasn’t the easiest thing to do as the devout Muslims fast from sunup to sundown and it is rude to eat in front of them (as they are hungry). As Yvonne has done in Syria and Jordan, in Tunisia she again wore her Indian Muslim clothing.

 

Sbeitla was established in the 1st c. CE on the site of an early Numidian town. The Byzantines made this their regional capital and transformed it into a military stronghold from which to confront the area’s rebellious Berbers. In 647 the Arabs destroyed much of the city.

 

 

 

 

In Bir El Hafey, our guide Hamadi showed us a site he excavated a few years ago using locals to help. They now “guard” the site.

 

Our guide Hamadi has exceptional credentials: Oxford education in history and archeology and post-graduate training in the US and Canada.

 

Whenever we picked up a pottery shard, he immediately identified it – which ethnic group – and dated it precisely!

 

It was just a little village, but whom ever had this bath had a wonderful one!

 

 

The guidebook is right when it states “Tozeur is one of the undoubted highlights of Tunisia with its distinctive brick old town and the second largest palmeraie in the country.” We used Tozeur as our base for a few days of touring oases.

 

We stayed in the very beautiful Dar Charait Hotel. A local Berber man collected ethnic clothing, tools, house wares, everything and created a wonderful museum where mannequins are used to show how things were worn and used. He saved the money he got from entrance fees and built this hotel. It took three years because the wood and plaster inside are done in traditional style.

 

Here Hamadi is on the left of our Toyota Land Rover and Chouchen, our driver is on the right. They spoiled us. Both are Berbers, now a minority group in Tunisia, which added interest to our trip.

 

 

 

 

Tamerza is one of the more famous of the ancient Berber villages.

 

The Romans built a line of these villages across the south of the country to keep out marauding Saharan tribes.

 

These villages were occupied until 1969 when 22 days of torrential rains turned the buildings into mud and the people moved to hastily-built homes near by.

 

It’s said that the best dates in Tunisia come from here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between the desert oases Chebika and Nefta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chott El Jerid (Salt Sea) is an immense 5000 sq km salt lake.

 

It is dry much of the year – this bit of water along the 6’ high elevated highway was due to recent rain.

 

We stopped at the only gift stand on the road across it - the boat is there for tourist photos.

 

 

We were the only people at our stop when suddenly - here came the tourists! Egad! We split as quickly as we could jump in the car! It made us really appreciate being just with Hamadi and Chouchen!

 

 Day tourists come in convoys from beach resorts, stop for a moment and then quickly…go to their next stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stopped at a little oasis. As it had rained a bit the week before the sand was firmer than usual so we had a walk around.

 

 

 

This is in the Sahara desert at an oasis called Ksar Ghilane (this part of the Sahara is called the Grand Erg Oriental).

 

We stayed in a beautiful tented camp (our tent had a complete bathroom) and took a 5-mile roundtrip camel ride to an old Roman fort for sunset.

 

The title page for this website shows a camel shadow photo that we took on this ride.

 

This is looking back at our oasis.

 

 

 

From the Sahara we crossed into “Berberland” (Jebel Dahar).

 

The Berbers have been farmers for thousands of years – they don’t want to be considered the same as the nomadic Arab Bedouin. They were here long before the Phoenicians came in 500 BCE.

 

Their crops were stored in the upper rooms and the people lived in the lower rooms. The entire area was fortified for their protection.

 

The picture on the right is at Ksar Haddada which was used in Star Wars IV – A New Hope. Our guide has worked with Lucas who directed the movie.

 

 

 

We enjoyed going into several of these Berber villages as each one was different.

 

Hamadi brought us to this one, Khiber, because archeologists found two tunnels that had been closed off.

 

It’s thought that the tunnels would have been a couple of miles long to go to the next Berber village.

 

Romans often chased the Berbers into their villages and then placed the village in a siege. After some time they went in and there was nothing there – no people or food.

 

It was long hypothesized that they had some way to escape.

 

 

 

Ksar Ouled Soltane may be the most famous. It was originally built in the 8th c., was destroyed in the 11th c., and then restored five years ago.

 

This ksar could provide for 5000 people.

 

Many of today’s ksars were built in the 15th and 16th centuries by Arab settlers who adopted the traditions of the Berbers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At ancient Douiret, the ksar is crumbling at the top of the hill and the village circles it below. That looks like it was a safe place to store grain and olives!

 

Most of the city has been abandoned, but a few still live here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chenini is lovely. We didn’t go up.

 

 

The island of Jerba was next on our tour. It is the touristiest place we’d been so far. On the beautiful beaches on the east coast it is one big white well-landscaped hotel after the other for miles and miles catering to European package tourists. We asked to be driven along the road by the hotels to see them – but we didn’t want to go in!

 

This is the inside of the old fort (Borjghazi Mustapha).

 

The locals still “fish” for octopus the way the Phoenicians did, with pots strung together.

 

The fort was built by the Aragonese (Spanish) in the 13th c.  on the ruins of a 9th c.  Aghlabid fortified monastery (ribat). In 1560 a Turkish fleet captured the fort and killed the Spanish garrison…and so it goes…

 

 

This is yet another of the non-tourist places that Hamadi took us. This is the Srandi Koranic School and Mosque. It was built just 60 years ago in 13th c.  style.

 

First a large cistern was dug and covered. Then the other buildings were constructed. The cistern is under the circled area. The collected water flows through a filter before being stored in the cistern. The white structure in the center is where the water is pulled out.

 

This is a pilgrimage place and once a year perhaps a thousand people come and camp here. They have to be fed.

 

The building behind Yvonne is where the groups take turns cooking for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerba’s Houmt Souq (bazaar) is a lovely one and it includes a large area set aside for the fish market.

 

We watched a fish auction. It was interesting – no tourists were there when we were.

 

 

Jerba’s El-Ghriba Synagogue has been in this exact location (in the middle of the island) since

 

              586 BCE !!!

 

when Jews arrived after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed their temple in Jerusalem.

 

This building was reconstructed about a hundred years ago in the same form as before.

 

It is the oldest synagogue in north Africa and is a major place of pilgrimage today. During Passover, Jews come here to pay tribute to a

Grand master of the Talmud who died more than 400 years ago.

 

 

 

 

Jerba is the island described in Homer’s Odyssey where everything was so beautiful and easy that Odysseus’ companions forgot where they came from and had no desire to leave.

 

Most tourists who stay at the 107 beautiful hotels (seven 5*) located on perfect white sand beaches never leave their immediate surroundings - reflecting what Homer once described.

 

This photo of a mosque in the early morning mist has some of the dreamy atmosphere that attracts people to Jerba.

 

 

 

 

From Jerba we headed north along the coast.

 

The city of Gabes has a very large spice market…which they sell in all languages!

 

Gabes is on a seaside oasis and has been inhabited since prehistoric times.

 

Gabes grew rich in the 14th c.  as the main Tunisian destination for the great camel caravans that brought gold and slaves from across the Sahara.

 

The French invasion of the Sahara in the 19th c.  stopped the caravans. It boomed again after oil was discovered in the gulf in the mid-60s.

 

 

 

We continued on north to El Jem and its mosaic museum.

 

This is a unique mosaic of the goddess “Africa” with dark complexion, curly hair, flat nose and other features.

 

Afri was the name of the first Berber tribe the Romans dealt with. It wound up being the name for the continent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The El Jem coliseum is a World Heritage Site. It was built in 230 CE.

 

It was the 3rd largest in the Roman world at 414’ long, 342’ wide and 90’ high. It could hold 33,000 spectators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the 14th c., the city of Mahdia was the richest on the Barbary coast.

 

The medina was very nice.

 

 

 

 

 

Bekalta was yet another special place our guide took us.

 

Not long ago while readying a place for a quarry, this Phoenician cemetery was found. The excavated graves have been left open.

 

Stone stairs go down in each (not visible in this photo) and tombs are carved into each side below.

 

This cemetery runs for 6 miles along the coast!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sousse was founded in the 9th c.  BCE as a Phoenician outpost. It fell to Carthage in the 6th c.  BCE. Hannibal used this town as a base against the Romans in 202 BCE.

 

The medina (living area) and the souq (market) are World Heritage Sites.

 

Nearly every door was a photo waiting to happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sousse’s beautiful medina walls are 24’ high and 1.5 miles long.  They are fortified with a series of solid square turrets.

 

 

 

We went to Sousse’s Sunday Market, which is like one of our swap meets.

 

Everything was sold here from lambs to toilet seats to car parts to makeup to window frames and pots and pans and veggies and…

 

Just north of Sousse is a major area of package tour hotels and sandy beaches. This woman is an example of the embarrassing insensitivity some tourists have to local customs.

 

She’s clueless how offensive and awful she looks in this environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The veggies at the market looked good.

 

This photo shows the variety of ways the locals dress. Tourists are background left with bare arms.

 

 

 

 

The amazing city of Kairouan is a World Heritage Site. It is one of the seven holy cities of Islam and is Tunisia’s most conservative city. Here Islam first got its foothold in the Maghreb (the area to the west of the Nile and north of the Sahara).

 

The Great Mosque in Kairouan is the oldest in north Africa. This version is from 909 CE. Non-Muslims can’t go into the mosque but the doors are open so the interior can be seen. That’s good because our photos have no tourists in them.

 

The two photos below are of the interior. The 414 pillars that support the horseshoe arches and roof were, like those of the colonnade outside, originally Roman or Byzantine. They were brought from Carthage and Sousse. At the very left below there are precious 9th c.  tiles behind the prayer niche that were brought from Baghdad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kairouan’s medina feels different from the others in Tunisia.

 

The facades have white walls offset by pale blue or green arches, balconies and shutters.

 

The first walls of the medina were built towards the end of the 8th c.  but most seen today date from the 18th c. .

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kairouan medina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Zaouia of Sidi Abid el-Ghariani in Kairouan dates from the 14th c. and houses the tomb of a 16th c sultan.

 

It contains fine woodcarving and stucco work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This square in the Kairouan medina shows examples of the lovely blue shutters and balconies.

 

 

 

Kairouan’s Zaouia of Sidi Sahab (tomb of a saint) is very special.

 

It houses the tomb of one of Mohammed’s companions (sahib). He was known as the barber because he always carried 3 hairs from the Prophet’s beard with him.

 

It dates from the 7thc, but much was added in the 17thc. to house pilgrims, a medersa (school) and a mosque.

 

In years past. Muslim boys would get circumcised behind one door of this room and Jewish boys would get circumcised behind an opposite door in the same room!

 

 

 

 

The Roman city of Thuburbo Majus made a fortune in wheat. In the 2ndc., the town had 10,000 residents with the wealthiest competing in building public monuments.

 

This is the impressive Capitol which was built in 168 CE and dominates the site. A 22’ statue of Jupiter stood here.

 

Thuburbo Majus also had baths, villas, and cisterns that have been excavated. We walked a lot here – and only 5% has been excavated!

 

Its fine mosaics are now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the night in Hammamet, Tunisia’s busiest beach resort, one of their first. That is our hotel, taken from the top of the small fort.

 

Hammamet has a perfectly maintained little medina that is wonderful. It was built in the late 1400s using the 9thc. site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We happened to be going past the Korba Lagoon protected area, so we stopped, watched and photographed these flamingoes. On a group tour these impromptu  experiences are rare.

 

 

 

Kelibia is a non-touristy fishing village.

 

We made an extra stop here because we wanted to walk the ramparts of the fort above the town and look at the view (not on the program).

 

Sicily is only some 80 miles in that direction!

 

Kelibia was first a Berber settlement.

 

The Carthaginians arrived in the 5thc. BCE and built the fort. It remained one of Tunisia’s major cities until the 11thc. when it was damaged by Sicilian pirates. The people then moved inland to escape the raids.

 

 

The World Heritage Site of Kerkouane was abandoned in its prime in the 3rd c. BCE and was never reoccupied. It has offered archeologists an insight into all things Punic (Phoenician). There was an established Berber town here in the 8th c. BCE when the Phoenicians arrived. The oldest parts of these remains are from the 6th c. BCE!

 

In the lower right of the photo is a bath in a home. It has facing seats and, on the other side, a place for a little child as well – family bathing!

There is no evidence of any agricultural activity here. It seems to have been home to an urban elite of merchants and craftsmen. Kilns and such have been identified.

 

 

 

 

The Tunis medina is another of Tunisia’s World Heritage Sites. The city of Tunis is on maps dating from the 5th c. BCE.

 

The medina was founded late in the 7th c shortly after the Arab conquest.

 

The medina was the focal point of Tunis for over a thousand years – until the arrival of the French. They developed the ville nouvelle nearby which deprived the medina of its role causing it to slip into decline. Now less than 15,000 live here and the main trade is souvenirs.

 

 

In parts of the medina it felt like we’d been transported back in time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here in the Tunis medina, Yvonne is taking one of the many doors she enjoyed photographing all over Tunisia (see the next picture below).

 

 

 

Tunisia’s doors and door frames are absolutely wonderful. We went crazy and took photos of many of them and share some here.

 

The colors are meaningful. Green is the religious color of Islam and green doors indicate an Imam lives there. Brown doors indicate Berbers. Yellow doors indicate folks of Turkish descent. And, most numerous, are the blue doors. After the Moors were defeated and left Spain many came to Tunisia. The blue doors indicate the owners have descended from those returned from Andalusia.

 

Note the shapes: keyhole, arched, rectangular, recessed, behind ancient Roman, Byzantine, Berber frames of all sorts, and so on. Doors and frames. So many super variations!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We often got going quite early. This is a picture of the rising sun.

 

Juergen couldn’t resist taking it since the distortions of the sun’s image are caused by sharp gradients in the vertical refractivity profile.

 

Propagation of waves in laterally inhomogeneous media was his thesis subject and later on much of his professional research.

 

 

The end