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Trip Report to Tunisia 2012 - The South


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Douiret continued…

The Mosque with its square minaret is still well preserved.

A doorway leads into the courtyard with a large fig tree growing in it. A well in the courtyard provides water for washing. This is put into a small hollow at the washing station. Before visiting the mosque the men sit on a stone slab to wash hands and arms three times, then face and finally feet. There is a small stone to rest the feet on to stop them getting wet.

The mosque is carved out of the cliff face and has separate doors and areas for men and women. Stone pillars were left to support roof. The Mihrab is in a small alcove with a niche for Holy Books beside it. On the other side are steps to the Minibar where the Iman sat when preaching. There is a small niche for an oil lamp and more niches by the door for shoes.

It is thought the Mosque is C13th but it may be older. Donatist Christians under Roman and Byzantine rule used to gather in underground churches to pray and this may have been one of them.

One house in the old village is still lived in by a young Berber who uses a donkey for transport. Olives grow on the opposite side of the hill and he still presses these traditionally using a three hundred year old press.
The olives were still being picked when we visited in early April. The Berber was getting the press ready to begin pressing the following week.

The olives are ground in a large stone press worked by a camel.

The pulp is put into grass baskets which are stacked and then pressed using a palm trunk and the oil collected in pots beneath.

It was a well worthwhile visit and we had the old village to ourselves.


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Chenini - on all the tourist itineraries

Chenini is one of the Berber villages near Tataouine. It is on all the tourist itineraries and most people visit in the morning.

We visited mid afternoon just as the last coach was loading up tourists after a leisurely lunch. (We sometimes think day trippers spend most of their time driving or eating with a scamper round the site they have paid to see).

The old town of Chenini is built on an impressive site high above arid plain with the new town.

The houses are built into the side of the hill with a small walled courtyard in front of them.

A few houses are still lived in and have donkeys and chickens running around.

A series of well made paved paths leads up through the town to the Mosque in the col between two hills and kala’a above it. There is a small shop near the Mosque selling post cards and tourist items.

There are many small ghorfas (storage cells) carved out of the cliff higher up the hill. Some of the doors are tiny and seem hardly big enough for a person to climb through or reach in. Some have lost their palm wood doors and we could look inside to the remains of the storage area often with large pottery jars.

There is a good view from the paved walkway running round the kala’a at the top of the hill across the plain. You also have good views down onto the houses below Many are now ruined and we could see the remains of palm tree rafters.

This is an interesting place to visit and makes a good trip tied in with Douiret and the Ksours around Tataouine. Plan to visit here last to avoid the worst of the tourists.


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Ksour - the fortified granaries around Tataouine

The Ksour (singular Ksar) are just found in the south east of Tunisia in the area between Matmata and Tataouine. Dmany date from the C15th and were usually built on top of a hill and are surrounded by a defensive stone wall with a single door. Inside is a courtyard lined with separate cells called ghorfas, Some were used for living, but the majority were used for storage by the Berber tribes.

Some of these were used as film sets in the different Star Wars movies.

We spent a morning visiting the Ksour to the south of Tataouine. This is hilly countryside and every hilltop seemed to have a Ksar on top of it which look like small fortresses. We took the road to Ksar Ouled Soltane past Beni Barka with the remains of a hill top village. The area is built up with small villages running into each other and each with their own Ksar. These are typical small Tunisia villages with a few small shops selling mainly dry goods. The houses all have barrel roofs which help keep them cool in summer. Many have a wall round them enclosing a courtyard where the sheep and goats are kept at night. The area is very dry and stone or earth banks are built to hold back water which allows wheat to be grown along with a few palm and olive trees. The ksour are no longer used for storage and there are small stone storage buildings dotted around the countryside.

Ksar Maztouria

Our first stop was Ksar Maztouria which is built above the village.

It has a tall outer stone wall with a massive gateway with a wooden door faced with metal. Entry is through a smaller doorway cut in one of the big doors. It leads into a porch with stone benches for sitting.

The central courtyard is lined with one or two levels of ghorfas. Upper ghorfas are reached by steep stone steps and there are stones set in the wall to reach doorways with no step access. Some still have their palm wood doors.

Inside the ghorfa the storage area had different bays for storing different foods. Some cells were used for living and are long and narrow with a stone slab separating the sleeping area at the far end. A small circular window cut in the outer wall of the Ksar was the only source of light.

There is a traditional stone well in the village which is still used for irrigation. A series of troughs provides water for the animals and an irrigation channel takes water to the crops which are grown in tiny fields surrounded by low earth walls to retain water. Carrots, onions and garlic are grown.



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Ksour - the fortified granaries around Tataouine continued...

Ksar Daghara

The next village Daghara is only a short drive. The ksar is above the village which has a new white painted Berber house next to it. Below are the remains of a brick making kiln and workshop where bricks were cleaned.

From the outside, this looks less well maintained with crumbling walls, although the entrance doorway and passage are well maintained.

This is a rather more complex structure with 2-3 levels of ghorfas. Side passageways in the corners of the ksar have arches which help support the walls.

We could see the remains of decorative carvings on the walls inside one of the houses.

It seems the village had run out of storage space as there is a single small ghorfa in the centre of the courtyard.



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Ksour - the fortified granaries around Tataouine continued...

Ksar Ouled Soltane

Even though I had kept saying ‘No Star Wars” our driver was determined to take us to Ksar Ouled Soltane which was used as the film set for the slave quarters in The Phantom Menace. This is set in stoney desert with little vegetation and few houses. The Ksar is built on a low ridge next to a big Mosque. It was a Friday and all the men were sitting waiting to go to the Mosque. To our surprise we were the only tourists around.

The Ksar is an impressive four storey building which has two courtyards. Traditionally the ghorfas were covered with plaster. When Ksar Ouled Soltane was restored, concrete was used which was painted to resemble plaster. Unfortunately it is beginning to show its age. There are a lot of big staircases leading to the upper ghorfas. These are built as an arch to make them less steep. Stones set in the wall help reach doorways without a staircase. There are alleyways in corners.

When we visited in 2012, there are two small art galleries in the inner courtyard and we were approached by the owners trying to sell us water colour paintings. One was very pushy and we didn’t like his pictures. He then tried to sell us a painting on a stone but we told him it would exceed our baggage allowance. The second person was less pushy and we liked his pictures. He had the sense to let us look and choose at our leisure.

We took the back road to Tataouine across the dry, arid plain. It was a disperse settlement pattern with individual houses or else family settlements with long series of houses side by side. There was a little agricultural in areas where water is held back by stone or earth banks. water has been dammed. We saw little sign of animals.



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Ksour - the fortified granaries around Tataouine continued...

Ksar Ezzahra

Ezzahra is a small settlement near Tatouine. Before visiting in 2012, I had read in the guide books that the road had only just reached the village and there were few visitors. The town was still very traditional and the locals were very aware of the destructive nature of tourism. When the new road arrived they voted against the provision of a cafe and hotel for tourists. They wanted the village to stay as it was.

The ksar is built at the top of the village and is still the centre of the settlement. There are a number of small shops set into the outside walls. It was a Friday and there were a large number of men sitting around the Mosque waiting for prayers. We were given long hard stares and felt they were not used to seeing foreign tourists. It did feel a bit uncomfortable and Michael was advised not to take photos outside the Ksar and to be careful taking photos and avoid locals getting in the shots.

Like Ksar Ouled Soltane, it is made up of two courtyards. The outer courtyard had 2-3 levels of ghorfas. One is still used as a small shop and there is a cafe beside it. It was market day and there were several stalls selling fruit and vegetables.

We could see the remains of some writings from the Koran and feet and hands in the archway between the courtyards. These were to protect the building against evil and bring good luck.

The inner courtyard is reached through an archway and is bigger with four levels of ghorfas with interconnecting staircases, stone steps in the walls and walkways between them. Kitchen and sleeping areas often on different levels.

Each corner of the courtyard had a small cup de sac leading off it.

It looks as if some of the ghorfas are still used for storage as the have new metal doors.

This was a well worth while visit and recommended as we felt the Ksar was still used by the community.



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Ksour - the fortified granaries around Tataouine continued...

Ksour at Beni Behal and Mhira

Following the road back to Tataouine we made a brief stop at Beni Behal to look at the Ksar, again built above town with a well preserved outer wall and two or three levels of ghorfas inside. This is less well maintained and cared for.

This is one to visit if passing as there are better examples.

Mhira is a long spread out settlement of dispersed houses a short distance from Beni Behal.

It has two Ksars close to each other, each with 2-3 rows of Ghorfas. Again both are in a poor state of preservation.

The first had a small domed water cistern in the centre surrounded by large round area to collect rain water which drained into cistern, which still had water in it. There was a square hole in the roof to draw water.

The second ksar had a larger square cistern in the centre of the courtyard.

Some of the living areas were quite big and divided by pillars into separate alcoves for adults and children to sleep. A curtain was used to screen separate ares. Light was provided by oil lamps in niches in the walls.



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Ksour - the fortified granaries around Tataouine continued...

Ksar el Ferech

The final Ksar we visited was Ksar el Ferech which is north of Tataouine and was built around 1911. This is unusual as it is quite a distance from the town and is built on the plain. It is an impressive structure surrounded by a stone wall with a single wooden gateway leading into a huge courtyard.

There are one or two levels of ghorfas round the outside wall. Storage space must have been at a premium as a second smaller square of ghorfas had been built in the centre of the Ksar. Although it seems to be no longer in use, most of the ghorfas look in good condition.

The stores were on the ground floor with the living quarters above.

There was a very basic toilet and local cafe on the site.

Apart from Ksar Ouled Soltane and possibly Ksar Ezzahra and Ksar el Ferech, none of the others Ksars described feature in the guide books or internet. All are worth exploring if you have the chance.


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Djerba - Beloved by the sun seekers and spoilt by uncontrolled development of new houses.

The south eastern coast of Djerba is popular with holiday makers who go for the sunshine and holiday resorts. Reading the guide books we had originally dismissed Djerba. However the local tour operator used by Audley Travel who booked the holiday for us, said that the rest of the island away from the tourist belt was unspoilt and peaceful with people following a very traditional way of life. Looking at our objectives for Tunisia they thought we would enjoy the area. They recommended a small boutique hotel in the centre of the island well away from the tourist area. We decided to add two nights to the itinerary.

Dar Dhiafa Hotel is a delightful small hotel in Er Riadh, in the centre of the island well away from Zone Touristique. Historically Djerba had many Jews living on the island and the population of Er Riadh was almost entirely Jewish until many left for Israel after the second World War.

The hotel had been converted from five old Jewish houses Inside it is a rabbit warren of passageways and courtyards with rooms off. There are two swimming pools. We had a large and comfortable room with a lot of character.

Breakfast was served in the courtyard and was ample with plenty of choice. Dinner is al a carte, again with plenty of choice. Meals were excellent but were expensive compared with elsewhere in Tunisia. We enjoyed our stay.

Unfortunately the information about the centre of the island being unspoilt and traditional was very out of date. Since the Jasmine Revolution, planning laws have been relaxed and new and very large houses are mushrooming all over the island. These are huge and the island is now resembling an up market housing development.

Tourism is the main employer and the traditional way of life is disappearing rapidly. We did see a farmer chopping beans traditionally in a carefully prepared pen. The chopped beans are then winnowed to obtain the been seeds.

There is still some fishing on the west coast around Borj Jillij. This is a stretch of long low lying coastline with little vegetation and a few trees. The rocky coast is made of flat volcanic deposits with sand beyond.

Small fishing shacks are scattered along the coastline with piles of nets and crockery pots used to catch lobsters. Each pot has identification initials painted on it and are carefully piled up.


We were also saddened by the amount of litter left lying around the countryside. Most of this is left by the Tunisians after going for a picnic and some places are becoming squalid.

Many of the olive groves are very old and trees are not being replaced as they die. Most of the island is flat and scenically not very interesting. It was a major disappointment and our initial thoughts had been right.

We avoided the Zone Touistique and Houmt Souk. Most of the towns and villages were similar to Tunisian towns and villages seen elsewhere.

Midoun the second largest town was modern and forward looking with fashion shops and a large shop selling bath room accessories, much needed with all the new development. The two very big and splendid car show rooms were a sign there is a lot of money in Djerba. We were told that land sells for 350TD per sqm. It is not surprising that people are leaving farming and selling their land.

We were shown the remains of some ‘Roman’ remains on the edge of Midoun. To our driver anything old was ‘Roman’. These were next to olive groves surrounded by earth banks. Again there were no signs or information at the site. Perhaps this could the site C4th of Būrgū mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Djerba?

There were massive pile of stones which had been collected and dumped(presumably when clearing land for the olive groves).

Another pile has been reassembled on a modern base to form a ‘structure’. A set of steps led down to made circular area round it where there could have been the remains of some old masonry.



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Djerba continued… The Menzels

The traditional houses on Djerba were the fortified farmsteads called Menzels. Constant fear of attack meant that buildings were designed for defence.

From the outside these looked like small fortresses with blank white walls with a tower at each corner, often topped with a dome. These areas were used as summer bedrooms. They are the only parts with external windows, placed high so they cannot be reached.

Living rooms surround the central courtyard.

The design of the menzels reflects a preoccupation with water conservation and temperature control. The rooftops and courtyards are designed to channel rainwater into underground tanks (impluviums) which provided a water supply for the house and to irrigate crops. They also helped keep the foundations cool.

Thick rendered walls of mud and stone provided further insulation. They were painted white to reflect heat of sun.

Most of the menzels are now in ruins as the owners have moved into more modern houses. A few have been loving restored. There are quite a few scruffy menzels on the outskirts of Ajim on the Guellal road.

We had told our driver we wanted to see Menzels. We spent an hour on the first afternoon driving round the island trying to find some without success. Next morning the driver had done his homework and took us to
find a group of deserted old menzels off the road between Sedghiane and Fadloune Mosque.

This had been quite a dense settlement of about four houses reached down a rough dirt track surrounded by palm trees and olive groves. There were other menzels close by. We began to understand why the new houses are built so close together.

The wooden door on one of them was open so we went in for a look. There were remains of old water and olive oil jars lying around. In the corner of the ground floor rooms is a large square structure which could have been a stove providing heat in the winter. Stone steps lead up to the room in the corner tower.

The toilet was on the outside wall.

This was as close we would get to the traditional way of life. We began to think to see Djerba you have to get off the roads and along the rough tracks.



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Djerba continued …. The Fortified Mosques

The white painted fortified mosques are very characteristic of Djerba. As as being places of worship and learning, they also provided shelter and safety for the inhabitants when the island was under constant attack. The minarets acted as watch towers.

The mosques are shut to non Muslims and most have to be admired from the outside. Often all you can see is the minaret.

Fadloun Mosque was listed listed in guide books as no longer used for prayers and open for tourists. This information is out of date and the mosque is again in use. There are the usual signs outside saying’ not open to non Muslims’ and the doors were locked. This seems to have been shut after the Jasmine Revolution.

There was access to the courtyard.

The only unlocked door lead into the room where a body was washed on a board before being wrapped in a white shroud and taken on the wooden bier to the cemetery.

The Imam’s house outside wall of mosque had smaller Mosque attached to it.

For photographs head to El Kebir Mosque, on the outskirts of Mellita. There is a big bank outside the courtyard wall which can be climbed for views into the courtyard. The Mosque is in the centre of the courtyard which has cisterns beneath it. These provide water for use in the ceremonial washroom in a small building in the courtyard. A small stone shelter is used by the Imam when leading prayers in the courtyard. Around the walls are small rooms used for teaching the Koran.

El May in the centre of the island has another splendid fortified mosque

On the west coast is the isolated Sidi Jimour Mosque.

Guellala on the south east coast has two mosques close to each other.

A short distance further down the coast is the very old Mosque of Sidi Yati. It is reached by a rough track off the main road. It is a whitewashed building surrounded by trees. A very weathered sign outside the wall says the mosque “was established by Shiek Yati Mestaoui during the 3rd century of the higare accordant C9th Christian” We went through the doorway in the wall surrounding a courtyard enclosing the four domed mosque and a smaller building. This is no longer in use and it is possible to go into the old prayer hall.



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Djerba Continued… Er Riadh

Er Riadh is a small settlement in the centre of the island and was the centre for a large Jewish population until most of them left for Israel after the Second World War.

Er Riadh is one of the more interesting settlements on the island. The old Jewish quarter is fascinating place to explore with a maze of side streets and squares. The houses have white walls with a doorway off the street which leads into a passageway or courtyard. Many have a smaller shaped doorway inside the big one. Several have fish carved above the door. Doors and windows are usually painted blue. Many of the old houses had barrel roof which helped keep the house cool during the hot summer months.

In the heart of the settlement was the remains of a disused Synagogue. This had once been large and splendid building. One window was open allowing a glimpse into a courtyard with pillars.

El-Ghriba synagogue on the edge off the settlement is the most important of the synagogues and prayer houses on the island. It is thought there has been a building on this site since 586 BCE built by Jews who had fled after the Babylonians had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. According to the stories, the High Priests carried with them a door and a stone from the destroyed Temple. Visitors are shown a stone in one of teh arches which is allegedly the original stone from Jerusalem.

The synagogue also houses a Torah scroll, which contains the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

From the outside it looks a simple white building and is entered through a gateway in a surrounding wall. Despite very tight security is open to visitors. However we visited during the Passover, when it was shut.This meant we were unable to see the magnificent interior with its decorative blue tiles.



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Djerba Continued… Guellala pottery

Guellala is a tiny village on the south coast renowned for pottery, made from local clay. Workshops line main street all with displays of pots outside and stuck to the walls to attract the tourist trade.

We had an interesting visit to a working pottery. Clay is still mined on site. Steps lead down to a 25m deep shaft as the clay above this level is crystalline and no good for pots. This leads to a long tunnel where the clay is taken from. Mining takes place at night.

The clay is mixed with water; fresh water gives a red colour, salt water turns clay white.

Pots are made on a potters wheel powered by a foot pedal.

Decoration is added by hand.

Small pots are left 3-7 days to dry in the shade. Larger pots take 20 days. The kiln is fired up using palm leaves (usually every 2 months) and pots are fired at 1000˚C for four days. The kiln takes another three days to cool before the pots cool down.

Pots are painted by hand by local women, glazed and then fired in an electric kiln at 900KC.

The ‘magic camel’ is a popular tourist souvenir. We preferred the ‘security sweet jar’ where the irregular pattern of the lid makes it difficult to replace accurately.



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Djerba Continued… Meninx, an undiscovered Roman site

We enjoyed Meninx, a Roman site, on the Adjim road just after the causeway, near the town of Henchir El Kantara. It does get a brown tourist sign and there is a small lay by at the side of the road. In 2012, there was no information at the site and in 2012, we just wandered in.

Since we visited, the site has been partially excavated by a team of German and Tunisian archaeologists. In 2019 it has been designated as an archaeological park, the first on Djerba. The site stretches a long way along between the road and the coast.

Meninx was originally a trading post founded by the Phoenicians but in Roman times, it became the capital of the island. It was a major producer of the purple Murex dye, until the C6th when it was abandoned and the ruins used as building stone.

It was a beautiful day and the sea was glinting in the sunshine. There were a few small fishing boats moored on the beach and someone wading in the sea catching fish in a hand held net. We walked across a rough area with piles of rubble and low growing vegetation, with a lot of bright yellow trefoil providing a splash of colour. At first there was little to see and only the fragments of red pottery lying everywhere indicated people had once lived here. We found the remains of handles and rims.

As we walked towards the sea we discovered the remains of the forum with column bases, remains of much eroded pillars and bits of carved marble lying around. Things were beginning to look up.

As we wandered we found the site of the cisterns. Two tanks are still in good condition but the rest have collapsed into a pile of rubble.

We kept stumbling across bits of walls from unidentified buildings, some still with plaster.

Walking back the other way is a large area that has been partially excavated, we think between 1997-2000. There is a wide paved street lined with the bases of very dark red sandstone pillar bases and remains of buildings on either side.

We found more cisterns and a large flat area with an impluvium (well) in centre.

We began to feel the thrill of the early archaeologists must have felt when they first visited a site.


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