Last week, I spent eight days travelling around southern Tunisia with my program. The following is a summary of what we saw and experienced!
Qairawan was a truly incredible experience! It was founded very early in the history of Islam--it was the third city to be claimed as Islamic territory and to this day is considered to be the fourth holiest city for Muslims, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Some Muslims believe that visiting Qairawan four times is equal to going on the hajj. We were able to visit the great mosque, which is as old as the city.
In addition, we saw the mosque and shrine of Sidi Sahbi, who was the Prophet Mohammed's barber and an early founding member of Islam and Qairawan. As the story goes, he brought locks of the Prophet's hair with him, making Qairawan a particularly holy place. Although as a non-Muslim I wasn't allowed into the shrine area itself to take pictures (we did go through most of the building), the attendant was willing to bring my camera in.
Then we were off to Chebika! A small oasis town tucked into the edge of the Atlas mountains, Chebika is an interesting case. In the 1960's, Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba wanted to push a plan of development and for him, Berber villages in the mountains were counter to that goal. As such, Bourguiba force all of the villagers to move to a new village in the valley below called New Chebika--barely a kilometer away from the old village. Interestingly, now a significant portion of the villagers commute to the old village daily, which is a tourist site.
Also near Chebika we were able to visit two incredible sites for the Star Wars nerd in me! We went to the pod race course and also the Mos Espa.
On a sand dune near Mos Espa with some wonderful SIT friends
The next day we were off to Tozeur, a large oasis town. On our first day in Tozeur, we spent all of our time on a drop-off exercise in which we went around the city learning about two staples of oasis life--bricks and water. We spent the morning learning about water, and visited the spring which supplies water to the oasis (and saw a man bathing in it) as well as a date farm, where we learned about a system to ration water to all of the farmers which has been in place since the 1200's. Each week, each farmer gets 4 hours of water and they each pay an equal amount to the government for that ration.
A date harvest
No taxis for us in Tozeur--we chartered a horse-drawn carriage for the day. They are the most common form of public transportation that we saw during our days there.
For the rest of the day, we spent our time learning about bricks. Bricks are different in Tozeur than elsewhere in Tunisia, and are still made in a traditional way. We spent a few hours talking with and shadowing a man whose family has been in the business of brickmaking for 18 generations. He talked us through the entire process, from mixing the clay to removing them from the kiln.
Hayley in the kiln!
The entire exercise was one of my favorite parts of the excursion because we had a chance to really break away from the confines of a structured program and to begin to understand the basic realities of oasis life.
Chott El Djerid and Douz
After Tozeur we were off to the desert! We made a quick stop in Chott El Djerid, a massive salt lake.
Sailing away into Chott El Djerid!
I can assuredly say that this bathroom was neither comfortable nor deluxe.
Ryan ponders the meaning of international borders.
Leaving Chott El Djerid, we headed to Douz for the most touristy part of our trip--an hour-long camel ride into the Sahara. Mounir suggested we view this part of the trip with some humor--although it may have been extremely culturally inaccurate, it was extremely deliberate, we were aware of the inaccuracies and put dinars into the hard-hit economy of Douz. Douz is one of the places which has been hit hardest by the effects of terrorism in Tunisia; tourism has declined so sharply that many people are out of work. I don't have any pictures at this moment because I left my camera on the bus, but if I get some I will post them!
Next we were off to Matmata, one of the most interesting places I have ever seen. A fully-functioning troglodyte city, Matmata is still home to several thousand people. Our hotel was located in one of the troglodyte dwellings.
Inside the cave which I shared with three others from my program.
In one of the other pits which was part of our hotel--this part was the restaurant and bar.
Ryan does some more pondering in the pit we occupied.
Also near Matmata we saw ancient ghorfas, or granaries, which were used to store food for about 3000 years.
One of the storage rooms in the ghorfa.
And of course, Matmata is home of the infamous home of Luke Skywalker's Uncle Lars. It also is a hotel, and the main rooms featured in the Star Wars movies are now part of a bar which is well-attended by locals from Matmata (many of whom seemed truly bemused by us).
Amy and I have a lightsaber battle of epic proportions!
Next we were off to Djerba, an island off of the southeast coast of Tunisia. Djerba is known for its street art; an area called Djerbahood features murals from 100 artists from 30 countries.
My favorite was a series of clueless tourist paintings by the same artist.
Also on Djerba we had a chance to see an incredible ancient Ibadhi mosque. If you remember, Oman is a majority Ibadhi, and this place was essentially the headquarters of the global Ibadhi community up until the 1800's. If there were any disputes among the community, they came here despite the distance. In addition, the building, which is at the highest point of the island, used to be a church. Holy spaces are so often recycled!
After some shopping around in Djerba's incredible souq and some independent exploration of the island, we headed off to El Djem, one of the world's best-preserved Roman amphitheaters. It was truly impressive how immaculate it is. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Our last major stop (other than Mounir's sister's house for an amazing vegetarian lunch) was Mahdia, a former capital of Tunisia. We spent the night in the medina there and then the next morning saw an ancient fort and a massive and incredibly beautiful maritime cemetery.