Tunisia Part 1: Tunis to Tozeur



 Part 1: Tunis to Tozeur

 Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dateline: Tunis, Tunisia,

Latitude at Tunis 36.56 N, Longitude 10.17 E


Back in the autumn of 2006, I was perusing the usual collection of unsolicited mail (a.k.a. junk mail), when I happened upon a brochure from Vantage Travel touting an exotic adventure in the Sahara with endless vistas of sparkling desert, palm fringed oases shimmering in the distance, exotic markets brimming with bargains. I yelled to Gary, who was several rooms away “Hey, you want to go to Tunisia?” to which he replied “Yeah. Where is it?” After consulting the atlas, we took the plunge and here we are. Where exactly is “here”, you may ask? We’re at Latitude 36.56 North and Longitude 10.17 East, but if that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, 80 miles southwest of Sicily, nestled between those two hotbeds of international intrigue, Algeria and Libya.


We should have had a clue that we were heading off into the unknown when we attempted to exchange currency – dollars for dinars (the Tunisian currency – pronounced “dee-nahrs” with the accent on the “nahrs”) at the international concourse at the Atlanta Airport. The cashier at the Amex Currency exchange said “Say whut?” After we indeed repeated “whut” a few times, the next comment was “spell that”, followed next by “don’t have none of that.” When we finally did get some of “that” the exchange rate was 1.3 Tunisian dinars to $1.00.


Tunisian currency notwithstanding, we caught our overnight flight to Paris to make our connection with no excitement (I’m a huge fan of boring flights) and with 2 hours to spare at Charles de Gaulle Airport, we figured on scoring some dinars there. However, we didn’t count on 3 bus trips, 10 flights of stairs and two security checkpoints as part of our connection. The airport has gate ramps, but apparently Delta doesn’t have one of them for some reason. I’ve spent less time on a guided tour than we did just getting from one plane to the next.  It seems to me that if you’re going to spend that much time in a bus in Paris, you’d at least get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.


Anyway, two and half hours after takeoff, we made our approach into Tunis. Our first impression from the window of the plane was of a sunny Carolina blue sky, white buildings on a hilly khaki landscape, grey-blue pewter colored seas with towering white capped waves breaking on a rocky shore with date palms swaying in a fresh breeze – well actually the breeze was quite strong and they were doing more “whipping” than swaying, but whipping palms just sort of kills the imagery, doesn’t it?


Our local guide is Kamel (pronounced Kah-mel with the accent on the “mel”) and is of Berber extraction. Our program director is Roberto and is from Siena, Italy so I shouldn’t expect a local name I suppose. I think I had envisioned someone named Habib leading us into the desert, as I am quite intrigued by that name, so intrigued in fact, that I have dubbed Gary “Habib” for the duration of this trip. Roberto is half French, half Italian, grew up in Tunisia and speaks 5 languages, so I suspect he will do nicely. Our bus driver is named Munir, (pronounced “Moo near” with an accent on “near”) which has a nice exotic ring to it, except that he has red hair and looks more like a Mike or a Paddy than a Munir. Arabic is the first language here and French is the second (both mandated by law), with English being the third, mandated by the economy and the tourist trade. There is a trick to pronouncing the words here. So far I’ve found a D in front of a J is silent (Djerba is pronounced “Jer-bah accent on Jer as in gerbil.), a H after K is silent (e.g. the name of our hotel is Khamsa, but is pronounced with no “h” sound).


Tunisia is perhaps the most prosperous country in Africa, with the middle class being around 75% of the population. Close to 100% of homes have electricity (nomads in tents don’t count) and 75% have running water in the home so they’re still working on that. However 84% of the homes have television sets so that those with TV’s, but without water, might have to run down the street for it during commercials. A sign of the times is that only 26% of homes have telephones,  but cell phones are everywhere and so that  other74% may never get wired. Car ownership is low – only 17%, but mopeds make up for a lot of the difference.


There are many French customs – lots of man-to-man kissing going on here, which is also big with the Arabs. Protocol calls for sort of an air kiss three times, on alternating cheeks. The local people are very warm, courteous and friendly with a ready smile and a bon jour being the norm.


Government District of Tunis

Government District of Tunis

The population is 10 million with  2.2 million in metro Tunis, the capital. Tunisia has been a Republic since 1957 and has 24 “governorates”, (comparable to our states). They have a President (now selected in elections), but also have an elected Prime Minister and legislative branches, political parties and all that. The Islamic Fundamentalist Party is outlawed in Tunisia. The government is considered secular, but it does support the mosques financially. Imams are actually appointed by the government so church and state aren’t really separated here, but in this case the government is controlling church vs. other way around. Tunisia is very close to Europe with ferries going to Marseilles, Sicily and Genoa regularly. Tunisians are overwhelming Muslim (98%), with 1% Christian, 1% Jewish, but everyone seems to be tolerant of everyone else. Of course this hasn’t always been the case. Northern Tunisia is not at all 3rdworld, although the Bedouin in the south certainly fit the bill there.


Over the centuries there have been a lot of invasions, some in the name of religion and some just for power or wealth. The history of Tunisia, consists of a long list of conquerors taking over the country, leaving their mark and moving on. The invasions (some subtle and some not so much so) went something like this:


The Berber Period: the oldest known inhabitants were here as far back as 10,000 BC. The North Coast of Africa was home to an ethnic group called the Berbers (ethnic group meaning they have a common language, religion, fixed territory and so forth). Bedouins are nomads and are not members of any particular ethnic group (They can be Berber, Arab, Egyptian, etc.) and can roam anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East.


The Punic Period:  The Berbers, were living here minding their own business when along came the Phoenicians in 814 BC from current day Tyre in Lebanon and various parts of Syria. Queen Dido of Phoenicia founded Carthage in 814 BC after having had a dispute with her brother, Pygmalion, the King and took all the treasure she could lay her hands on, rounded up her followers and left. (Actually it was more than a mere squabble. Her brother killed her husband out of concern that he might try to overthrow him and Miss Dido seemed to see the handwriting on the wall). They called the people they found here “babaroi”  a terms used to identify anyone who did not speak Greek, and the word eventually evolved to Berber. The first Phoenician settlement was a trading post called Utica (yup they had it first before New York named their town that). They set up second trading post at Sousse and a third  at Carthage, which seems to have gotten all of the historical headlines – primarily because it developed into a magnificent city and the heart of a powerful empire, until they tangled with Rome of course. The Phoenicians were termed “Punic” by the Romans and since the Romans won all three of the Punic Wars over a period of 118 years from 263 to 146 BC, their name has stuck. The central issue between the two superpowers was control of Sicily and control of trade throughout the Mediterranean


The most famous warrior of Carthage was Hannibal. Our guide pronounces his name “Honey-bull”, but then who are we to contradict? Maybe that’s how the guy pronounced his name himself. Any way Honey-bull led his countrymen against the Romans in the 2nd Punic War with the unusual strategy of invading Rome in 218 BC by shipping 37 elephants across the Mediterranean and driving them across the Alps. He did invade Rome, but was eventually driven back to Africa where he was defeated at the battle of Zama in 202 BC. Back at home in Carthage,  Hannibal tried to introduce some democratic reforms, which the ruling class always thinks is a bad idea, and was subsequently forced into exile. Hannibal killed himself in despair (no money, no empire, no glory, and no Prozac) in 182 BC, but Carthage lived on to fight the Third and final Punic War.


The Roman Period This period started in 146 BC. The Romans decided to take Carthage for their own, along with a lot of other locales around the countryside after the 3rd Punic War. They settled the previous two wars by forcing the Carthaginians to pay tribute (not the flowery words sort of tribute, but rather in the form of gold, silver, slaves and so forth). However, they finally decided after the 3rd Punic war that if they didn’t wipe them out, there would just be a 4th Punic War and it could go on and on. So they destroyed Carthage and set up shop – Roman style. Things went swimmingly for the Romans for around 600 hundred years until the Empire began to crumble and those pesky Vandals swooped down from the north and of course “vandalized” Carthage in 439 A.D. The Vandals as it turned out were more inclined to pillage and well, vandalize,  than colonize or build an empire someone else would want to pillage and vandalize. Once they cleaned a place out, they tended to move on, and thus there isn’t a Vandal period per se and Tunisia was pretty much ripe for takeover with the door left wide-open for the Byzantines.


The Byzantine Period: In the wake of the Vandals, Emperor Justinian of Byzantium did some swooping in himself in 533 AD and set up his own empire, but the Byzantine rule was relatively short-lived and they began to lose ground to the Arabs


The Arab-Islamic Period: Then next period began in 647 AD as the Arabs began moving in and establishing control through their religion, Islam, and gradually taking over Byzantine held territory. By 698 AD their mission was complete. Islam proved to have some serious staying power as the Muslims fought thousands of Crusaders, including King Louis IX of France in 1270 in what proved to the 8th and Last Crusade. It went badly for Louis since he caught the plague during the siege of Carthage and died. Of course went badly for the surviving Crusaders too and they packed up and went home to crusade no more.


The Ottoman Period: The  Ottoman Turks came along in 1574 AD and brought what is today Tunisia into the Ottoman empire with the help of the corsairs (a.k.a. Barbary Pirates made famous in modern times by Errol Flynn, swashbuckler extraordinaire), including the famous Barbarossa (which translates from Spanish as “red beard – no doubt some of those Vandal hair genes emerging, along with that Vandal attitude). They were called Corsairs which was roughly equivalent to the British privateers–who were doing the same thing. Basically it’s a case of pirates receiving a license to steal from a sponsoring government, enabling them to attack any ship flying under the flag of another country, enemy or otherwise. This resulted in many governments paying protection money to Tunisia to ensure their ships would not be attacked. The US however sent in the Marines which gave rise to the lyrics in the Marine Hymn which reference “the Shores of Tripoli”.  Under the Ottomans, Tunisia had a long fairly stable and prosperous period (much easier to achieve when the pirates are on your side, with only occasional outbreaks of the plague and other inconveniences. However, due to increased pressure from other nations, piracy was finally outlawed by Tunisia in 1819. But then the French moved in.


The French Period: Under the guise of providing protection to the Algerians, the neighbor to the west of Tunisia, the French in 1836 sent 30,000 troops, set up foreign legion posts and eventually colonized Tunisia. There was a local “bey” (ruler) appointed by the French, but he was clearly a ruler in name only and France was calling all the shots. French Foreign Legion posts were set up across the country, much like the one featured in the old movie, Beau Geste, but with a lot less drama and romance no doubt. Tunisia was struggling to become independent and France very graciously offered to help out by becoming a “guarantor” of Tunisia’s independence. Becoming a guarantor of freedom very closely resembled colonization, a pretense kept up for about the next  90 years, until they made it official and set up a protectorate in 1881 and put an end to all pretense of freedom for the locals.


In WWII Tunisia was a major battle site (you may recall a TV show called Rat Patrol that portrayed events here and across North Africa). There is a British Military cemetery here containing the remains of 9,000 soldiers, a German one with close to 8,000 and an American one in Carthage with around 3500. Tunisia was occupied from November of 1942 to May of 1943 by the Italians and Germans. When the Americans came into the war in Europe after Pearl Harbor, North Africa was their first real engagement with Germany at Kasserine Pass on the Algerian border. Unfortunately the Germans were well trained and well led by Erwin Rommel (a.k.a. the Desert Fox) and decimated the U.S. troops here in January of 1943. Only after the combined efforts of troops under Generals Patton and  Montgomery, were the Germans pushed back. If you’ve seen the movie Patton, the first half hour or so takes place in Tunisia, and in fact one of the opening scenes is his surveying the losses at Kasserine Pass.


The City Gate of Tunis

The City Gate of Tunis

Independence: Due to a number of circumstances, including fighting a very costly war and needing to rebuild after the peace treaty in 1945, France was gradually releasing her hold on colonies all over the world and Tunisia was one of them. In a bloodless revolution, Tunisia became free of France in 1956. In 1957 Habib Bourgiba (their version of George Washington) supposedly became president-for-life, but he was eventually forced from office and elections were held. In 1987 a new president was elected and true democracy began to take hold.


The Tourist Invasion: Nowadays the only invaders are the tourists, and the occasional film crew, taking advantage of the local desert scenery and associated exotic ambiance.

The overwhelming majority of tourists are French (1.5m) or German (.8m). The US is in the  “Others” category with only 59k visitors per year.


We got settled in our room at the “5 star hotel”, the Khamsa Corinthian in Gammarth, a beach resort area just outside of Tunis. One of the first things we learned about Tunisia is the answer to the question “When is a star not a star?” The answer is when it’s used to describe a hotel in Tunisia.  Something gets lost in translation. The hotel is very striking, quite Moorish in design with a lot of marble and it is spotlessly clean. The setting is lovely – I’m looking out on the infinity pool and the Mediterranean beyond as I write, but it would probably only rate maybe 3 stars in the US. (no fluffy robes, no hovering staff, no obsequious concierge sucking up to you.), but it is quite adequate as a place to sleep. Tunisia is a developing country and among the things they are developing (or should be) are effective plumbing, accounts payable (i.e. having cash on hand to make change) basic hotelier details (like providing  towels in the bathroom). As a place to eat, well that is another story. But having said all that, it’s still a fabulous country.


We did have a lunch of sorts in the restaurant downstairs called Le Bistrot (a silent “T” this time) and unfortunately it left a lot to be desired. It’s a good thing we fancy ourselves as travelers and not tourists or we’d have a hard time seeing the humor here. My husband Gary,  not a picky eater,  had an onion soup which he said he would not order again, which in his parlance is tantamount to gagging. We split a club sandwich which had some sort of bologna-like substance on it which I refused to eat and Gary picked off the sandwich as he ate the remaining bread and chicken. But to be fair since we’re in a Muslim country, I guess I shouldn’t really have expected the bacon, but I really have to wonder, what was that faux-bologna stuff? This trip could be a real boon to my perpetual weight-loss program, except that I brought a lot of snacks (the high calorie type – many of which have chocolate as a main ingredient) in case the local cuisine is not to my liking. However, the trip is young and I will reserve judgment until more meals are consumed.


Tonight we had dinner and belly dancing. and yup, the tourists danced too, including Habib. The belly dancers were quite talented, but extremely well-fed, which I have to say makes for a much more interesting belly dance than you see with those hard-body girls.

The dinner specialty was lamb stew cooked in clay pots and Tunisian salad which includes tuna fish. Gary pronounced the stew as okay, but I only nibbled around the edges of my dinner and hit my chocolate stash back at the hotel room pretty hard.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dateline: Tunis, Tunisia


As we drove to our first stop, Kamel and Roberto shared some Arabic lingo with us, which I will share for your future reference and personal edification:


Yes = iyeh

No = la

Thank you = Shukran

Goodbye = Bislama

Hello =  Aslama

And most importantly when dealing with vendors of tourist wares

Go away = imshee.


Our first adventure was a walk through the Grand Souk (market) and Medina (old city). Medina is pronounced mah-dean-ah with the accent on “dean”. I thought it would be pronounced like Medina Ohio, but we Americans we have apparently changed the pronunciation to suit ourselves (I think we got this habit from the Brits).


Many of the people living here in centuries past were Jews and Muslims, expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella during the Spanish Inquisition, and thus the Andalusian influence is in much of the architecture. The souk is closed on Sundays (Tunisia kept the French custom of closure for government offices and banks), but a few shops operate on the Walmart model and are open when ever there are customers. The medina was once surrounded by fortress walls and gates which is called the Kasbah.  And thus was exposed as false another long-held misconception of mine.  I thought a Kasbah (a.k.a. Casbah) was a sinful, Prohibition sort of place where Bogart would slip in with Marlena Dietrich or maybe Mae West for a night of debauchery. They did have the little peepholes that they would slide open like in the speakeasies from Prohibition days to see who is requesting to be admitted, but that’s about where the similarity ends. The city gates (called “bab” in Arabic) are all that is left of the walls. It seems all of the wall’s stone ramparts were hauled off for other needs such as building houses and mosques. The “babs” all have names that translate as Girl’s Gate, Green Gate, French Gate, Honey Gate and so forth.


We saw a number of mosques, with two different shapes of minarets (towers) The traditional Tunisian minaret is square, but the Turks introduced the octagonal shape.  The government supports the maintenance for the mosques, and pays the imams, funds the medersas (Islamic schools a.k.a. madrassahs). The muezzins call the faithful to prayer and the imams lead congregations and serve as “teacher/preachers. A note on the medersas – one can only attend after graduating from secular school at the high school level – no religious browbeating or brainwashing of youngsters is allowed here. They attend Koranic school only if they want to be religious scholars or leaders (e.g. similar to a Christian seminary school) otherwise they attend a regular college as we know it, or they go to work or into the military.


We strolled by the Olive Tree Mosque which is the oldest in Tunisia, so named for an olive tree that formerly grew in its courtyard. We also strolled Avenue Habib Bourgiba, sort of Champs Elysee wannabe with a very western European feel – a wide tree-lined boulevard with sidewalk cafes and elegant shops. We heard the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer around 3:00. One of our fellow travelers (but I think this one is actually a tourist) said “Hey Hon, listen to that prayer music they are playing”. I have to say it’s interesting to hear the muezzin call, but I think it’s really a stretch to think of it as music. This same couple also didn’t quite get the hang of the word “dinar” and kept calling them “dineros”, but to their credit, the locals just smiled pleasantly and made change.


Habib, the American

Habib, the American

One shop that was open in the souk was a hat store, and of course Gary (Habib) became the first customer of the day. He bought a hat that many of the locals wear called sort of Chechia (Pronounced “Shah-shia”). Gary bought red one for 10 dinar, perched it on his head, and immediately, of course blended right in with the locals (a Hungarian Tunisian look). The locals all smiled and waved greeting him with “Allo, Ali Baba”.) The chechia is different from the fez which is Turkish (Ottoman). The fez is a taller hat with a tassel (worn by Shriner’s at their various functions) whereas Chechias are more like pill box hats that are made by knitting a big cap, soaking it in hot water so that it will shrink, dyeing it and shaping it on a form to size it. It is then brushed to make it slightly fuzzy. Red is commonly worn in Tunisia and black is worn in Libya.


Another shop that was open was one for locals which specialized in wedding baskets for sale. They are frilly little Easter basket sort of things decorated with white tulle and all sorts of lace. Grooms-to-be send these to their fiancés as a gift during the courtship.


We had free time so Gary and I stopped at a café for cokes. I was the only female present, but I was still made to feel welcome. In traditional Tunisia (and other Muslim countries) the men go to the cafes as a social outlet and women stay home. Today the women get out a lot more, but still don’t go to this type of café so I figure they are sort of like the pool halls in the US. There were a lot of tiny cups of mud-like coffee and a few chicha smokers. (It’s pronounced “shi-sha” and is a type of water pipe or hookah – no hash, no opium, just apple wood, which I don’t think offers too much in the way of a buzz).


En route to the Bardo Museum, we saw a piece of the Zagouan aqueduct built by the Romans in the second century to bring water to bring water to Carthage during Hadrian’s reign. But I’ll have more on this later.


A Roman Mosaic Sarcophagus at the Bardo Museum

A Roman Mosaic Sarcophagus at the Bardo Museum

The Bardo is named after the city by the same name and was founded in 1882 to house many of the treasures from the Roman era, particularly mosaics. It was formerly a bey’s (king’s) palace, built in the Moorish and Andalusian style. There were really some fabulous mosaics in museum, with Romans doing the best work by far. By comparison the Christian mosaics were somewhat amateurish and to make matters worse, they (the Christians) removed faces from the mosaics the Romans did, because they represented “false gods” in their view. They also did the same thing as Egypt – it’s that “graven image” thing. While the museum was the bey’s palace during the Arabic era, when the Ottomans took over, it became the palace of the pasha, a sort of governor general who reported back to the sultan in Constantinople.


There are a lot of Roman era statues, many headless, as we have noticed is the case in many of our travels, but now we know why. We learned an insider sculptor’s secret – that is, often the heads of statues were made to be interchangeable – you know those wacky Romans were always running through emperors like they were water and it took quite a bit of time to get the drape on that toga just right when you’re working in marble. Therefore, they only had to sculpt the head when the old emperor died or was otherwise indisposed or perhaps disposed of. Off came the old emperor’s head (the marble version anyway) and on went the new emperor’s head and bingo, you have updated statuary  – same body, same toga, brand new head.


After the visit to the Bardo, we went to the quaint waterfront area called La Goulette Harbor for lunch at the La Victoire Restaurant.. Lunch was a series of Tunisian specials – some less appetizing than others.  We had “brik” which is a raw egg mixed with seasonings and other ingredients and fried in phyllo pastry. This actually wasn’t too bad, although a little on the greasy side and the egg didn’t get too well done in the process so there was a lot of yolk action.  The main event was fried fish (small with bones, head and tail, and thus even smaller once those were removed) and rice and vegetables spicy enough to make Gary break out in a sweat and me to pass my plate over to him. Desert was a delicious flan. I liked the brik and the flan and Gary liked the entrée and veggies so we both actually had plenty to eat.


After lunch we visited Carthage – old and new. New Carthage is quite posh –colonial and Moorish-Andalusian style and home to most of the embassies and wealthy locals. Streets are lined with date palms and orange trees. The Tunisia “aristocracy” are still referred to as Andalusians (purportedly descendants of those expelled from Spain’s region by the same name.)


The Tophet Sacrificial Site Carthage

The Tophet Sacrificial Site Carthage

Our first stop was Tophet where Carthagenians used to sacrifice small children – boys ages 4-12 to appease the gods, much like cultures in other parts of the globe such as the Aztec and Mayan. No one is quite sure where the idea first came from, but somehow they associated all bad things that happened to them – earthquakes, storms, lost battles – with the “gods” being displeased. The two primary Carthaginian gods were a husband wife combo, both associated with fertility.  The goddess Tanit, was believed to be the personification of the sun and the moon. The husband Baal Hammon, whose name means “lord of the incense altars” – presumably those altars where the sacrifices were made)  had the body of a man and the head of a lion.


Stellae of Carthage

Stelae of Carthage

The sacrifice business was sort of a Catch 22. If they made a sacrifice and things turned out well – that validated the need to sacrifice. If they sacrifice and things went sour – that only meant they didn’t sacrifice enough small children. In fact after losing one particular battle, they were certain the gods were really pissed at them and they sacrificed 400 boys in a single day. Mothers had to turn their son (if selected) over to a priest and only the immediate family could attend ceremony. It was considered an honor to have your child selected for sacrifice, but musicians were hired to play loud music to drown out the screaming from mother and or child in case the thrill of the honor abandoned them at the last minute. The priest would slit the child’s throat and burn his body and the family would collect the ashes and bury them in a special sarcophagus and mark the site with a stelae (which is pronounced stell-lay with the accent on first syllable.) which was a short column like a mini-obelisk. Girls’ blood apparently would not work, but then boy’s blood didn’t work too well either since the Romans kicked their butts 3 times in a row in the Punic Wars. All that is left of the sacrifice site are the altar steps and lots of foundations of ruins, but many stelae have remained intact.


En route to our next stop, we got a glimpse of the Roman theater where in 1942, the British General Montgomery (a.k.a. Monty) spoke to his troops to rally them against the Germans. His speech must have worked better than the slaughtered children angle since his army did go on to defeat the Germans at El Alamein in Egypt.  The theater itself was a marvel of engineering (as was most things the Romans undertook) First of all,  just the fact that it is still standing after 2,000 years  is impressive, plus it will hold 13,000 people and has excellent acoustics. This theater is a horseshoe shape. Many theaters scattered around the former Roman Empire are mistakenly called amphitheaters, but in truth they are only theaters. The Romans did build an amphitheater here which is oval and was like the Coliseum in Rome. We stopped at the site of the amphitheater, but all that is left of the one that was here is the area below the arena where all the action took place – action including the slaughter of Perpetua, who later was named to sainthood. St. Perpetua’s death reportedly came about according to historical accounts after being injured on the ”horns of a vicious cow”, but today I think we’d just call them “bulls”. A Roman soldier then performed the coup de grace with his sword. Another martyr, Father Cipriani was supposedly fed to two hungry lions on this same site.  This of course was during the Roman heyday, and we all know they later got their comeuppance, albeit too late for many of the Christians.


We made a brief stop at Carthage Cathedral (a.k.a. St. Louis Cathedral), large, but not monstrous as cathedrals go, built in the Moorish Gothic style atop Byrsa Hill, which is one of the highest hills in the area.. It was built in 1890 to commemorate Louis IX, the King of France, whom I mentioned earlier and who died of the plague in Tunisia in 1270 A.D. while leading the 8th and final Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the infidels. It’s interesting to note that nowadays, the Christians are called the infidels. Our stop was brief because the cathedral is no longer open. Technically it is still the private property of the Roman Catholic Church, although it was deconsecrated in 1964, but due to complications we lay people can’t quite grasp, the Cathedral no longer receives funds from the Catholic Church and has fallen into disrepair, particularly inside. The Church will neither pay for repairs nor allow Tunisian government to pay for repairs so it continues to decay.


This is not the first time Tunisians have run afoul of the Church of Rome. In the 4th Century AD, the bishop of Carthage at that time, named Donatus, decided that the leaders of the church in Rome (that would be the Pope and the Cardinals) weren’t properly defending Christianity from the Romans (too many in the “loser” column vis-à-vis  the lions, one would suppose) and rather than “regime change”, he and his followers just split off and converted to their own brand of Catholicism which became known as “Donatism” and the rebels were called Donatists. They built churches of their own, often only yards away from the Catholic churches.


Runis of Roman Carthage

Ruins of Roman Carthage, built on ruins of Original Carthage

We then visited the ruins of Carthage, but unfortunately not much is left thanks to the Romans. They simply dismantled buildings, walls, whatever and used the stones to build their own stuff, often using the foundations of Carthaginian buildings.  You can still see the remnants of two magnificent Carthaginian harbors, one merchant and one military with two entrances, so no matter which way the wind was blowing, the ships could get home.




Runis of the Roman Baths at Carthage

Runis of the Roman Baths at Carthage

The Romans (in the pre-Vandal years) had three gathering places – the basilica (long before the Catholics borrowed the name) which was a market place, and the forum where they talked politics and the baths where they essentially dished dirt (so to speak). We visited the Baths of Antonine, quite impressive and quite ingenious, which were built of granite, marble and grey sandstone by the Romans in the Second Century. The baths consisted of huge rooms with vaulted ceilings supported by massive columns. There were different chambers in the baths for personal hygiene and overall relaxation. They had the caldarium which had hot water – heated with wood burning furnaces from below which were constantly tended by slaves. Then they had the tepidarium with tepid or luke-warm water, also heated by furnaces, but more on a simmer than a low boil. And then of course there was the frigidarium where you could go to cool off. It was filled where with cool spring water brought down via the aqueduct from the mountains (As smart as they were, they hadn’t figured out how to create cold without Mother Nature’s help). They also had two toilets (big toilets) which had 100 seats apiece. The slaves had to clean up at the end of the day, which provided still one more reason to escape. They also had large solariums built in open air courtyards (no tanning beds back then) for sunning themselves and working on their tans. They also had large gymnasiums and massage areas as well. Women used the baths in the AM and men used them in the PM. While this was a place to wash up and take care of personal needs, it was much more than that – sort of a Roman country club and a place to see and be seen and trade gossip. Unfortunately when the Vandals invaded in 439 BC, the Baths were largely destroyed. It seems the Vandals didn’t indulge the same leisurely pursuits of the Romans – they apparently much preferred vandalizing to soaking in the hot tub.


A Street Market in Sidi Bousaid

A Street Market in Sidi Bousaid

Our last stop of the day was a visit to a delightful village called Sidi Bousaid (Sidi means Mr. or Sir and Bousaid is the name of a holy man who lived in this village. When he died, they renamed the village in his honor. It is a storybook town which calls to mind Fira on Santorini, with white buildings trimmed in blue, but this blue has more turquoise tones. It is a mix of Greek looking structures along side Moorish-Andalusian architecture which somehow seems to work. There are steep cobblestone streets spilling over with shops and restaurants high above the harbor. In times gone by the town was occupied by aristocrats, but now an artist colony has sprung up. At the turn of the century (19th to 20th that is) the French literati hung out here, including Du Maupassant, Gide, Flaubert, Dumas, de Beauvoir. The streets are lined with orange trees – not good eating, but they make orange blossom water to use in cakes and as a cure for headaches. My camera battery decided to take a powder since it had been working hard all day so I only captured a few photos here out of the hundreds that suggested themselves…


On our trip home, Roberto shared some tidbits about things Italian. Roberto, instead of “eh” we hear from our Canadian neighbors utters a very Gallic/Italian “anh?” to emphasize points.  He told us that Margarhita Pizza was made in honor of and named for an Italian princess. The tomato sauce cheese and basil signify the red green and white of the Italian flag. I don’t know what the brown crust signifies, but then Italians are never concerned with minor details. He also told us that pizza came from Greek Pita bread (Greeks once controlled Southern Italy where pizza started.) He pointed our that there are no meatballs in Italy, no garlic bread, no pepperoni – all are American interpretations and in fact “pepperoni” in Italian refers to peppers.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Dateline: Tunis, Tunisia

 What a day we had today. We had a quick breakfast of the usual stuff (eggs, cheese, bread oranges) and hopped on the bus to head out into the countryside of Central Tunisia to visit two ancient Roman cities that are UNESCO World Heritage sites. We crossed Lake Tunis which is a natural brackish water lake which separates the city center from newer parts of the city. There is a Turkish fort on an island built in the 16th century in the middle of the lake to defend against an attack from the lake. It was also used for dunking female adulterers in the 15th and 16th centuries as punishment. We didn’t hear what happened to male adulterers – maybe they got a virgin or two subtracted from their heavenly reward of 72, but suspect that with the double standard solidly in place, nothing much happened to them. A note on the 72 Virgins – Scholars of the Quran say the 72 virgins are an invention of certain sects of Islam and the Quran says nothing on this topic.


Zagoura Roman Aqueduct

Ruins of the Zagoura Roman Aqueduct

We continued on toward Jebel Zaghouan (jebel in Arabic means mountain so that’s Mt. Zaghouan to us) which is 4,000 feet above sea level. We didn’t actually reach the mountain, but the main attraction was the miles and miles of the Roman aqueduct built in the Second Century AD to provide water to Carthage, 77 miles away. Roman engineers had to figure it out so the aqueduct was all down with no ups because they knew about gravity, but they didn’t know about pumps, and thus it took significant skill on their part to make running water available at the various “ariums” down at the Baths.


Tunisia is self sufficient agriculturally and is not required to import any food except rice, which is a relatively late addition to the Tunisian diet. They export a lot of food to desert countries with little no agriculture (e.g. Libya) including olives, grains, cous cous (the national dish of Tunisia) and meat. Strangely enough, this is the first country we have been to (with the possible exception of Oman) that has no McDonalds or KFC or Starbucks. Roberto says Tunisians just prefer their own food, but as they get more and more Western influence – I don’t think they can hold off Big Mac for long. He said McDonald’s failed in Italy until they added pasta to the menu and got rid of the plastic furniture, which apparently offended Italian sensibilities. A personal opinion here, I’m sad to say I’m not sure the meat in this country would meet McDonald’s standards, which is saying quite a bit. But actually, I think the meat probably starts out okay, it just goes bad over the many hours (or days) of the cooking process.


Most plants here in the countryside are native, but they have imported some such as agave, eucalyptus and prickly pear cactus which they find useful for fences, and in a pinch you can always get liquid from them if you’re thirsty.  One of the more charming sights in this area is the shepherds with their flocks, looking quite looks biblical, especially when they wear traditional dress, looking like they just stepped right out of the manger scene. More often than not, however, the shepherds have on blue jeans and sneakers and a baseball cap and are talking on a cell phone.


The mountains in Tunisia are part of the Atlas range which starts in Morocco and stretches across Algeria and peters out in Southern Tunisia. The highest peak in Tunisia is on the Algerian border above Kasserine Pass. We saw in the distance a tomb of a holy man called a marabout (pronounced just like the marabou stork, the “t” is silent). The name refers both to the man and the burial place. The drive is beautiful with whole groves of almond trees in bloom with carpets of yellow and purple wildflowers seemingly on every hillside. We are traveling through the Mederja Valley which is sort of the breadbasket of Tunisia with beautiful country side and lush green fields – sort of like Ireland without the rain.


All of this scenery was seen en route to Thuburbo Majus (the latter meaning big Thuburbo, apparently there was a little Thuburbo also. The H is silent so it’s pronounced Two-Burbo and the “J” is silent so that part is pronounced My-Us, with the accent on “Two” and “Us”. This has to be the second most fabulous place I’ve never heard of. I’ll have more on the most fabulous place  later in the day.


Ruins at Thuburbo Majus

Ruins at Thuburbo Majus

Thuburbo Majus is a Roman settlement established in 27 BC close to a Punic town of the same name. In 128 AD, Emperor Hadrian of Rome visited and granted it the independent status of municipium (which was quite a big deal) and in 188 AD it was granted colony status (an even bigger deal). There were approximately 3 centuries of growth and prosperity with building of homes and public buildings, one of the most impressive of which is the Capitol Temple, dedicated to Jupiter and other gods and goddesses. There are smaller temples and forums surrounding this main temple (Or I suppose I should say there were since it is in ruins today, but even so, you can still see the grandeur that was once here – elaborate mosaics, original roads laid of stone, huge columns still standing over the centuries and of course the elaborate baths, much along the lines of the ones we visited in Carthage yesterday. Those Romans did love their luxuries. You have to imagine the missing statuary including a gargantuan one of Jupiter in his personal temple where only the toes remain. Many of the other parts of it are now in the Bardo museum and archeologists have been able to piece together enough information to know that the original statue was 230 feet high. One must also imagine completed mosaics (many were removed to the Bardo) on the floors and interior walls covered in marble. Unfortunately, here as in other sites of antiquity, people have felt free to pilfer stone to build their own edifices at will. Still there are vast rooms, courtyards – all very symmetrical and artistically conceived.


From Thuburbo Majus, we made our way to the village of Taborsouk for lunch at the Hotel Thugga (pronounced Too-ga which is an alternative spelling of Dougga, our next Roman city, where we are going this afternoon) The have Barbary figs here which are actually a cactus product, versus a real fig, which was not nearly as tasty as you would find in a Fig Newton. On the way here we observed the increasing aridity of the land, but still we pass orchards, vineyards, big flocks of fluffy sheep with new lambs, with shepherds in native dress, donkeys clopping along dirt paths with bundles wrapped in sack cloth – looking quite Biblical indeed, but again there are also those blue jeans and Nike sneakers which sort of kills the ambiance. We finally saw sheepdogs as we drove into a drier area where it takes more acreage to graze the flocks and thus they need the dogs to help keep them rounded up, along with more of the prickly pear cactus fences. This part of Tunisia reminds us of southern Spain with flavors of Provence , both of  which are just across the Mediterranean. More women are in the traditional dress here (more covered up) than in Tunis and it looks much more 3rd world than 2nd and is thus much more interesting to see.


The Countryside around Dougga

The Countryside around Dougga

The countryside is wooded (more Texas Hill Country than North Georgia) and hunters come here from Europe for the wild boar. It was a strange lunch – a Tunisia salad with the obligatory tuna fish right out of the can, a cold quiche and then more stuff for lunch which included rice which we recognized and wild boar which we did not. It was another “interesting” if not delicious meal and Gary had the opportunity to taste harissa, the local treat on behalf of both of us.  Harissa is a hot paste made of tomatoes and peppers which Gary pronounced it extremely hot after eating a bit about the size of a microdot and he would partake no more.


Temple at Dougga

Temple at Dougga

We arrived in the most impressive place I have never heard of, Dougga, in the early afternoon. Dougga, like Thuburbo Majus, was a Berber-Punic city originally, also colonized and actually made a province of Rome after the Punic Wars. While the Punic people built here, the Romans were the ones who really built all the good stuff, much of which you can still see today (or at least visualize how it was). Of course in fairness to the Punic builders and architects, the Romans destroyed a lot of their “stuff” to build their own “stuff”. All the houses had elaborate mosaics on the floor and often are named for the themes of those mosaics. While many have been moved to the Bardo Museum in Tunis,  there are still plenty here to enjoy. Dougga had a population of 8 thousand people in its heyday and is considered to be the best preserved Roman city in North Africa. As in Thuburbo Majus, the surrounding hills and valleys are also incredibly green.


Dougga Amphitheater

Dougga Amphitheater

We stopped first at the Roman open-air theater which still has fabulous acoustics. I actually climbed to the top row of seats and could hear everything Kamel was saying from the stage area. One of Dougga’s most striking features is the Capitol, built in 166 AD. A capitol was a building which all provinces had, and it served as a seat of government. It and our own capitol buildings, both state and federal, are named after the original government building on Capitoline hill in Rome. The Byzantines built a wall in a misguided effort to “protect” the capitol, and they used a lot of fallen stones for it, so it makes restoration difficult. The temple pediment (the triangle shaped part in the front) is still intact and is supported by four columns (all still standing) and features a relief carving of Antoninius Pius who funded the building. He is portrayed as Ganymede (a handsome youth with whom the Roman god Jupiter fell in love, and subsequently sent an eagle swooping down to earth to grab him and bring him up to heaven for his own lecherous purposes). You can still see most of the detail of the eagle in mid-swoop. It apparently was common in those days for humans with a few coins to spend to pander to their own inflated egos by substituting their faces for those of favorite gods and goddesses.


Adjacent to the Capitols is an impressive courtyard called the Square of the Winds which is courtyard with all the directions of the compass accurately laid out. This was quite a feat since they didn’t have compasses in those days, yet they still knew their directions. There were 12 winds in total including those such as NNE, SSE, etc. We also saw many intact segments of the Roman road which in its day would take you all the way to Carthage. It was hand hewn and hand laid. The stones are still in place, and you can see ruts worn by chariots, as well as grooves carved by the stone masons on sloping sections to ensure traction.


There are a number of villas here, many private residences, but one of the best preserved was a public building called the Trefoil House. This structure is believed to be a house of ill repute since it had 24 bedrooms, which historians assume are for working girls, and an arrow pointing to it in the shape of the human male “apparatus” There was a fancy entrance with a niche for, it is believed, a cashier of sorts and also a private entrance for discreet entrances and exits. We also saw some graffiti here from WWII left by Nazi soldiers, but the ladies were of course long gone.


Lycinian Baths at Dougga

Lycynian Baths at Dougga

One of the most intact structures at Dougga is the Lycynian Baths which had to be fabulous in their day because the ruins were just magnificent. Our guide took us into the baths via the slave entrance tunnel still very much intact. At one time the baths had walls encased  in marble, but like so many other sites, they were long ago stripped for other building projects. They very much resembled the baths we saw in Carthage, but these baths still have one of their 12 seat toilets available for viewing. Kamel, explained this as a place where you can “make your business” and he demonstrated the process (although he kept his pants on of course) To make your business, you would go in, select your seat, lift your togas, and proceed to answer the call of nature.  You could use the opportunity to reflect on the day’s business up at the forum or perhaps  chat up your neighbors to get the latest gossip. The seats were carved in stone and consisted of standard opening you’d expect in any latter day outhouse, but that’s where the similarity ended., The toilets were built above a trench with running water (dry now) to carry waste away. One of the interesting aspects was a slot carved just below the “bowl”, perpendicular to the ground, It is believed that they would put toilet paper (or whatever substituted for it) on a stick and lift the hem of the toga, and slide the stick though the slot, just enough to wipe their behinds – all the while never missing a conversational beat. The toilets were invented by a Roman Emperor named Vespasian and were often referred to as “vespasians” –  sort of like John Crapper and his device we still use in modified form today and refer to as the “crapper”. All things considered, this strikes me as a rather unsavory way to make history.


The baths also had a gymnasium for exercise ( Roberto calls it a “gim” nasium vs. a “jim” nasium). Supposedly the Greeks used them for exercise of the mind and body, but the Romans seemed to use their gymnasiums for physical fitness, so they must have saved all their thinking time for the Baths. However, schools in several European countries today are called gymnasiums.



We made our way back to Tunis, which was a long trip with a lot of traffic but we had some “malouf” music  to keep us amused. It’s reminiscent of the music you hear when you see snake charmers – very tinny, very monotone with not too many notes on the scale. I’d say it’s like Tabasco sauce- a little bit goes a very long way. However the music in the hotels is very Lawrence Welk. It’s always American, always incongruous with some Elton, some Elvis, some Gone with the Wind soundtrack , but always instrumental.  We saw a local bank whose name we liked called The Amen Bank. We figured the customers must pray that the bank doesn’t fail with their money inside. We also noticed hundreds of kids walking home from school, most in small groups who smile and wave to us, with many talking on cell phones or listening to their IPODS..


We had the opportunity this evening for a Cultural Connection, which is Vantage’s term for an opportunity to meet local people, observe cultural customs and so forth. We met two professors – Munir and Waffa, both of whom teach English and American literature at the local university. They spoke of a local crisis in their country in the form of a “Brain Drain.” Their top students and scholars usually emigrate either to Western Europe, Canada or the US because they can make so much more money than they can by staying in their own country. They also gave us a feel for what Tunisian youth is like, i.e. very preoccupied with things American, particularly the music and the movies and couldn’t care less about Iraq or other current events. They love their DVD’s, videogames, Ipods, cell phones, etc. As a rule they are much better dressed than American kids (more skin covered, shorter hair, but girls typically do not were the veil, particularly in Tunis). American companies are reportedly targeting Tunisian youth, believing this is the best way to penetrate the market. Between juicy Big Mac’s with fries for us starving carnivores and Happy Meals for the kids, McDonald’s may have a chance here after all.