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Tunisia: A Journey Into History - by Mayo McClaskey

A Special Feature presented by the Port Hope and District Historical Society

Our camels moved slowly over the desert late in the day from the town of Douz in southern Tunisia. Some years ago I embarked on a five day camel safari across the desert in Rajasthan in India. This was just a short excursion in Tunisia, so I should have been able to adjust to the uncomfortable position on the back of a camel. Previously I was able to lean back with the reins in my hands and my feet in stirrups, gradually gaining some control over the arrogant beast, but this time a desert nomad led the way on foot holding the reins, leaving me perched high above him in a forward back-breaking position. The discomfort gradually lessened, for the desert is extraordinary in its vastness, silence and serenity, the sand muffling any sound from our moving caravan. Reaching the top of a high dune, we watched the sun, now a red fireball, slowly sink behind the horizon, leaving in its wake an afterglow colouring the desert sands pink.

Tunisia is a land of many contrasts and reminders of its long and complicated history are everywhere. There are over two hundred Roman archaeological sites on which excavation began a hundred years ago and continues. One has to struggle to find evidence of their predecessors, the Phoenicians, powerful sea traders from the coast of present day Syria and Lebanon who in the 7th century B.C. circumnavigated the African continent.
New evidence from a cave shrine recently discovered in Gibraltar indicates they ventured into the Atlantic, the extent of their voyages not yet fully known. Prior to their presence in Tunisia, Numidian berber tribes inhabited the country, but in 814 B.C. the Phoenicians founded Carthage, today a wealthy suburb of the capital Tunis. They began to establish settlements in other areas of the country, and over a long period of time intermingled with the Numidians. They had a writing system and worshipped their sun god Baal and moon goddess Tanit, and to these gods they sacrificed their children. In Carthage, below the hill of Bysra on which they built their city, we viewed graveyards filled with stelae bearing the symbols of their gods, each marking the grave of a child. There must be hundreds more as only a small part of the site has been excavated.

Carthage became powerful under the Phoenicians. Then in 146 B.C. after the Punic Wars with the Romans lasting for a hundred years, the Romans burned the city to the ground, later building their Capitoline Temple and forum on Bysra on the ashes of the vanquished. For the next three hundred years the Romans proceeded to expand their power throughout the county, building other cities with magnificent public buildings over those of their predecessors. In Carthage, very little remains of the Roman city itself because for centuries it was used as a quarry by later conquerors, including the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs.

On Bysra we explored a small portion of the Phoenician settlement which has been excavated below the foundations of the Roman city that was once there revealing two storey structures of unusual brick construction with evidence of fountains at ground level and water cisterns below. Rome's only presence on the hill today seems to be portions of a stone wall that once encircled their own city. Below the hill in another area of Carthage, high above the Bay of Tunis on the Mediterranean, we viewed the ruins of the Roman Baths, once the largest in the Roman world next to those in Rome, whose huge stone foundations are in place today, once supporting an additional two stories from which stairs led down to the beautiful bay below.

Housed in the 19th century Cathedral of St. Louis on Bysra and dedicated to Louis IX who died here in 1270 leading a crusade into Tunisia, is the National Archaeological Museum. Here we examined rare Phoenician pottery showing a Greek influence, as well as other small relics found in excavations, some with a religious significance. There was also a good collection of Roman mosaics and sculpture, but it is the Bardo Museum in Tunis, once a Turkish palace, where we were later overwhelmed with what is the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. Once covering the floors of Roman villas and public buildings, these are mounted on the walls of the Bardo for all to see. They were incredible.

We explored Tunisia in depth. Leaving Tunis, we travelled through the cork forests of the Kroumirie Mountains in the north interspersed with fertile green valleys. This is the richest agricultural area of the country as it was in the time of the Romans who exported wheat, olives and fruits produced here to Italy. We reached the Roman city of Chemtou, famous for its pink-veined yellow marble, used by the Romans in addition to their own Carrara marble shipped from Italy. Here the hollowed out remains of the Roman Temple of Saturn built over a Phoenician Temple of Baal, rose high on the north bank of the Medjerda River, its source in nearby Algeria. After the 4th century A.D. this temple became a Christian basilica. The scant remains of the unusual free-standing theatre and its location at the edge of a cliff above the river recalled the grandeur of the Roman Empire.

Further south we explored Bulla Regia where the Romans built a wealthy agricultural town over an earlier Phoenician site. Bulla Regia is famous for its underground villas, the living areas built below elegant colonnaded courtyards to escape the heat. Open areas provided fresh air and indirect lighting and the floors were covered with mosaics. Although most mosaics have been moved to the Bardo from excavated sites in the country, quite a few have been left in situ as they were in the villas here. They were impressive, in relatively good condition, and strangely unprotected here and elsewhere, left to be walked on by tourists not sensitive enough to care!
Travelling southeast some distance we reached the Roman city of Dougga, the best preserved Roman city in Africa situated on a high plateau on the edge of the Tebersouk Mountains and built over a Numidian settlement. Here the Capitoline Temple, a gift from a wealthy Roman family in the 2nd century A.D. and dedicated to the principal Roman gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, dominated the scene. The theatre, still used for music and dance festivals, was impressive.
From the top level of seating we looked down to the stage and through standing Corinthian columns of the theatre hall behind to the valley below, a fertile wheat growing and olive grove area as it was in the days of the Romans. Halfway down the hill was the only surviving Phoenician/Numidian building in the country, the Mausoleum of Ateban dating to the 3rd century B.C. Climbing down for a closer look, we noted the influence of Greece and Egypt in its Ionic columns and pyramidal roof.
The site of Sbeitla lies some distance south of Dougga in the central part of the country. Here not the usual one but three Capitoline Temples rise side by side, one for each of the Roman gods. Beautiful in the early morning light, they are one of the most outstanding remains in the country. Later in our journey through the eastern part of Tunisia at the town of El Djem, three stories of arcades encircled a Roman amphitheatre, the fourth largest in the Roman world and today a World Heritage Site. In spite of the fact it was never totally completed and suffered damage in the 16th century during the time of the Ottoman Turks who ruled for three hundred years, it is in better shape than the amphitheatre in Rome. We climbed to the top level and descended into the caverns below the arena where cages held wild animals, and prisoners in cells awaited their fate.
The desert area in southern Tunisia presented a vivid contrast to the forested area of the north. From the oasis town of Tozeur we traveled by 4-wheel drive vehicles to the mountain oasis settlements of Chebika and Mides, now abandoned, which existed in early Numidian times and later formed part of the Roman defensive line against the tribes of the desert. Held up by a flat tire en route gave us a chance to examine sand fences holding the sand back from the road, a common sight in the south. The ruins of these settlements reminded me of those of the Anasazi in the American Southwest. The next day we explored the town of Nefta, itself protected with sand fences and an important stop on the ancient caravan route. By the 7th century the Berbers here were fervid Christians and withstood the Arab invasion at that time much longer than other parts of the country. Today Nefta is the home of Sufism, a mystic Islamic sect. Here in horse-drawn carts we rode through a palmeraie which had over 350,000 date palm trees. In order to produce the country's huge annual harvest of dates, the trees must be pollinated by hand. One male tree can take care of two hundred females! This is an important export, as are olives whose trees are everywhere throughout the entire country numbering in the millions.
One of the highlights in the south were the old Berber markets such as those we visited at Kebili, Douz and Tatouine where traditional Arab dress mingled with the new jean generation. The population of Tunisia is about nine million and most are Sunni Muslim. The people of the desert area are much darker than Tunisians in the north due to the intermingling with people farther south in Africa. There was a wonderful Thursday market at Kebili and to reach it we had to cross Chott Jerid, a salt lake extending a hundred miles south to the northern edge of the Sahara. Here salt has been harvested for centuries after the seasonal rains have dried up. It is quite dangerous to venture off the man-made sand causeway as the salt lake is unstable in some areas due to underground springs, and weakened by the rains, could collapse. We continued to use 4-wheel drives in the south. We spent a couple of hours wandering through the market at Kebili, the air scented with spices.
From here we traveled east to Matmata where we found unusual Berber troglodyte dwellings cut out of sand and rock below ground to escape the heat as well as marauding tribes in earlier times. Invited into a couple of these homes, we found them quite attractive with small whitewashed rooms and areas open to the sky for light. The area appeared to be deserted, but several thousand people live in these subterranean homes. It was a barren mountain landscape of desert, rock and scrub, and it was in this area the movie "Star Wars" was shot. It was also through this formidable terrain in World War II that Montgomery made his push north, and with the Allied position in the north, forced the retreat of the Germans. We visited the Military Museum of the Mareth Line which recalled the horror and heroism of that war.
We reached the most southerly point of our trip at Tatouine, the last main town before the vast open Sahara. Here we explored amazing 12th century Berber hilltop fortresses. The most impressive was at Chenini, and even from a short distance the rock-cut fortress blended with the landscape, an advantage taken by the Berbers in repelling their Arab invaders. We spent the morning climbing up into the ramparts, rooms and towers whose sand coloured stone was suddenly broken by a white mosque at the summit built later, of course, in the time of Arab control.

Then it was north along the eastern coast. On the island of Djerba, reached by Roman causeway, we relaxed in the beauty of this place where legend has it the Greek hero Odysseus landed. Here his sailors ate lotus blossoms, whereupon all desire for homeland and family vanished! It was easy to see why, even without the lotus blossoms! Our two days here were not enough. The Phoenicians established trading posts on the island in the 9th century B.C. Berbers lived here then as they do today. Djerba is also home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world who first came here in 70 A.D. after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. We visited El Ghriba, the oldest synagogue on the island and a site of pilgrimage by Jews from all over North Africa. Our perfect early May weather which lasted throughout our trip seemed enhanced on Djerba and we reluctantly left the island.

Continuing our journey back on the mainland, at the coastal university town of Monastir we paused to visit the sumptuous mausoleum of President Habib Bourguiba who died two weeks prior to our visit. This opulent complex was built in 1963, the long entranceway leading through two huge Italian white marble minarets opening to a large colonnaded courtyard. In a golden domed marble mausoleum beyond we stared down at the tomb of the man responsible for ending French control of the country in 1957 and forming a republic. He brought many changes, making Tunisia more democratic, yet governing with a firm hand. The police are a presence, and on a couple of occasions we were not allowed to photograph government buildings, but at the same time we felt perfectly free to explore the country at will.

We began our journey back to Tunis following the remains of the Roman aqueduct which once carried water to Carthage from fresh water springs seventy-five miles to the south. Used until the 14th century, in places it rises high alongside the modern road. On the way we stopped in the town of Kairouan, the fourth most holy city in the Muslim world where we visited the Great Mosque. There were over four hundred columns in the courtyard and inside the mosque itself, most of them taken from Roman sites throughout the country. As usual, non Muslims could not enter the mosque, but from the entrance we viewed several columned aisles leading to the 9th century minbar or pulpit, said to be the oldest in the Islamic world. I would think this might be disputed by some!

We arrived back in Tunis, a city eclipsed by Carthage in the days of the Phoenicians and Romans, but rising in importance in the 9th century under the Arabs when it became one of the leading religious and intellectual centers in the Arab world. Under the French beginning in the 19th century, the city acquired a European look, but the ancient medina survived for the most part as did many mosques. Our final day was spent exploring the old part of the city.

Our journey had taken us through over three thousand years of history. Because of its location on the Mediterranean in North Africa, Tunisia was conquered by many invaders, each of which left an imprint. Even the ever moving desert sands have not hidden the history of this intriguing country.

Mayo McClaskey