We got away from our hotel, the Dar Ali, on Djerba, pretty early for us. We decided to use the causeway that had been first constructed in Roman times, to cross over to the mainland, instead of taking the ferry again. As we were going to be exploring the south of Tunisia, the causeway pointed us further in that direction and we wouldn’t have to wait in a ferry line up and waste precious time.
As we crossed the causeway it was hard to imagine the Romans building such a structure. We have visited the Appian Way outside of Rome and saw the huge aqueducts that carried water from distant springs, but it seemed quite another thing to build upon the seabed and create a link from an island to the continent, over 2,000 years ago. We turned our back on the Mediterranean for the time being and headed inland and south to explore the region and see the unusual homes that the Berber people constructed to cope with the harsh climate, blindingly hot in the summer and bone-rattling cold in the winter.
As we moved into Berber territory, I should pause a minute and tell you a little about the Berber people. The Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa and are a melting pot of those who migrated into the region from Sub-Saharan Africa, southern Europe and the Near East. When the Phoenicians arrived, these peoples had already adopted a uniform culture and language, though most were divided into tribal confederations and others remained semi-nomadic. Though they are often considered to be only a pastoral people, they did establish major centers in northern Tunisia at Bulla Regia, El-Kef, and Dougga.
When the Arabs arrived in the 7th century, they gave them their name, derived from the Greek barbarikos which means ‘foreign’. They were surprised to find that these peoples had not adopted the cultures of the Romans or the Byzantines who had come before. Today, the Berbers have been assimilated into the Arab culture of Tunisia, but they can still be identified by their robes, the burnous for the men and the bakhnoug for the women.
Their name has been associated with the entire coast of North Africa, The ‘Barbary Coast’; with the beautiful carpets they create on looms and of course a style of wall-to-wall wool carpet popular in the last two decades all over North America. The term ‘barbarians’ initially referred to these tribal people. The Berbers prospered along with a few Jewish communities, and some Berbers were even given Roman citizenship.
However, it is interesting that Spain and France, also dominated by the Romans, ended up speaking Latin-based languages while the peoples of North Africa do not. Strong enough to resist the influences of the powerful Romans, I wouldn’t think to call them ‘barbarians’ at all.
There’s not much to see in Tataouine itself, but it does make a great base for exploring the area around the town and visiting the ksour (granaries) built on rocky hilltops. Here, the outcrops were formed by alternating layers of hard and soft rock, with many natural caves in them. The Berber people sought refuge in the caves and eventually turned them in to homes by burrowing into the soft layers and creating additional rooms. They built fortified entrances and walled courtyards at the front.
At the highest point of the village, they built ksar where they would store their crops and their valuables. A single ksar consists of many ghorfas, long, narrow, barrel-vaulted rooms with a single opening facing a central courtyard. These were closed by doors made of palm trunks, which fended off insects, rain, and intruders. An ingenious lock mechanism was developed, with the owner of the stored items holding the key.
Some villages even selected a guardian, often a holy man, to regulate how much was taken from the granary during times of want. In this way the ksour acted as banks, encouraging stockpiling and enforced saving. The lower rooms were used to store olive oil and the upper ghorfas were filled with barley and grain. Stairs were constructed, but for the uppermost rooms, pulleys were hung from protruding sticks to assist with lifting the loads to the top.
We visited two or three different ksour because the one that the tour buses stop at has been heavily restored and feels a little like a movie set. Speaking of movie sets, the Ksar Haddada was featured in Star Wars IV – A New Hope. The place is now falling apart so we gave it a miss, but die-hard enthusiasts still continue to visit, if only to see the orange door jams that were part of the Hôtel Ksar Haddada.
We were surprised to find that we had seen all we wanted to and it was still only early afternoon. We decided to carry on to Matmata, the distances weren’t all that far and we were delighted to find that the roads that were described in the Lonely Planet as being in rough shape, had all been upgraded in the three years since the edition was published. We could easily reach Matmata before dark and still make brief stops along the way.
It’s pretty hard to beat the beauty of the ksour, but I was looking forward to seeing the troglodyte homes built by the Berbers in and around Matmata. George Lucas had fallen in love with this region of Tunisia and it had clearly inspired him as he developed the Star Wars films.