The small town of Mahdia, located on the coast about half way between the larger cities of Sousse and Sfax, is described so lovingly in our guidebook, that we made a detour back to the coast in order to see it. We felt it might make a good place to stop on our way back north after visiting southern Tunisia and it made sense to check it out. The old part of the town occupies a peninsula that juts out into the sea and contains no modern architecture to speak of. It sounded like a great place to slow one’s pace and bide awhile.
As we circled the tip of the peninsula, our progress was halted by a small donkey cart, with no driver in sight. While we weren’t in any hurry, the oncoming taxi wasn’t as patient and called to a woman to come and move the cart. Instead of walking to the donkey’s head, she passed behind the cart and started berating someone on the rocks below the sea wall. She gave a great performance, worthy of any fishwife for miles around. At last, a young boy scampered up and over the wall, climbed on board and duly moved the cart. The woman didn’t stop shouting, even as she walked back to her door.
I was surprised to see the land between the end of the residential neighbourhood and the huge fortress at the tip of the peninsula, filled with hundreds and hundreds of graves. That would explain one reason why tall five star hotels haven’t been built in such a beautiful spot. As we rounded the tip, we would see the ruins of the small port founded in AD 916 by Obeid Allah, known as El-Mahdi. He used this site as a base from which to plan his attack on Cairo, his ultimate goal. Now this tidbit about El-Mahdi piqued my interest, because I was great friends with a Sudanese family in Khartoum, Sudan in the early 1970s. They added El-Mahdi to the end of their names to denote the fact that they were his direct descendents. I was even shown the tomb of El-Mahdi, which rests in a quiet place in Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum. Could this be one and the same El-Mahdi?
When I checked the internet later, I learned that the El-Mahdi I had heard of, lived during the 1800s, I should have remembered. Dates in history have never been my strong point. Oh well. When an Islamic historian visited the port of Mahdia in the 14th century, he reported that it was the wealthiest city on the Barbary Coast (incorporates the coast of southern Spain and the northern coasts of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia). The majority of the town’s 30,000 inhabitants now live in the modern suburbs and the zone touristique stretches along the coast, 2km from the town itself.
We spotted a small café that is perched on the rocks between the ruins of the port and the small central market. It was wonderful to sit in the sun and eat a light meal. This was the Mediterranean of our dreams, the first real warm, sunny weather we had enjoyed along the coast since the fall in France. We knew we had a long drive to the island of Djerba, but somehow, we lingered longer than we should have. At last, we climbed back into our car and headed out of town thinking about coming back for a longer stay.