The Belvedere Rocks near Tozeur are famous for their spectacular sunset views over the oasis and this sculpture of local poet Aboul-Qacem Echebbi. Two verses from Echebbi, who died in 1934 at the age of only 25, were used to update Tunisia's National Anthem, Himat Al Hima (Defenders of the Homeland) and his poetry was also widely quoted during the Arab Spring.
Tunisia – Long Read

Among the finest sites of the Roman Empire

Photo by Panoramic Images

Tunisia – Long Read Among the finest sites of the Roman Empire

Hello Tunisia, where the peaceful Jasmine Revolution sparked off the Arab Spring but drove tourists away from a country that relied on them to support its economy. With Mediterranean beaches, some of the finest sites of the Ancient Roman Empire and its romantic desert interior, the smallest country in North Africa has a lot to offer any visitor tempted to return.

Sarah Gilbert
Sarah Gilbert

At the end of a dusty street stands the magnificent amphitheater of El Djem. The third largest in the Roman Empire when it was built in the third century AD, today it is better preserved than Rome’s. At its peak, around 35,000 spectators could fill the terraces for its grisly entertainment. The guidebooks still suggest getting to El Djem early to beat the crowds but, today, there are none to avoid.

In early 2011, Tunisians rose up against the 23-year long, authoritarian regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, forcing him into exile, sending the economy into freefall and scaring off tourists. The revolt began in Sidi Bouzid, a town in Tunisia’s agricultural heartland, when vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest after the police confiscated his cart. That one act blossomed into the Jasmine Revolution – named after Tunisia’s national flower – the catalyst for the Arab Spring, and far bloodier confrontations in Egypt and Libya.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis was the site of the biggest protests but rolls of barbed wire and a tank protecting the embassy of France, the old colonial power, are the only signs of disquiet. It is lined with French colonial buildings and lively cafes, and throngs with shoppers. At the end of the avenue is the entrance to the labyrinthine passageways of the medieval souk, devoted to everything from fragrant spices to leather bags, slippers to carpets, all jostling for space in open-fronted shops. Ornate jewellery is studded with semi-precious gems, or you can pick up a fake watch and a home-brewed version of Chanel No. 5. I see women dressed in everything from djellabas to designer jeans. Tunisia is a Muslim country, but it is a tolerant, Mediterranean-style Islam. For all Ben Ali’s faults, he was committed to education and women’s rights.

Are we West or East?

Tunisia may be the smallest country in North Africa but it occupies such a strategic spot on the Mediterranean that it has been pillaged, fought over and colonized by the Punics, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and French, among others. Today, it is predominantly Arab but centuries of mingling cultures have given it a more cosmopolitan feel or perhaps even an identity crisis. “Are we West or East?” asks Amin, a young Tunisian friend who works for tour company Exodus. After stopping off at the 13th-century village of Sidi Bou Said – a jumble of cobbled streets lined with white sugar cube houses famed for their blue doors that was once a hang-out for French intellectuals – we drive south past a Mediterranean landscape of olive groves and fruit trees. Only the people shrouded in earth-colored robes and the freshly slaughtered lambs hung outside makeshift restaurants remind me I am in North Africa.

Littering this bucolic scene are piles of rubbish. Pink, white and turquoise carrier bags are tossed around by the wind and cover trees like strange fruit. Makeshift stalls selling jerry cans of cheap gasoline from Algeria and Libya line the roadside. “The new government isn’t doing its job,” says Amin. Before the revolution, life was difficult under the watchful eye of Ben Ali. There was no freedom of speech; it was a world of banned books, silenced press, tapped phones and secret police. “Now we are free to say and do as we please: to discuss politics in public, to protest against injustice,” says Amin. But life is still hard for the majority of Tunisians. Tourism is one of their most important exports but it has created an economic gulf between the coast and the less developed south and west, where we are heading.

The young Luke Skywalker might be the world’s most famous troglodyte – his former Star Wars home is now the Hôtel Sidi Driss in Matmata – but around this Berber town real troglodytes still live in their cave dwellings, some dating back to the 4th century BC. I walk up a steep slope and duck through an archway into a whitewashed courtyard, off which rooms are dug into the hillside, keeping them warm in winter and cool in summer. The bed is made of olivewood to deter scorpions and decorated with colorful woven kilims, the kitchen is strung with drying fruit and herbs and lined with earthenware jars full of honey and olive oil.

Attention: Camel Crossing

Ancient Douz, 100 km to the southwest, is the gateway to the Sahara where signs by the road read: “Attention: Camel Crossing.” The nomadic Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa and, at the Musée du Sahara, I learn about their desert lifestyle, their intricate facial tattoos and camel husbandry. Tattoos are prohibited in the Quran but the Berbers follow their own style of Islam and their women use traditional designs to protect against the spirits known as jinn. The tattoos are still seen around bodily orifices such as the mouth or nose, anywhere a jinn might try to sneak into the body, as well as the feet to protect against those rising from the earth. Another common marking, on the chin, takes the form of symbols from an ancient Berber alphabet based on agricultural implements and the constellations of the desert night.

I take a camel expedition into the desert to see the night sky. Our languid caravan plods slowly across the gently undulating dunes away from all traces of civilisation and, as the sun dips below the horizon, the temperature plummets in tandem. We pitch our tents and gather around the campfire while the Berber guides prepare a feast of harissa soup and vegetable couscous, washed down with hot, sweet mint tea. Later, they pull up the pointed hoods of their prickly woollen burnous and lay their blankets around the fire, choosing to sleep under the star-studded sky rather than canvas. I shiver in my sleeping bag until I am lulled to sleep by the rhythmic murmur of their voices and do not wake until a shaft of sunlight lights up my tent.

After strong coffee has been drunk and the grumbling camels brought to order, we are back in the saddle. Wind-blown dust makes its way into eyes, ears and mouth despite the turban wrapped around my head and face. I ask Mohammed, the driver, if he owns my camel. He laughs. “A camel costs around 2,500 Dinar (more than $1,000). We used to come to the desert several times a week but now there are no tourists we have to work on the land where we can.”

Camel heads hanging from hooks

Tozeur, Tunisia’s largest oasis town, has a matchless 14th-century medina. Its narrow alleys are lined with houses covered in yellowish clay bricks, or toub, arranged in complex geometric patterns. Some have three knockers on their front doors, each at a different height for men, women and children, each making a different sound so that the right person answers the door.

It has been a trading town since the days of the great trans-Saharan caravans and in the market fish, fresh from the coast, is being gutted and filleted. The metallic tang of fresh blood fills the air around the meat stalls. Tripe is strung up next to platters of brains, hearts, livers and unidentifiable innards.

Easier to recognize are the camel heads hanging from hooks, their enormous, long-lashed eyes half-closed. There are mounds of fragrant oranges, sweet, sticky dates and figs bursting with ripeness. “Where are you from?” the stallholders shout as I pass, and when I reply: “You’re very welcome here, England!”

In nearby Nefta, I am staying in a dar, one of the former aristocratic homes that rival Morocco’s better-known riads, and Fathi is enlisted to show me around town. As his horse-drawn calèche bumps its way down dirt paths, past row upon row of towering palm trees that produce some of the world’s finest dates, I discover that he is something of a polyglot, speaking Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, German and a smattering of English. We settle on Spanish. Nefta used to heave with visitors, he says, although that is hard to believe now. Post-revolution, hotels that were owned by members of Ben Ali’s family were burnt out or locked up. The grand Sahara Palace, once a haunt of the rich and famous, is now a ghostly shell overlooking the town.

Three generations of women dance

Suddenly, our peaceful outing is disturbed by a cacophonous wedding party. Three generations of women dance down the street, clapping and singing, while two boys accompany them discordantly on a drum and tin whistle. They invite me to join them, which I do, at first reluctantly and then self-consciously. It is a timeless scene until they whisk out mobile phones from secret pockets inside their long robes to snap the fun, before they disappear into the mosque where I cannot follow.

We stop off in the main square where the café is a male preserve. “Go in, no problem,” says Fathi. I linger in the doorway just long enough to notice the lovely old tiled floor and carved wooden bar, the colored light from the stained-glass windows that blurs in the haze of shisha smoke, the football game blasting out from the battered black-and-white TV, the clack of dominos and the bearded faces turned towards me, more curious than unfriendly. I am delivered back to my hotel to a soundtrack of competing muezzin. On the way, we pass another calèche with two French tourists and we wave to each other like long-lost friends. “The tourists will be back, I’m sure of it,” says Fathi.

In front of a log fire, over a glass of surprisingly good Tunisian wine, a French legacy, I chat to Philippe, one of the French owners of my dar. “We opened in January 2011, so things have been quiet.” He says. “But slowly, slowly, people are coming back.” But tonight it is just me and the waiter in the enormous open-plan space as I dine on brik, a calorie-laden deep-fried yet delicate pastry filled with a runny egg, tuna and spring onions, chunks of delicious bread – another legacy of the French – dipped in harissa, a vivid red chilli and garlic paste, and ojja, a tangy tomato stew with peppers, onion and slices of spicy merguez sausage, all rounded off with a shot of homemade date liqueur.

The following morning Youssef cranks up the hip hop as he launches his 4x4 at the dunes at an alarming angle. He glances sideways to gauge my reaction, “It seems that you don’t scare easily, madame.” He sounds disappointed. “I can tell that you’re an experienced driver,” I say. “Yes,” he says, “I used to do this twice, three, four times a day before the revolution. Not any more.” He falls silent and we go back to the barrage of dubious lyrics until an abandoned settlement appears in the distance, at once alien and yet strangely familiar.

I wander around the surreal set

It is what remains of Tatooine, the birthplace of Darth Vader. George Lucas was so taken by Tunisia’s otherworldly desert landscape, the sand carved out by the wind, that he chose it as a location for filming parts of Star Wars. Scenes from The English Patient were also filmed a dune or so to the south. Star Wars fans will recognize Mos Espa, which is still, just about, standing. As I wander around the surreal set, a man appears from nowhere to try and sell me a rug. I politely decline and he goes off to lie in wait for the next tourist. I hope that he will not be waiting too long.

The next day I am due to take the Lezard Rouge, an opulent, Belle Epoque passenger train, built in France and given to the Tunisian ruler as a gift. The Red Lizard has since been reinvented as a tourist train and, pre-revolution, made the two-hour journey through some of the country’s most striking scenery, several times a week. However, when I arrive at the station, a handful of locals are holding a peaceful sit-in, blocking the tracks while eating their lunch. It is an area of chronic unemployment, up to 30 percent in places, and protests are now random and commonplace. Something that would not have happened – could not have happened – in the era of Ben Ali. Amin goes to remonstrate with them, begging them to let the train pass for the sake of tourism, for the sake of the economy. The small group refuse to budge for an even smaller group of tourists but I am happy to have seen this evidence of change, this small step towards democracy.

The Roman ruins of Sufetula are set on a windswept plain. The setting sun turns the incredibly preserved temples and monumental arches to gold. Dramatic grey clouds scud across the cobalt-blue sky and there is not another soul in sight until a goatherder appears, allowing his flock to climb over ancient walls and streets.

Next year will be better, Insha’Allah

More impressive still is the Unesco-protected ruins of Dougga, just a two-hour drive southwest of Tunis. Set among rolling hills and wooded valleys, it is one of the finest Roman sites outside Italy. As I wander its streets, imagine plunging into the caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium in the bathhouse, marvel at the pristine mosaics and take a break on what was once a public toilet, I wonder how it has remained such a well-kept secret? I climb to the highest terrace of its 3,500-seat amphitheatre. The acoustics are excellent: I can still hear the guide far below me but the view is proving a distraction. From my vantage point I see a few tourists milling around and have a rush of guilty pleasure at having this incredible place, almost, to myself.

Tunisians are keen to get their tourism industry up and running again after visitors dropped from seven million in the year before the revolution to three million in the year after. They are on the rise again but it has not been plain sailing. There have been political assassinations and there is frustration, especially among the young, that more extreme Islamists have hijacked their quest for a secular democracy. There is disappointment too that, especially in poorer areas, the government’s promise of a better future has, so far, come to nothing.

“It has felt more like a long Arab winter,” Amin says. “But next year will be better, Insha’Allah – God willing.”

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