Hey Kairouan Aren’t You Guys Happy to See Me?

Kairouan, Tunisia


I was up bright and early at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. so that we could get an early 7:00 a.m. start on our drive to Kairouan. (I thought this was supposed to be a vacation…. and still not sure why we had to leave so early. We ended up at our stop for the day by 2:00 p.m.)

Anyway, as I got in the car, my driver Hatem, handed me a bag with some items inside. He told me to open it and inside I found 2 pomegranates, 1 bottle of olive oil, 1 tin of tuna and a jar of harissa. Goodness. What a generous guy. (He is the sweetest man!) I had mentioned the previous day my fondness for pomegranates and how happy I was that I was visiting during the harvest. I had also mentioned at lunch on Saturday how much I enjoyed the harissa. (And as I said harissa is the spicy red sauce that Tunisians serve on a plate surrounded with olive oil, topped with tuna and a basket of French bread. YUMMY!)

I thanked Hatem profusely. These folks do not have a lot of money so to actually purchase this for me was pretty overwhelming. I was going to have to come up with something pretty special in return.

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Roman Aqueduct (with visible water pipe)

So with my precious package tucked into my luggage, we set off. The traffic leaving Tunis was horrible and it took us almost an hour before we were actually making headway towards our first stop: the Roman aqueducts on the edge of Tunis. The aqueduct system was 132 km long and provided a link between hillside springs and Carthage when it was under Roman rule.

When the aqueducts came into view they were really stunning. The Romans made their aqueducts out of stone (like everything else) in connected semicircles and built them a hundred or more feet above the ground. The water was carried through a hole in the stone a the top of the aqueduct and was an ingenious method of carrying water from the source to where it was needed.

We pulled over near a vacant field and I got out and wandered around the portion of the aqueduct. The location where we pulled over actually had one end of the aqueduct open so I could look up and see the open hole at the top of the aqueduct. This was the first time I have ever been able to see the inside of the aqueduct system and it really was remarkable.

So with a few pictures in hand, I jumped back in the car for the remainder of the 60 km drive southwest of Tunis to the town of El-Fahs and the site of the Roman ruins of Thuburbo Majus. The town is located in a very fertile agricultural area and was originally an ancient Berber settlement that came under the control of Carthage until the Romans defeated the Carthagenians in 146 BC. Thuburbo Majus then became a very important Roman trading center for the local agricultural products, including olive oil and wheat. At one point in the second century AD the town had over 10,000 residents, but all the changed with the downfall of Rome.

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Palestra of the Petronii at Thuburbo Majus

Today, Thuburbo Majus is a bit off the beaten bath and as a result is not overflowing with tourists despite the fact that it is one of the most important Roman sites in Tunisia. (In fact, when we arrived, I was the only tourist amongst a handful of workers.)

As we entered the site, the first thing I noticed was the enormity of the city. Apparently Thuburbo Majus covered about 40 hectares in its heyday, but to date only 7 hectares have been excavated. (There is no money presently available to continue excavations.) The second thing I noticed was that the foundations of the various buildings that had been excavated were very well preserved allowing a visitor to fully appreciate the actual dimensions of each building. This was pretty unusual in that many Roman sites have a part of a wall or part of the foundation visible with a close to completely intact building here and there. So to have the opportunity to wander a site and really appreciate the size of each building was pretty cool.

Anyways, the ruins featured a forum, an amphitheater, temples, baths, a group of villas, a basillica and of course, the Capitole, which as usual dominated the site.

This Capitole featured four giant columns of veined pink limestone (the colour of the stones at this site were much different than I had seen the previous day at Dougga and Bulla Regia as these colours were more pinky brown). A large set of stairs let to the top of the Capitole.

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In front of the Capitole at Thuburbo Majus

We took a path away from the Capitole down the stone street that Romans had walked two thousand years ago (and I am certain the women of the day did not have high heels … there is no way they would have made it a block on the stone street). The street led past a number of residences and the House of Neptune, which still contained the remnants of a number of mosaics and finally to the summer baths and the incredible Palestra of the Petronii, the gymnasium that had been built by the family Petronii in 225 AD. It was apparently a common practice in Thuburbo Majus for wealthy families to pay for the construction of a building (I guess this was the first form of sponsorship). As a result, the amazing gymnasium was given the Petronii name after the family that had funded its construction.

Now what makes the Palestra so amazing is that it was surrounded by a portico and one entire wall of that portico, which was constructed of Corinthian grey and yellow streaked marble columns, remains in tact. The inscription at the top of the wall reads (in Latin) “This is where people played sports before heading to the baths”.

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Sanctuary of Baal at Thuburbo Majus

The other outstanding remains on the site was the Sanctuary of Baal. A staircase led to the top of the sanctuary where two yellow and grey veined columns remained. From the top of the steps I had a fabulous view of the entire layout of Thurburbo Majus.

We wound around that back side of the site and came across some really interesting bas relief carvings in the stone. One was of Venus and the other, which was my favorite, was a winged Pegasus. Simply amazing that these incredible objects were just sitting there untouched.

We walked back around the Capitole and out the exit just as a small group was arriving. My luck avoiding the tour groups was continuing.

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Pegasus bas relief and Capitole at Thuburbo Majus

So our last stop before arriving in Kairouan was the Roman Temple of Waters just outside the town of Zaghouan. The drive to the site from Thuburbo Majus was a tad boring. The Tunisian landscape is not particularly attractive and Tunisians have not learned that littering is a bad thing. (This was a stark contrast to Morocco and even Iran where it was rare to see bottles or plastic bags littering the landscape. Tunisia reminded me more of Egypt where littering appeared to be a sport.)

Anyway, we passed endless plowed fields and olive grows before turning towards a small range of mountains that Hassan said were the Zaghouan Mountains. (He told me the highest peak is apparently 1350 meters, but I could find nothing about it in my guidebooks. And 1350 meters is not very high. In fact it is not much more than a hill where I am from.) As we approached Zaghouan, I asked if we could stop for some water. As I started to get out of the car, my guide Hassan told me to wait in the car and he would get the water for me. Ack! This guy is really starting to drive me crazy. Yesterday, I bought something in a shop and he immediately told me to give him the money so that he could pay. He then took the bag containing my purchase, carried it to the car and handed it to me once I got in the car. Now he won’t even let me get out of the car to buy my own bottle of water. His domineering style, endless chatter and statements about the obvious are not working for me. This is not going to end well….

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Roman Temple of Waters at Zaghouan

A few minutes later Hassan got back in the car, handed me my water and off we set. We reached the Roman Temple of Waters a few minutes later and quite frankly there wasn’t a whole lot to see. The Temple of Waters was built in 130 AD. The location was at the bottom of a steep hill and apparently served as a collection site for water being transported via the Romans aqueducts to Carthage. The site consisted of a circular enclosed columned collection site with a pipe leading from the “temple” down underground towards the aqueducts. Oh those crafty Romans.

We left the site, drove through the pretty town of Zaghouan and on to Kairouan, Shortly before we reached Kairouan we ran in areas that were showing the remnants of severe flooding that had occurred a few days prior to my arrival in Tunisia. Kairouan was apparently pretty hard hit and many of the fields remained flooded. (The soil in the area is apparently very salty and does not absorb water well. As a result, the locals needed the sun to evaporate the water since the soil was pretty much useless.)

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Flooding near Kairouan

Now a bit about Kairouan. It is the fourth holiest city in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Kairouan was also the first Islamic city in what is now Tunisia. It became the capital of the Ahglabid dynasty in 797 AD establishing itself as a place of Islamic education and worship. This reputation was solidified when the Great Mosque (or Jama Sidi Oqba) was constructed in 670 AD. Now while Kairouan lost its capital status, it never lost its status as one of the most important sites in the Islamic world.

Today, thousand of Muslim people make the pilgrimage to Kairouan to visit the Great Mosque. We pulled up to the Great Mosque (which I was permitted to enter) and I immediately asked Hassan if I would need my head scarf. He informed me it was not necessary. I asked him if he was sure since I have generally needed a headscarf in the past to enter a mosque. Hassan said he was sure so we walked into the entrance. (Now let me tell you I was highly skeptical of his answer. I have been inside many mosques and except for Turkey, I needed to have my head covered by a scarf in every other instance.) Anyway, I was immediately stopped and told I needed to have my head covered. Good grief! I know more about this than my Muslim guide.

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Outer walls and minaret of the Great Mosque at Kairouan

I walked back to the car and Hatem immediately shook his head when I told him I needed my scarf. “I told him I needed my scarf Hatem.” “Yes you did.” I retrieved the scarf, put it on and walked back inside the mosque.

Now as mosques go, this was not the most physically beautiful mosque I have seen. It was constructed entirely of tawney brown stone The high exterior walls surround a massive courtyard that can hold a few thousand worshippers. The marble courtyard was pretty nondescript, but was surrounded by a rather nice arched colonnade.

The minaret at the north end of the courtyard and the entry door to the prayer hall at the southern end were probably the two most attractive features of the mosque. The minaret is a square, three storey tower with a base erected in the 8th century, which apparently makes it the oldest minaret in the world. It was really distinctive.

The enormous studded wooden doors at the southern end of the courtyard date to the early 19th century and were quite beautiful as was the carved panels adorning the top of the door.

I was not permitted in the prayer hall, but from what I could see, there was nothing particularly striking about the interior, which featured a myriad of columns and the standard mihrab and minbar (pulpit). (Apparently the columns were brought from the Roman and Byzantine ruins in Carthage and no two columns are alike in the prayer hall. However, because I was not permitted inside, I couldn’t tell you what it actually looked like.)

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Great Mosque at Kairouan

We left the mosque and went over to the La Kasbah Hotel to check in. (The hotel is a converted kasbah and has an incredible ceiling and wooden paneling).

Now the first thing I noticed about the hotel (and for that matter the town) was a very strange, less than welcoming vibe. The dude who served me lunch actually took the plate from under me as I was still eating. There were few smiles and I was left with the distinct impression that they wished I wasn’t there. Oh sure they were polite enough. But it was a forced politeness. The vibe was very reminiscent of Isfahan in Iran. Everyone said Isfahan was gorgeous city and it would be my favorite city, and in fact it was quite pretty, but I could not get over the vibe and so I never found Isfahan THAT attractive. (And Isfahan like Kairouan is extremely conservative.) It just felt like, to me, that these folks disapproved of a female traveling alone.

Anyway, I had the rest of the afternoon to myself so rather than doing any hiking around the town on my own, I hung out in my room, sat on my little deck with the shrouded windows and just generally relaxed. Tomorrow we would see some of Kairouan before taking a day trip to Sousse and El Jem before returning to Kairouan to the spend the night.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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