Bring out the Gladiators … Bring out the Lions

Kairouan, Tunisia

We were off to see a couple of the other sites in Kairouan by 8:30 a.m. The drive was both interesting and slow to say the least. We hit morning market traffic and there were people (and sheep) and carts and donkeys and vendors everywhere. Bread merchants were hawking circular loaves of bread. Chickens were roasting on spits. Live chickens were for sale. And everywhere you looked there were produce stands. People walked across and through traffic causing drivers to inch their way through the maddness. (I actually thought about my mother as we were driving along. She found it fascinating a few years ago when we took the train from Johannesburg to Capetown and passed through some of the suburban Capetown townships. I remember mother being utterly amazed at the living conditions and the sites. I think her head would have exploded if she had witnessed the market sites in Kairouan.)

Courtyard at Mosque Sidi Sahaib Kairouan

Anyway, our first stop was the Mosque Sidi Sahaib also called the Barber’s Mosque. The mosque is the burial ground of Abu Zama el-Belaoui, a companion (or sahab) of the prophet Mohammad who brought the word of Islam to the world. The mosque is called the Barber’s mosque because the sahab always carried with him three hairs from Mohammad’s beard.

The mausoleum containing the remains of the sahab dated to the 7th century AD and was located off a small, but rather ornate courtyard, The entry to the mosque and the courtyard and the adjacent structure contained a medersa (school of Islamic studies), a mosque and a place to house pilgrims. The buildings featured a rather ornate stucco motif and a beautiful marble passageway.

We left the mosque and proceeded to drive a few blocks to the second stop: the Reservoir of the Aghlabids. The reservoir was actually a series of water tanks built around the 9th century by the Arabs and were used to store water that came from the hills 36 km from Kairouan via the Roman aqueducts. Originally, there were 7 large cisterns and 7 small cisterns that held the water. The smaller cisterns were used as settling pools and then the “clean” water was transferred to the large holding tanks.

Reservoir of the Aghlabids Kairouan

There was not a lot to actually see beyond the tanks, but the view from the top of the tower above the tanks was pretty darn nice.

As we were walking down from the tower, the owner of a small shop enticed me in with the offer of prickly pear jam and cookies. Never one to turn down sweets, I gave both a try and promptly bought a jar of the jam for 3 dinar and a bar of prickly pear soap for 2 dinar. The man, his wife and son were very nice and the home made cookies were pretty awesome. Anyway, just as we were about to leave I spotted the most elusive of objects in a Muslim country … the Christmas ornament. Now as many of my family and friends know, I collect Christmas ornaments and have found one in every country I have ever traveled to. (Yes, I located a silver hand of Fatima in Morocco that while not technically a Christmas ornament, was meant to be hung from something as it has a little notch in it … so it will hang from my tree. And last year, I not only found a rhinestone Santa in a shopping mall in Aswan, Iran, but I managed to find a Christmas boot ornament hanging in a shop in Shiraz, Iran that the proprietor gave to me even though I offered to pay for it).

So I was thrilled to see a little green glass star with sparkles on it hanging in the shop. I pointed at it and the gentleman said “good luck”. I responded back … Christmas ornament. I am not sure he understood what I said, but next thing I know he is taking it down and telling me the price was 3 dinars. Sold! His wife carefully wrapped the star in a little bag (actually I think it is the same type of bag in which the young woman in Aswan wrapped my rhinestone Santa), and I carefully tucked the precious cargo into my bag. I would find some newspaper to wrap it up more carefully before packing it with my other stuff.  And with that, I pranced down the remainder of the staircase, thrilled that the streak continues.

We then hit the road for the one hour drive to the coastal (Mediterranean) city of Sousse, which is located in the rich Sahel agricultural region of Tunisia. As a result, the terrain was pretty flat, agricultural land (ie not particularly stunning scenery) dotted by hundreds and hundreds of olive groves.

Now rather than drive along in relative quiet, Hassan decided to regale me with the history of olive oil in Tunisia and to point out every olive grove we passed. (And with olive orchards doting the entire 70 km distance – 40% of all trees in the area were olive trees – it just never ended….) I will give credit where credit is due, though. The “chat” wasn’t without some good points. I did learn for instance that there are two types of olives: table (edible) olives and small non-edible olives that are used only for making olive oil. (Quite frankly, I just presumed all olives are edible). I also learned that it takes 5-7 kilos of olives to make a litre of olive oil. Yikes. That’s a lot of olives!

And when I wasn’t hearing about olive trees and olive oil, Hassan pointed out every factory we passed. “Look Dee bor a … a car factory. They make cars.” “Dee bor a, there is a tire factory. They make tires.” Classic! It would have been really something if he had “Dee bor a there is a tire factory. They make engine parts just to see if I was paying attention. But no such luck!

Anyway, a bit about Sousse. Sousse was a Phoenician trading post in the 4th century BC and one of the most important cities during the Carthagenian reign. Sousse later became the primary trading port in the 9th century for the Aglabid dynasty based in Kairouan.

Now Sousse, I soon found out, could not have been more different from Kairouan. As one of the most important cities in the Islamic world, the dress in Kairouan was very conservative with virtually every woman wearing headscarves and long cloak like attire. Once we hit Sousse, however, the style changed dramatically, with few women wearing headscarves or long dresses. Instead there were shorts, skirts and bare heads. And there were tourists everywhere. Apparently, Sousse is a very popular resort town with the Russians, Italians, French and Spaniards and they were obviously dressed in beach attire. In addition, there were a number of buildings symbolizing the height of hedonism: casinos! Hassan asked if I wanted to stop and go inside one and I told him no. I said I have money in the U.S. stock market and with the way the US Government was behaving that was enough of a gamble for me. (I am certain he did not “get” my comment.)

Mosaic at Sousse Archaeological Museum and Kasbah

Anyway, beach and casinos aside, our first stop was the Sousse Archaeological Museum and Kasbah. The museum had just been reopened after a two year renovation and I must say they did an absolutely fabulous job. As you approached the building, you passed through a wooden entry door, which appeared to have been refurbished and included original iron markings and fanned ironwork on top of the doorway.

We then passed through the first of two courtyards with the first smaller courtyard containing the entry to the museum. If you continued on, (which we did) you passed into a second, larger courtyard that had been turned into a beautiful little garden. To the left as you entered the courtyard you could look through little portals in the wall to see the spectacular view of the Sousse port and the Mediterranean.

After taking in the large courtyard, we turned around and walked towards the entrance of the museum, which was covered by a glass pyramid a la the Louvre in the Paris (although on a much, much, much smaller scale). As we walked in, we were greeted by a a Roman gentleman reclining on a bench … without his head.

We continued down the steps and through a myriad of rooms containing magnificent mosaics recovered from many of the Roman ruins in the area. (I was told that this museum had the second best collection of Roman mosaics behind the Bardo museum, and I believed it. There were some simply stunning and virtually intact mosaics that still evidenced bright, vibrant colours.)

In addition to the beautiful mosaics, we were able to see a variety of funeral objects recovered from graves dating to the Carthagenian era that were discovered under the ground where the museum was constructed. As well, we saw some marble and ceramic statutes dating to the Roman period and a variety of small pots from both the Roman and Carthagenian periods.

Inside the Sousse Medina

After the visit to the museum, we walked about a a quarter of a mile to the Medina. Now the Sousse Medina is surrounded by a beautiful 2.25 km long wall constructed by the Aghlabids in the 9th century AD and rises from near the waterfront area so we were actually walking downhill as we set off. The alleys of the Medina were pretty narrow (as is typical of most
medinas) and contained the standard residential and commercial areas.)

This Medina was not that large, but the stalls were filled with a lot of friendly people waving and smiling as we walked by. I stopped at my favorite area, the spice market stalls and took in not only the aroma, but the opportunity to buy the spice harissa so that I could try to make it a home. I also ended up chatting with some nice young guys about their sandwich stall – they made traditional flatbread filled with an egg, harissa and tuna. It smelled fabulous. (I should have taken up their offer to try it, but we were heading to lunch shortly and I had been promised a “special” lunch so I didn’t want to spoil my appetite.)

The guys in the Medina making Tunisian sandwiches

At the end of the commercial portion of the Medina we entered a very small produce market where everything from snails, to freshly caught fish to local fruits and vegetables was for sale. I even saw a woman (finally) in traditional Tunisian clothing consisting of a white sari like wrap. I had been on the lookout for this photo op and finally got a shot (albeit from behind). (Most of the younger Tunisian women have abandoned this style of dress.)

Woman in traditional dress at a fish market

We left the souk area, but stayed within the Medina walls and walked a short distance to the Rabat (a fortress) built near the end of the 8th century AD. The Rabat had a small entrance door and consisted of a small square courtyard surrounded by columns and small interior chambers where the soldiers lived as well as a small mosque for prayer. There were three different levels to the Rabat from which soldiers could look down and pour hot liquid on incoming invaders and archers could take aim at their enemies.

A watchtower was added to the Rabat in the mid 9th century and I hiked up all 76 very narrow steps to the top and had a magnificent view over the city of Sousse, down into the adjacent Great Mosque courtyard and over the entire Medina. It was worth the exercise to see the view.

The Rabat at Sousse

I finally climbed down and met Hassan at the bottom (he always avoids climbing anything with stairs) and we walked towards the car. Hassan insisted I stop in a shop to look at the coral jewelry (which I do not like). I told him I wasn’t interested, but finally obliged him after he wouldn’t let up about it. I did a once around, said no thank you and walked out. As we walked towards the car, I encountered an old man selling something that looked like long bread sticks. I bought a bag for a dinar and took bite of one. It was warm, crunchy and kind of tasted like a pretzel, but not so salty. Delicious.

I jumped in the car with my new find and turned to my right to look out the window and caught a look at my shirtsleeve and suddenly realized I was wearing my shirt inside out. Good grief. The Kasbah where we are staying in Kairouan is not that well lit and has tiny little windows. I somehow managed to put my shirt on inside out and had wandered all over the place that morning looking like a doofus. C’et la vie. I would change it when we stopped for lunch.

View from the watchtower into the Ribat Courtyard
View to the mosque on top of the Rabat watchtower

We took a short 20 minute drive along the waterfront to the marina where I was going to have lunch. The French restaurant turned out to be quite nice, complete with waiters in tuxes who unfortunately turned out to be far too snooty. (I think they did not like the fact that my French was not the best.)

Lunch was better than the service I must say. The standard harissa with french bread, a Tunisian salad with grilled octopus, shrimp, chopped up tomatoes and cucumbers, a spicy olive eggplant mixture and black and green olives with a main course of octopus in red sauce. And the view to the harbor and all the beautiful yachts was wonderful.

Sousse waterfront

There was, however, a bit of an incident. After the main course was brought, the flies decided to swarm in and just has I picked up a piece of octopus covered in red sauce a fly decided to buzz my face. I apparently lost my mind for a minute because I took at swat at it with my hand holding the fork with the octopus. The result … red sauce all over my face, my shirt and the tablecloth. Good grief. I wiped my face hoping no one saw me and then proceeded to dip my napkin in my glass of water to try and get the red sauce off my pink, tan and white shirt (which was now turned right side out). The waiter must of seen the whole thing because only a few minutes later as I was still trying to clean up, he walked over with a little can of some kind of spray and sprayed the myriad of spots on my shirt (sort of like an instant dry cleaner). Once the spots were dry, I rubbed off the dry white powder and viola a clean shirt. (I usually carry a Tide stick, but forgot it at the hotel.)

Anyway, having utterly humiliated myself in front of Mr. Snobby and probably validated his original impression of me (a boorish, classless oaf from North America), I tucked my tail between my legs and slunk out of there before I could cause any more trouble.

I wandered the waterfront, found Hassan (who did not eat with me – I presume the agency did not want to pay for him) and made our way to the front of the marina. As we passed a little stand, a fellow offered me some kind of coated almond. I took one taste and holy cow. What is this lovely little morsal. It turned out that it was an almond coated with a butter and brown sugar coating and my goodness … it was FABULOUS! 10 dinars later and I had a little plastic box filled with them.

When we reached the car, I offered the almond goodness all around and happily munched on them as we drove southwest towards El Jem.

Driving to El-Jem Coliseum

Now El-Jem was one of the highlights I had really been looking forward to on this trip to Tunisia. It is the site of the third largest Roman coliseum in the world behind the Rome coliseum and the remains of the Roman coliseum in Santa Maria Capua Vetre (Italy). However it is second beyond the Rome coliseum in terms of the quality and preservation of the ruins.

The El-Jem coliseum was constructed in the 2nd century and measured 36 meters high (about 407 feet), 149 meters long and 124 meters wide. The arena portion of the coliseum is surrounded by three storeys of arched passageways and columns that led to the seating areas. There were also two large arched passageways leading from the arena to the area where the lions were kept. In addition, there are two tiny stairwells that led to underground rooms where the gladiators and the wretched individuals who would be thrust into the arena were kept awaiting their fate.

After about an hour of driving we made the turnoff to El-Jem, and drove down the tiny narrow road in the dusty town. As we came around a bend in the road, I could see the coliseum in the distance to my left and … Oh. My. God. It was a thing of beauty.

Five minutes (and several potholes) later we reached the entrance. I could not wait to get in there. However, Hassan had other ideas. Hassan took me inside and then spent his usual extended period of time giving me a lecture about the coliseum and the history of the area. (Why he can’t find the time to do this in the car instead of making me wait to see the site is beyond me … I become antsier than a kid at Christmas.)

Inside El-Jem Coliseum

Anyway, the sermon (uh talk) finally ended, and I was unleashed. Hassan asked me how long I would be, and I told him not to wait up. He didn’t get that one either so I told him I would be as long as it takes. I had come a long way to see this place and I was going to take my sweet time. (Hassan was not going to join me I presume because the building required a lot of climbing,)

View from the lion’s den at El-Jem Coliseum

Anyway, with that I set off to explore this magnificent, and I really do mean magnificent, structure. I initially did a once around the arena area (a little spooky to think this was where so many met their fate), and then began to climb the myriad of staircases and walkways to take in just about every angle and every sight line in the place. At one point some little British kid kept yelling “bring out the gladiators … bring out the lions”. I had the sudden urge to sit down and either give a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Instead I just laughed and yelled along with the kid. (Quite frankly, though, the British accent on the kid really made the line work far better than when it came from me.)



Panorama of El Jem Coliseum from the top

I also ran into the most common form of Russian female tourist … the “poser”. Now if you are not familiar with Russian tourists, there are three things you must know before you encounter them. One, they generally do not give a hoot about history. Two, they generally do not follow instructions and are often the ones being yelled at by the guards at various sites. Three, the young women all believe they are the next Elle McPhearson. These women have posing down to an art. They cannot, and I really mean cannot, simply stand there and wave or smile for a picture. They have to take ten minutes to do the set up … shifting arms and legs into the right pose and then giving a pouty stare into the camera.

Unfortunately, I ran into two such creatures, and I could not shake them. Everywhere I went they were there. I finally walked all the way to the bottom of the coliseum, down to the other end and all the way back up the stairs to get rid of them. Brutal.
Me at El-Jem Coliseum

Anyway, after spending at least an hour an a half wandering around, sitting down, standing up, taking in the views, walking through the gladiator and doomed souls tunnels, walking through the passageways and just generally staring and taking it all in, I figured it was time to leave. I ended up being one of the last persons in the site and when I finally found Hassan, I am certain he thought I was lost.

We made a quick stop at the El-Jem Archeological museum where I saw more mosaics and although I was told these were spectacular, they did not do much for me. I thought the mosaics generally were a bit boring. What I did find fascinating, however, was the fact that they had unearthed a complete Roman villa on the site of the museum and had set about to recreate the villa in a portion of the museum. Now while the remains for the villa were visible – and they were simply enormous- it was rather fun to wander around a replica of a few rooms of the villa complete with the mosaics found at the site.

View to the excavated villa at El-Jem Museum

By the time we were done it was 5:30. The museum was closed and it was time to leave El-Jem for the two hour trip to Kairouan. It had been a glorious day topped by the fabulous El-Jem coliseum and the cries of bring out the gladiators, bring out the lions! (And perhaps we should have thrown the posers to the lions!)

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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