On the Dry Side

Sbeitla, Tunisia


Wednesday morning we left Kairouan around 9:00 a.m. and headed southwest towards the Atlas Mountains (which I finally confirmed was the same Atlas Mountain range found in Morocco) and the high desert region of the Sahara. As we headed to the central region of Tunisia, near the Algerian border, we passed a number of dry Wadis (pronounced Whad e and is an Arabic word for a ravine, valley or riverbed that is dry except in the rainy season). The Wadis were very pretty and either side of the Wadi were usually surrounded by olive and fruit trees.

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Chili peppers for sale

The area we drove through continued to be fairly flat, fertile agricultural land, but was a particular hotbed (so to speak) for chili peppers. We saw strands and strands of drying chili peppers being sold by the side of the road.

In addition, another interesting phenomenon we saw was the sudden appearance of vendors by the side of the road sitting at little stands surrounded by mounds of plastic bottles filled with gasoline. Apparently these vendors work with Algerian smugglers to bring gasoline across the border and sell it for less than the price being sold at licensed gasoline stations. There was one stretch of road in particular that was loaded with these little black market petrol stands.

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Black market gas for sale

By mid morning we reached Sbeitla, our only stop of the day. Now the ancient city of Sufetula is located in the heart of Sbeitla, and was originally a Numidian settlement (remember the original Tunisian settlers). After the Romans conquered the Carthaginians, the Numidian settlement was Romanized in the 1st century AD and given the name Sufetula. After Rome fell, the Byzantines made Sufetula their regional capital and as a result the Sufetula ruins are a unique combination of Roman and Byzantinian design (including some Christian baptismal fonts (tubs – like the one I fell in at the Bardo Museum).

As we pulled into Sbeitla, we ran into a very large group of men walking down the middle of the road chanting. As we approached, it was clear they were carrying a casket covered in a green shroud. (Green is the colour of Islam.) We pulled over and let the men pass. I quickly asked … “uh why no women?” Hassan told me it would require a lengthy explanation and he would tell me later. (Good grief this guy can be so patronizing sometimes ….)

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Muslim funeral in the streets of Sbeitla

Anyway, with my question on hold, we pulled into a cafe for a quick coffee break before taking in the Sufetula sites. I had a tiny cup of Moroccan coffee (the coffee cups are tiny weeny) with a bit of milk and this tiny cup of coffee was rather good (although coffee is still not my cup of tea …. yes you can groan here).

I wandered around the cafe with my tiny cup of coffee and was immediately descended upon by a shop proprietor who insisted I look in his shop. I took a quick look and didn’t really see anything that interested me. As I was walking out the door, I spotted a couple of unique looking pendants. Sterling silver Berber pendants with intersting designs. OK. How much? The guy originally wanted 80 dinars for two or 50 for one. I eventually got him to 30 dinars for two and called it good.

After the coffee and shopping, we wandered across the street to Sufetula (traffic in Tunisia is pretty tame compared to my experiences in Egypt, India and the Asian countries) so despite Hassan’s panicked look ever time I crossed the street, he could relax. No danger here.

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Roman temples at Sufetula ruins

So we began with the usual history background (this time it was rather short and to the point), and then we set off through what I could quickly see was an enormous set of ruins. Now what made Sufetula particularly unique was that it was built on a completely flat area surrounded by mountains. This made it very easy to see how expansive the city had been. In fact, Hassan said that it had covered 65 hectares and had a population of 15,000 people in its heyday.

Three quick observations. The remains at this site were so well preserved that you could wander through the cobblestone streets and actually get a sense of the entire layout of the city. (This was somewhat similar to Thuburo Majus, but at Sufetula, it was so flat that you could actually see the entire city.) Second, the colour of the stone used at this site was a unique ochre colour that I had not seen elsewhere. Finally, many of the buildings (particularly the residences) had been constructed with mortar and small stones. Again a unique feature.

As we entered the city, a perfectly preserved entry Arch to my right dominated the southern portion of the city. (Roman cities always used an arch for the entryway and then there was usually a triumphal arch somewhere in the middle of the city … Sufetula was no exception.) As we moved passed the entrance, I saw a large wall and pile of rather large rocks in front of me so I scrambled up the rocks to get a better look at the entire area. The lowland Atlas mountains acted as a perfect backdrop for the city. It really was a pretty layout. I carefully stepped on the rocks on my way back to solid ground so that we could begin the trek around the site when I suddenly heard the sound of gunfire. Uh … what the heck is that?

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Byzantine baptismal font at Sufetula

Fortunately, no need to panic. It turns out that there was a military base nearby, and they were apparently doing some target practice (well at least that is what Hassan said). I accepted the explanation, although the gunfire was a little unsettling, and was quite frankly happy when it stopped a short time later.

Anyway, we wandered along perfecting preserved Roman streets taking in the various villas, the summer Roman baths, the Roman cistern (reservoir), and the remains of the theatre, which had been converted into a modern outdoor concert venue. (I have to say they did a fabulous job of melding the old (pillars and stairs) with the new (seating and stage).

We wandered around the ruins without a single tourist in site. No one. Nada. Zip. Zero. We had the entire, enormous place to ourselves. It was strange and wonderful all at the same time. (Tunisia is clearly still feeling the effects of the Arab Spring.)

We finally turned north and headed towards the sites that dominated Sufetula: the giant and very well preserved Antonine Gate (the victory gate) and the three gigantic Roman Temples dedicated to the Roman gods Minerva (the best preserved temple at the site), Jupiter (always in the middle as the most important god) and Juno. What was unusual about these temples was that the there were actually three temples instead of the standard one. For example, the Capitole in Dougga was comprised of just one temple with three niches for statutes to the three gods. Here, the Romans erected a temple for each god with one niche in each temple to display a statue of their deity.

The Antonine Gate was simply spectacular and a perfect frame for the three enormous temples. As we passed through the Antonine Gate we walked through the enormous forum (the location of the open markets) in front of the three temples and gazed at the enormous temples in front of us. (How anyone could shop back in the day with these amazing buildings framing your view is beyond me.)

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On the steps of the Temple of Minerva at Sufetula

Anyway, the Temple of Minerva was in superb condition with all of its marble columns and its portico still standing. The Temple of Jupiter, which was clearly the more elaborate and more important temple of the three had some columns and the frame of the portico remaining while the Temple of Juno was without pillars or its portico. As a collection, the temples were simply stunning and individually each was impressive in its own right. I wandered up, down and through each of the temples looking at the designs overhead, and feeling the fine smooth stones. The craftsmanship was amazing considering that there were no modern tools and everything was made by hand. Simply incredible.

I reluctantly left the temple area and wandered to the backside of the site where we saw the two Byzantine churches constructed of very large stones in the traditional Byzantine style. Here we also saw two gorgeous baptismal fonts, which I fortunately did not fall into this time thanks to gates surrounding the tubs.

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Roman Baths at Sufetula

The last sites we walked through on the northern side of the site were the Roman winter baths. The baths still had some standing pillars and some beautiful mosaics in the bathing areas. (It always amazes me when I see these beautiful mosaics just sitting out in the middle of these sites so prone to the elements.)

We turned back towards the temples and walked back the way we had come passing a very small group of Japanese tourists. Yay … my luck continues.

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Looking back at Sufetula over a sheep farm

We reached the car about twenty minutes later and set off for lunch at a lovely restaurant overlooking the Sufetula ruins (as well as a sheep farm). We had just started to eat our standard harissa (with some lovely Kairouan bread that Hassan had purchased before we left that city) when Hassan asked me if I wanted to know the answer to my prior question (why there were no women at the funeral procession).

I, of course, nodded so Hassan proceeded to tell me that Muslims bury their dead within 24 hours of death. The body is washed, wrapped in a white shroud then place in a wooden coffin which is covered by a green shroud. While this is going on, the grave is dug. Men then carry the green shroud covered coffin through streets to the grave site (while chanting there is only one god and god is Allah – which is what the men were apparently chanting when we passed them on the streets of Sbeitla).

However, none of this explained why there was no women. Hassan finally said that women are too sensitive and cannot control themselves so they are not permitted at funerals. (Seriously!! Hassan said this to me!) Which led me to ask … are women permitted to attend their own funerals? (Another of my one liners Hassan did not get.)

Hassan said that women as a group visit the grave the day after the burial. I looked at him (I am certain) with WTF expression on my face. I said nothing, but decided to do a little research later. After hunting around the internet, I found out that in pre-Islamic Arab countries, wealthy families used to hire “wailers” for a loved one’s funeral. These wailers would cry, and “wail” and generally carry on with public displays of sorrow.

Under Islamic law, however, “wailing” is not permitted at funerals. As a result, women are prevented from attending funerals because it is believed they will display too much emotion (a carry over from the wailer for hire days). This does not explain why when we see wailing and carrying on during T.V. footage of funerals for victims of terrorist attacks in middle eastern countries the wailers are generally men. (And I have nothing against men wailing. I think it would be unnatural if a loved one were killed and you didn’t wail … male or female. I just think the notion of excluding women ignores reality. Everyone wails.)

I decided to let the subject go and enjoy my fabulous lunch of Tunisian soup (a kind of vegetable broth with bits of couscous), fresh salad (chopped up tomatoes, cucumbers and onions – I removed the onions … not a fan) with olive oil and vinegar and grilled fish. Super yummy. (And lest you think that I must be losing weight with all this walking and healthy food … think again. I think I have gained weight from all the sweets, French bread with harissa and breakfast croissants – a holdover from the French rule and a staple during Tunisian breakfasts. At the very least I am certain I have not lost any weight, which is contrary to my usual 5 lbs down vacation.)

So after lunch, we got back in the car and Hatem began the long five hour drive through the high Sahara desert to the mountain oasis town of Tamerza, where I would be spending two days visiting some of the desert oasis towns and riding the Lezard Red Train through the mountain gorges along the Algerian border.

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Looking over a Wadi towards the Atlas Mountains

The first couple hours of the drive to Tamerza were not particularly interesting, although Hatem did take a shortcut (he is from the area) and we saw a turtle by the side of the road, which we stopped to move to the dry riverbed. Poor thing. We passed a few small towns, but the area was severely lacking in vegetation as we got closer to the Sahara so I wasn’t really sure how these towns made a go of it.

Anyway, about two hours after lunch we reached the turn in the road that led up into the desert mountains. Now while the initial assent into the Atlas Mountains provided a spectacular view, there was literally nothing else to see. We drove past a few goat and sheep herders along the way as well as past some blink and you miss them dusty mountain towns. And the only vegetation we saw were a few strands of desert grass here and there and the occasional date palms that had sprouted near underground springs.

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Driving through the Sahara desert to Tamerza

As we drove through the mountains, I soon learned everything I never wanted to know about phosphates, which are mined in great quantities in two desert towns we passed through: Moulares and Redayef. Hassan seemed to have a great fascination with this subject and would repeatedly point out the black piles of phosphate we could see in the distance and the two large phosphate mines we passed. I didn’t bother to discuss with him the horrible toxic consequences from mining phosphates and the horrible bi-products that phosphates produce that pollute the world.

We finally reached Tamerza about an hour before sunset. My hotel was gorgeous and overlooked a dry Wadi as well as the old town Tamerza that was destroyed in the great floods of 1969. More about that in my next blog. Until then … it’s time for dinner.

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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