Tunisia

Summer 2006 CSANews Issue 59  |  Posted date : May 28, 2007.Back to list

Until I visited Tunisia, Carthage, that page of history, that vague vestige of the past was associated in my mind with a man known as Hannibal, and an army which crossed mountains on elephants. Only now, as I stand on a platform that overlooks the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, do I wish that I had paid more attention in my history classes so many years ago. Around me were the ruins of what once was the seat of power in an age before the birth of Christ. Carthagenians ruled the top end of what became known as Africa. Indeed, what is now Tunisia was itself (called Ifriqiya (Africa), in the BC era). Much more than a city-state, Carthage laid claim to Sicily, Sardinia and Spain. Just into a new millennium, I am looking at the foundations of buildings in which Hannibal and his peers lived, shopped and plotted their forays into Europe.

Of course, Hannibal's tables of fate were overturned when the Romans flexed their muscles and drove the Carthagenians back to their home community, razing their capital to the ground. Augustus Caesar then rebuilt Carthage in Roman design, including squares, columns, baths and an amphitheatre. Granite and marble were imported from Greece and Italy for the reconstruction. The remains of Roman Carthage can still be seen; some of the walls and pillars stand atop the original Punic foundations. fortunately for me, and no doubt others who wish that they had paid more attention in their school days, the Tunisians established a fine museum at the site, with relics, statuary and dioramas which tell the story of this once-great city atop Mount Byrsa. It's never too late to learn.

The ruins of Carthage are a mere 10 minutes away from the modern new buildings of downtown Tunis. Also close at hand is a picturesque resort community called Sidi Bou Said (ceedee boo sigh-eed. Draped across a hillside overlooking Tunis Bay, the village buildings are, by law, sparkling white; all doors, window sashes and shutters are a bright blue. from a wide terrace, we could view a marina, home berth for some 350 pleasure craft and, ust beyond a narrow peninsula, a present-day Carthage. The area has attracted artists mainly from Europe, who have moved in to capture the scenic beauty on canvas and paper, and to immerse themselves in the serenity of life in this Moorish atmosphere. Several small galleries offer their artistic efforts for sale.

On up the hill we came face to face with a falconer and his falcon. This bird was untethered and the man was not wearing gloves, all of which led me to believe that its wings may have been clipped. The falconer placed his feathered friend upon my wife's shoulder for a photo. When my turn came, he fetched a fez from his pocket and placed it on my head, so that I might look a little more authentic. He smiled and graciously accepted our small token of appreciation.

Near the top of the street, we climbed a few steps and entered the Café des Nattes. Inside, we walked between raised, carpeted platforms with small green box-like tables with enough room for one's elbows and mint tea. Customers, who sat cross-legged upon the carpet, were provided with traditional water pipes to enjoy while engaged in social conversation or business discussions. A small amount of tobacco is mixed with charcoal in a tiny bowl atop the pipe's decorative two-foot stem. The base is a vase, which contains about a litre of water. Smoke is drawn through the water and an ornate tube and mouthpiece. Often, the mouthpiece is shared among friends. Our guide, Kamil, said that one could relax here for a couple of hours, enjoying this traditional pastime. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the temptation to smoke returned.

The streets of Sidi Bou Said are narrow and cobbled, barely wide enough for the occasional car or delivery van. But there are souks. Many souks. The merchants will be happy to overcharge you, so you must engage in another one of the national pastimes – haggling. One vendor asked 55 dollars for a set of olive wood bowls. My wife finally made a deal for 25. We had fun and I'm sure that the merchant made his profit.

We repeated the process when we went to La Medina, the old town of Tunis. The marketplace was much larger here. A veritable labyrinth of covered alleyways wrapped around centuries-old mosques. What would you like to bargain for? Onyx eggs? Leather goods, ceramics, sheepskins, perfume, fabrics? Perhaps a sheathed dagger, some floor or wall tiles? Maybe the lady would enjoy a small piece of unwrapped chewing gum. Or how about a unique souvenir – a framed scorpion? We allowed ourselves to go into a carpet shop and were rewarded with a glass of peppermint tea and a panoramic view from their rooftop terrace. Karim pointed out the minaret of Tunisia's oldest mosque, constructed more than 800 years ago. It was so well maintained that one would think it had been built quite recently.

A "must see" in Tunis is the Bardo Museum. Housed in a palace once occupied by a Turkish Bey, the showplace is a gallery of mosaic art. Floors and ceilings have been brought from all over Tunisia, to be reset and mounted as wall and floor displays. Many depict gods from Greek and Roman mythology. Visitors marvel at the artwork in stone created centuries earlier. The Bardo is set in an area of fountains and statuary, scattered over several blocks of well-treed parkland.

But Tunisia is not all cityscape, history and souvenir shopping. Several resorts beckon, offering relaxation or adventure. The country has 1150 kilometres (700 miles)of coastline. Long a favourite with Europeans, and still growing in popularity is Hammamet, just a half-hour's drive from the Tunis International Airport. A short distance down the soft sand beach is the neighbouring community of Nabeul. Both offer world-class facilities including fine dining, entertainment, water sports of all kinds and golf.

Accommodations range from clean, self-catering units to four-star properties in fragrant garden settings. The modern city of Sousse, a couple of hours from the capital on Tunisia's east coast, boasts a variety of lures. Besides its Mediterranean beaches, the city has a weaving centre, an important university, a fishing port and an olive oil production plant. Restaurants offer an opportunity to try such local dishes as couscous (a stew with lamb, chicken or fish on steaming semolina), brik (pastry containing egg, topped with tuna, prawns or herbs), mechoula (a salad) and chorba (a soup). And you may be surprised at the fine quality of Tunisian wines!

Perhaps the island of Djerba comes closest to your idea of Arabian Nights. You may see a traditional African "Gougou" dance, or hear the music of bagpipes and tambourines. You can ride a camel, or go on horseback along the beach where pink flamingos wade in contrast to the emerald waters of the sea. Then go inland to the desert and seek out oases such as Tozeur, Gafsa, Kebili and Douz. Each one is an emerald gem, set into a bed of Sahara sand; each has its own personality, its own population of desert dwellers who have created a lifestyle in defiance of nature's whims. There are souvenirs to be bargained for here, yes. But the best souvenirs will be the memories which you'll keep forever.

Perhaps it is the intense blue of the sky. Or maybe the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. It might be the fragrance of jasmine in the medina. Or the sounds, exotic to the occidental ear, of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer (five times a day). Likely it is a combination of these (and the Carthagenian history class) that creates a sensual experience which remains long after your stay in Tunis has ended.

Side Note:
Tunisia is located in northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It is slightly larger than the state of Georgia and boasts approximately 10 million inhabitants. In terms of weather, the best time to visit Tunisia is during the months of May, June and September, when it is neither too hot nor too rainy.

Arabic and French are widely spoken throughout Tunisia. English is spoken mainly in tourist areas and among the younger Tunisian population.

Official Name: Republic of Tunisia
Population: 9,986,200
Capital City: Tunis (700,000)
Currency: Tunisian Dinar
National Day: 20 March - Independence Day
Religions: Muslim
Latitude/Longitude: 36° 84'N, 10° 22'E
Highest Point: Chambi (5,066 ft. or 1,544m)
Land Area: 155,360 sq km (or 59,984 sq miles)

Tunisian food is typically hot and spicy. Couscous is the national dish of Tunisia and can be prepared in many different ways. Other popular Tunisian dishes include brik, a thin, deep-fried pastry containing minced lamb, beef or vegetables and an egg, as well as taine, an egg-based dish with chopped meat and seasoned with parsley, cheese or grilled peppers.

For more information on travelling in Tunisia, visit: www.tunisiaonline.com www.tourismtunisia.com for a list of reading materials visit the African Guide website at: www.africaguide.com/country/tunisia/books.htm

Local laws reflect the fact that Tunisia is a Muslim country. You should respect local customs at all times, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.

In the coastal holiday resorts and major cities, the dress code is very much like any Western city or tourist area. If visiting religious sites or more remote areas of Tunisia, you should dress more modestly and avoid any articles of clothing that may cause offence.