A Wonderful Day Trip in Tunisia - Visiting Kairouan and El Jem - August 30, 2018

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August 30th 2018
Published: September 6th 2018
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We Started in Monastir (underlined in yellow)We Started in Monastir (underlined in yellow)We Started in Monastir (underlined in yellow)

and traveled to those underlined in red
Thursday, August 30thwe took our first foray out of Monastir. Fortunately for us there has been another American sailboat here and we hit it off with Kathy and Jim. Luckily they also wanted to see more of Tunisia so we hooked up together and hired a taxi/excursion driver for two days, Thursday and Saturday. It is always nice to share expenses and it was a fun time out together. We had told the driver, Alaya, that we were interested in learning more about the history of the area so that is how the itineraries were planned. As both of the days turned out to be 12 hour days covering plenty of history and territory I’ll split the two days up into two blog entries.

We were picked up just after 8AM and headed toward our first stop, Kairouan. As this is the first day we have been out of the city of Monastir, it gave us another perspective on what the country is like. Early on in the trip it became clear that at least in this part of the country, the infrastructure is quite developed with excellent roads. Many are divided highways and we saw some areas where more were being developed or improved. There is quite a bit of open space with numerous fields for crops, but also a number of small towns that seem to be bustling with activity. Along the way Alaya spotted a roadside stand so we stopped to try some fresh figs and prickly pear. Neither of us have had prickly pear so Alaya showed us how to cut it open and eat it. It wasn’t bad, but neither of us was that sold on it to buy more, but we did pick up some figs for later.

We had heard about this city and its Great Mosque, but did not know the importance of it historically. On our way our driver, Alaya, gave a run down on the history of Tunisia with the various powers that ran it over the centuries. While he was telling it, it all seemed so straight forwarded, but without taking notes, it does not seem quite so simple now that I want to write this blog entry. One thing that is for certain is that everything you read and everyone you talk tells you that the Great Mosque is the first mosque built in North Africa which occurred in 670 AD. As with most buildings it was re-built in 836 into its present form at the time that Kairouan was the capital of the province. It stayed as the capital from the 9th C. through to the 12th C. when it moved to the current capital of Tunis located on the sea.

With your first glimpse of the medina of Kairouan you are taken by the height of the walls (8 meters = approximately 26 feet) and the solidly looking minaret of the Great Mosque. In reading the history of the mosque we found that it not only had a religious function, but a University was also established within it. They taught both Islamic thought and the secular sciences and have been compared to the University of Paris of its time. When you walk in you see the rows of columns surrounding the courtyard –we found out later that there are actually 414 columns made of marble and granite with many of them coming from the ruins of Carthage. The walls enclose a space of almost 2 acres, quite an impressive area. It was known for its being a center of knowledge teaching mathematics, astronomy, medicine and botany making it an intellectual center in North Africa from the 9th to the 11th C.

Next we went to the Mausoleum of Sidi Sahab also known as the Mosque of the Barber as it is said that he as a companion of the prophet Muhammad had saved 3 hairs of Muhammad’s beard as a relic, therefore getting the name of “barber”. Sidi Sahab died in 655 and was buried where the current city of Kairouan is located. In the 15th C. a simple dome mausoleum was built, but in the 17th C. it was enlarged in order to incorporate a school with rooms for the students above the courtyard. The courtyard is lined with beautiful mosaics which were wonderful themselves, but the rooms off the courtyard were even more spectacular. The walls are covered in mosaics and intricate stucco work with the ceilings covered in carved and painted wood or stucco. They were so beautiful they were almost overwhelming.

We also went to another place that was equally impressive. This shrine was first built by a scholar by the name of Al-Jadidi in the 8th C. After his death his disciple, Samir Abid continued to teach
Drove By Some Salt Pans on Our Way to KairouanDrove By Some Salt Pans on Our Way to KairouanDrove By Some Salt Pans on Our Way to Kairouan

and saw some flamingoes there (photo credit- Kathy)
here. When he died he was buried here and this shrine is now named after him. It has been a school over the years and continues in that role today.

Alaya then walked around some of the older streets in the medina (old city) giving us plenty of places to photograph. Fortunately Kathy is also a photographer so I wasn’t the only one playing “catch up” with Bob and Jim. From the sounds of it Jim is used to that as well with Kathy taking lots of photos. There were a few times I couldn’t get a shot that she could and vies versa so we had a chance to share a few photos – a real bonus of traveling with them today!

One of the places Alaya wanted to show us was a home where the previous Turkish governor lived when they were in power. Sounded interesting, but also dangerous to our pocketbook as it also housed a carpet store! The salesperson first took the time to show us around this spectacular home telling us of the person that lived here with his 4 wives (and yes, he had 22 children) and informed us what each room had been used for. There was an upstairs area as well; this was for the women to be able to see what is happening, but not be seen by those that were visiting the governor downstairs. Everywhere you looked there was amazing detail in the ceilings, the woodwork of the room dividers and of course checking out all of the magnificent rugs that just so happened to be spread out everywhere! When we walked in Bob said to me “we are going to be strong here aren’t we and be able to say no” – of course I said yes as we had already bought 2 rugs in Monastir recently. We had a chance to see a woman working on a loom and they gave Kathy a chance to try her hand at it as well. We learned that there are 2 main types of rugs – one that is done on the loom with the design developed by the woman herself by tying wool on to the warp of the loom. The number of knots per inch determines the price of the rug. The other is not a knotted rug, but one where the design is embroidered on top of a woven background working from the back. They did the same here with giving us a cup of mint tea and then sat us down to “just take a look” at the numerous carpets they have. We kept telling them that we had already bought rugs in Monastir so were not in the market, but we found out late in the process that they had some pillow cases as well and a few much smaller rugs. Well, you guessed it; we didn’t walk out empty handed! At least this time we will use the pillow cases for the boat and take the smaller rug back to the US as it will fit nicely at the door to our side porch. Our willpower wasn’t that great, but we are sure we will be happy that we have them as they do beautiful work and the prices are very reasonable.

The last site we saw in Kairouan before heading to El Jem was the Bassins des Aghlabites. There are two reservoirs (cisterns) which are fed by a 36 km. (22 miles) long aqueduct as the water source is in the mountains. There are 2 pools, a smaller and a larger
One of the Many Shops in KairouanOne of the Many Shops in KairouanOne of the Many Shops in Kairouan

we found out that this town is known for its rugs
one. The smaller one acted as a filter collecting sediment before being moved into the larger pool which is 16 feet deep and 420 feet across. There are only 2 remaining pools, but there had been 16 of them originally. As they were open to the air, rainwater also collected in them as well. This was thought to be the largest hydraulic system of the Middle Ages. It was interesting to see these and think of how forward thinking people were in the 9th C. to provide water to the people of Kairouan bringing it from the hills miles away and storing it close by. Quite interesting to see and it gave us a chance to also meet a very interesting man that gave us the “tour” of the basin. He also ran a shop there where the money from it went to charity. We stopped in the shop to pick up a couple of things to help out and as a “thank you” for the tour.

Kairouan is quite a large city so it may be worth another visit again to spend a little more time looking around. Today thought we had other places to see so hopped
Bob Thought He Should Get the White Suit for the BoatBob Thought He Should Get the White Suit for the BoatBob Thought He Should Get the White Suit for the Boat

the details on the clothing is exquisite
back in the van and drove to El Jem.

El Jem is a Roman built amphitheatre built in 238 AD. It is quite unique to Africa and is quite well preserved. It is built similar to the one in Rome with large stone blocks piled on each other with no foundation. As with others that they built, this was also built for spectator events holding 35,000 people. It is 486 feet long and 400 feet wide. In the Middle Ages its purpose was transformed into one of being a fortress providing shelter to the citizens from attack by the Vandals in 430 and the Arabs in 647. As we learned about the one in Rome, this also had numerous uses over the years. It became a place for the manufacture of saltpeter at the end of the 18th C. and in the latter half of the 19th C. it was used for shops, homes and grain storage.

Unlike any of the other amphitheatre’s we have visited we were able to walk out into the arena area. We also could walk through some of the underground tunnels where the animals would have been brought before the gladiator fights. As El Jem is not by the sea there has been speculation of how the animals were brought here as they were as diverse as lions, elephants and leopards. They state that there is an underground tunnel that runs to the sea allowing the animals to arrive by ship and then put in the tunnel to get to El Jem - quite an undertaking indeed as it is quite a distance.

We stopped for lunch in El Jem at a place Alaya knew. He introduced us again to a couple of local foods. One we had before with our friend, Marouane, the brik. It was similar to the one we had before but not exactly the same. He also ordered a grilled salad – it sounded interesting and actually tasted very good but looked much different than we expected. I thought it would be pieces of vegetables grilled, but instead it was vegetables (peppers, tomatoes and onion) but ground up and mixed with a spicy hot sauce that is very common here in Tunisia. We had seen it on menus but hadn’t had a chance to try it before so now we know that it is something that we would
The Great Mosque of Kairouan Built in 670The Great Mosque of Kairouan Built in 670The Great Mosque of Kairouan Built in 670

and re-built in its current form in 836.
order again. The main course offering was either lamb or chicken kebabs which were served with spaghetti, French fries and a tomato/cucumber salad. We then were treated to some fresh watermelon after the meal. All in all a nice lunch with a wonderful view of the amphitheatre.

Included in the price of admission to El Jem was a visit to the mosaic museum. There were numerous mosaics on display which came from a number of locations in the El Jem area. The size and number of the mosaics were impressive. We thought we were almost through the museum when a guide showed us another building that was “the House of Africa”. We learned that it has been very recently discovered in the 1990’s. It was owned by an aristocrat and built about 170 AD. It is a very large home with numerous mosaics found in place. The name of the house comes from a large mosaic that has the goddess, Africa, as its central figure. We were able to wander through a few of the rooms with help from the guide, but unfortunately it was getting late in the day and we needed to get back to the van to complete our travels for the day. Sounds like another place we will have to put on our list again for the spring when we return to Monastir.

The last stop of the day was a fishing village on the coast, Mahdia. It was getting late in the day so we didn’t actually go into the medina, but drove by the coast stopping to take some photos where Alaya gave us some history of the area. Alaya told us for a period of time, Mahdia had been the capital, just like Kairouan had been earlier in the history of Tunisia. We had a chance to see the sun set here and then we were on our final leg back to the marina. It was a long 12 hour day, but full of history, new foods and plenty of sights to add to our memory bank.

This day away from Monastir has given us a new look on Tunisia noting that it is growing with numerous large developed cities, bustling villages, plenty of harbors, a good infrastructure of roads and open space for agriculture. Many cities along the coast have developed their asset of a beautiful coastline to attract
Many of the Pillars of the Great MosqueMany of the Pillars of the Great MosqueMany of the Pillars of the Great Mosque

were "recycled" from previous ruined Roman sites
tourists as that is an influx of income that they could definitely use. The country is not wealthy in natural resources such as gas or oil like their neighbors, but they do have miles and miles of sandy beaches that they hope will attract more and more tourists. They already have lots of hotels and are building more with this in mind. We were told that currently the largest amounts of tourists come from Russia, Poland and Germany, but they hope to attract many more to their shores. From what we saw today, they are off to a good start in developing in the right areas.

We are looking forward to having more time in the spring to see more of this fascinating country.

Additional photos below
Photos: 57, Displayed: 32


Views of the Arches at the Barber's MosqueViews of the Arches at the Barber's Mosque
Views of the Arches at the Barber's Mosque

and an interesting chair in the courtyard
Spectacular Mosaics and Stucco DetailsSpectacular Mosaics and Stucco Details
Spectacular Mosaics and Stucco Details

in the Barber's Mosque (Sidi Saheb)
The Entrance to the Shrine for Sdi Abid el-GharianiThe Entrance to the Shrine for Sdi Abid el-Ghariani
The Entrance to the Shrine for Sdi Abid el-Ghariani

love the conservatively dressed doing selfies!

8th September 2018

Mosques & minarets
Great collection. I have posted some of your pics in our "Cathedrals, grand churches, mosques & places of public worship" thread in the Photography Forum. Check 'em out.
9th September 2018

tried to find
Hi - got your note about using photo in the Photography Forum -tried to do a search with the thread you mentioned, but for some reason can't seem to find it - will have to try again - you should definitely put Tunisia on your list of places to visit - the people are wonderful and what we have seen so far has been great - we are looking forward to more next March
8th September 2018
Demonstration of One Method of Making Rugs

Rugs Rugs & More Rugs
Nice to hear of others with a weakness for the skills of one of the oldest professions in the World...rug traders! I have a house full of handmade rugs and now I have another country to visit to satisfy my passion...Tunisia. Any excuse is OK really! Having met the voice of the Arab Spring we had considered Tunisia. Your pics make it more than enticing!
9th September 2018
Demonstration of One Method of Making Rugs

thanks for taking a look - definitely put Tunisia on your list if you like rugs - they are fabulous with quite the variety of types with interesting designs

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