The detailed itinerary provides an outline of the proposed daily program. Participants should note that the daily activities described in this itinerary may be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate changes in opening hours, road conditions, flight schedules etc. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents. Meals included in the tour price are indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=light lunch and D=dinner. Bottled water will also be provided daily during site excursions.
Tunis - 4 nights
Day 1: Tuesday 2 November, Arrive Tunis
- Airport transfer for participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
- Welcome Meeting
- Light Dinner at the hotel
Participants taking the ASA ‘designated’ flight are scheduled to arrive in Tunis with Qatar Airways on flight QR1399 at 1215hrs. You will be met at the airport and transfer by private coach to your hotel in central Tunis. Participants not arriving on this flight should make their own way to the El Mouradi Africa Hotel. After check-in there will be some time at leisure to rest after your flight.
Modern Tunis is located on the southwestern side of Lac Tunis, a salt lake that separates the city from the sea. It stands on the site of Phoenician Thunes, the sister city to Carthage, located on the northern side of the lake. Although Carthage and Thunes were often rivals, they joined forces against the Romans during the Punic wars and suffered the same fate after their defeat; the Romans, who then rebuilt Carthage in their image, razed both towns. After periods of Vandal and Byzantine rule, Arabo-Muslim armies from Egypt captured Carthage and Tunis in the late 7th century. Tunis became an important Muslim port but Carthage, again destroyed by her conquerors, never recovered. In addition to being a naval base for the conquest of the Mediterranean, Tunis also became a centre of religious learning. The great mosque of Tunis, the Zaytuna, soon came to rival the great mosque of Kairouan as the Arab province of Ifriqiyya’s foremost teaching mosque. As different Muslim regimes came to power, Tunis alternated as capital with Qayrawan (engl. Kairouan) and Mahdia. In the 11th century Tunis, along with other coastal areas, fell to the Normans who exploited the collapse of central power in Ifriqiyya, which had been exacerbated by the arrival of Arab nomads from the east. The Normans were expelled by an Almohad naval force from Morocco. The Almohads appointed a lineage of governors, the Hafsids, who were to become the founders of the first state corresponding to modern Tunisia. The old town of Tunis owes its shape to the Hafsids who made it their capital, a status it never henceforth lost. In the 16th century, Tunis suffered grievously from the Habsburg-Ottoman struggle. The Spanish wrecked the city, defiled its mosques, and left us with little more than the street plan as evidence of the Hafsid era. The Ottomans and the Turco-Tunisian beys rebuilt the city and many of the monuments we will see date to the era of the Husainid beys (1705-1957), who gave Tunis a new profile. Exuberantly painted octagonal minarets; dramatic black and white marble arches; detailed stuccowork and strange Baroque touches bear witness to the vivacity of Turco-Tunisian culture.
We begin our program with a welcome meeting followed by a light dinner at the hotel. (Overnight Tunis) D
Day 2: Wednesday 3 November, Tunis
- Walking tour of the old Tunis medina, including: Bab Bhar, Zaytuna Mosque, Grand Souq des Chechias, Souq el Bey & Souq el Berka, Tourbat el-Bey, Dar Othman, Dar Ben Abdullah Museum (UNESCO World-Heritage Site)
- Welcome Dinner
Today we explore the Tunis medina, visiting a number of important monuments. We walk from Bab Bhar up through the old town of Tunis to the great mosque. Bab Bhar, the Sea Gate, originally provided access to the harbour via marshy wasteland. European consuls and merchants resided nearby, and also the poor of the city who could not afford to move further from the miasmas of the nearby marshland. We will make our way up the hill through one of the main market streets of the old town towards the Zaytuna, the great mosque of Tunis founded in the early 8th century, but rebuilt by the Aghlabid dynasty in the 9th century. The Zaytuna nestles in the upper, prestigious part of the medina with the old citadel behind and the quarters of the rich stretching away on both sides. Originally its presence would have been concealed by shops, which lined its outer walls, but the beys cleared one side and commissioned an Italian renegade to build the portico that now marks the approach to the mosque. Inside stand the starkly simple courtyard and prayer hall. Roman columns gathered from Tunisia’s antique sites support the arches of the courtyard’s arcade, and an ancient Arabic inscription graces the lintel of the doors into the prayer hall. The minaret, a 19th century creation, was modelled on the earlier square Almohad minaret dating to the 12th century.
From the peace of the Zaytuna we will move into the bustling old town to explore the upper town whose rich stone-carved doorways testify to the wealth of its former inhabitants. Among the sights we will see are the Sulaymaniyya Madrasa, one of many Turco-Tunisian madrasas where the religious sciences were taught. We will visit the Grand Souq des Chéechias, named after the woollen caps (chéechias) whose manufacture was brought to this souq in the 17th century from Andalucia. Passing the Hammouda Pasha Mosque (c.1665) with its fine Syrian – style minaret, and the Mosque of Youssef Dey (1616), we will enter the Souq el Bey, named from the 19th century palace of the Bey of Tunis in its midst, and the Souq el Berka. If time permits, we shall visit the district of the Mosque of the Dyers (Mosquée des Teinturiers).
Opposite this mosque is the Dar Othman, the palace built by Othman Bey in 1600, with a lovely inner courtyard. We may then visit the Madrasa attached to the Dyers Mosque before continuing to the Dar Ben Abdullah Museum. This 18th century palatial residence houses an interesting collection of Turco-Tunisian domestic articles. Close by is the Tourbet el-Bey (1758), the Mausoleum of the Husseinite Dynasty (1705-1957), which is graced by a huge dome. It has ornate marble inlay, reminiscent of Hagia Sophia, and thoroughly North African stuccowork. We pass the Masjid of Ibn Khaldun, a tiny Hafsid mosque where the great North African historian, Ibn Khaldun, is said to have lectured.
We will have lunch at Dar El Jeld, a restaurant within a beautifully restored traditional house within the Medina. The walls are covered in vibrant tiles and the ceilings are richly carved and painted. Throughout the house are antique furniture and ornaments; here diners can easily imagine the lifestyle enjoyed by a wealthy Tunisian merchant family.
This evening we enjoy a welcome dinner at a local fish restaurant housed in a 19th-century villa. (Overnight Tunis) BLD
Day 3: Thursday 4 November, Tunis – Carthage – Tunis
- Carthage: Byrsa Hill, harbour, trophet & amphitheatre (UNESCO World-Heritage Site)
- Bardo Museum
This morning we visit the site of ancient Carthage located on the north side of Lac Tunis. We first stop at the Byrsa Hill, the site of the earliest Phoenician settlement in the area, where we may view the old Phoenician harbour, the Gulf of Tunis and the modern city located on the south side of the lake. We will also visit the Tophet, a sanctuary where Carthaginian child sacrifice may have taken place.
Next, we visit the Roman city of Carthage. The Romans completely destroyed the Punic city of Carthage in 149 BC, but built a Roman city on the site, which by the 1st century AD had become the second largest city of the western half of the Roman Empire. Its development was driven in part by Tunisia’s crucial importance as a granary for the Empire. Carthage became an important centre of Christianity, and a number of early Church Councils occurred here; in the 4th and 5th centuries the Church was riven by controversy with the Donatists, who would not tolerate those who had compromised with the Empire during the period of persecution of Christians. Carthage was taken by the Vandals in the 5th century, but became an Exarchate of the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century. It fell to the Arabs in the late 7th century. Formidable ruins of the Roman city remain, despite its changing fortunes in late antiquity. We shall explore such monuments as the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre and the thermal Antonine Baths, which were the largest baths in the Empire.
Following lunch at a local restaurant we visit one of the country’s great treasures, the Bardo Museum. The Bardo Museum, a medieval palace rebuilt by the Muradid and then Husaynid beys between the 17th and 19th centuries, houses many of the mosaics from Tunisia’s most famous Roman sites. The Bardo also contains a small Islamic section, but its most interesting feature is the eclectic combination of Islamic and Italianate elements, evident in the designs on the painted coffered wood ceilings; the juxtaposition of European-style halls and Arab-Islamic domed chambers; and the incongruous addition of chandeliers, a common feature in 18th and 19th century Turco-Tunisian decor. (Overnight Tunis) BL
Day 4: Friday 5 November, Tunis – Testour – Dougga – Tunis
- Great Mosque of Testour (exterior only)
- Dougga: UNESCO World-Heritage Site
Today we drive west for a full day excursion to the UNESCO World-Heritage listed site of Dougga. Along the way we make a brief stop to collect some ingredients for our picnic lunch at Testour, which was rebuilt by Andalusian refugees in the 17th century. We also view the exterior of the Great Mosque of Testour distinguished by its octagonal minaret that features Andalusian-style inscriptions.
We next visit Dougga, the most spectacular Roman site in Tunisia. Dougga is located on a steep hillside overlooking the fertile fields of the Tell and its temples still rise up, dominating the surrounding land. Dougga was a Lybico-Punic city before its incorporation into the Roman Empire and therefore has a rambling street plan which follows the contours of the hillside rather than the typical gridded Roman schema. The architecture of Dougga, like its street plan, has a character all of its own: the temple of Juno Caelestis, the Romanised version of the Punic goddess Tanit, is ringed by an unusual semi-circular colonnade; a chart of the twelve winds is carved upon the flagstones of the forum floor; and down the hillside stands a Lybico-Punic funerary tower, one of the oldest constructions in North Africa. Dougga also has an excellently preserved theatre, capitol, and bath complex. In the late afternoon we return to Tunis. (Overnight Tunis) BLD
Sousse - 2 nights
Day 5: Saturday 6 November, Tunis – Monastir – Sousse
- Ribat & Great Mosque of Monastir
- Mausoleum of Bourguiba, Monastir
This morning we depart Tunis and follow the coast south to Monastir, a fortified rabat (fortress) town of the Sahel that possesses the largest ribat in Tunisia. The urban profile of Monastir was dramatically altered in the 1960s by President Habib Bourguiba, who destroyed most of the old town and created a processional approach from the ribat to the mausoleums he erected for himself and his parents in Monastir’s graveyard. The ribat, although shorn of its urban surroundings, still stands next to the great mosque overlooking the harbour. The ribat is a complex multi-layered building with a warren of passages and chambers to explore. It shares, however, its general plan with the ribat of Sousse, a monumental entrance on the east side; a central courtyard surrounded by several storeys of cells; a first floor prayer hall on the entrance wall; and a watchtower in the southeast corner. We will visit the ribat, pass the walls of the Great Mosque that was built in the 9th century and enlarged in the 11th century, and visit the Mausoleum of Bourguiba. From Monastir we continue to Sousse where we shall be based for the next 2 nights. (Overnight Sousse) BL
Day 6: Sunday 7 November, Sousse
- Archaeological Museum
- Medina of Sousse: UNESCO World-Heritage Site
- Fatimid Qubba (Kalaout el-Koubba)
- Great Mosque of Sousse
- Dar Essid House Museum
- Time at leisure
Sousse is an old Islamic port on the Tunisian coast that had formerly been the second most important Roman city in what is now Tunisia, after Carthage. Little of the Roman city remains, except for an excellent collection of mosaics in its museum. This morning we visit the qasba, or citadel, built around an 8th-century watchtower, and now an archaeological museum containing mosaics from the Sousse region. After exploring the qasba and its mosaic collection we take a walk through Sousse’s UNESCO World-Heritage listed medina.
As we thread our way through the streets of the old medina we will pass several fascinating mosque façades from the Fatimid, Almohad and Ottoman periods, including a Fatimid qubba (Kalaout el-Koubba), or dome chamber. Its façade is a rare example of North African Fatimid decoration, and the dome itself, decorated with a raised zig-zag pattern, is the only dome of its type outside Cairo, which was captured by the Fatimids in 969.
Within the medina lies Sousse’s great mosque and ribat that, although now a little way inland, originally overlooked its harbour. The great mosque was built in 851 and was based upon the Sidi Oqba Mosque at Kairouan. Its walls have battlements and its defensive towers, to which domes were later added, originally defended the harbour. The nearby ribat is a simple but powerful building. A soaring main entrance leads into a central courtyard surrounded by two storeys of cells. On the first floor a prayer hall stretches the length of the building. A watchtower rises from the ramparts. A ribat housed warriors of the faith, and the role of Sousse’s ribat was to defend the port from (Christian) European incursions.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we visit a house museum, the Dar Essid. The small palace will give you a vivid view of life in Tunisia in the 19th century. Today’s program has been timed to conclude around mid-afternoon. You may wish to continue exploring the medina or return to the hotel (which is approximately 600m from the city centre) for some leisure time by the pool or on its private beach. (Overnight Sousse) BL
Tataouine - 2 nights
Day 7: Monday 8 November, Sousse – Mahares – Matmata – Tataouine
- Matmata Troglodyte Village
- Berber village of Toujane (time-permitting)
We depart early this morning, and drive 340km south, past the Gulf of Gabes, to Matmata, famous for its troglodyte houses. En route we stop briefly at the coastal town of Mahares. Those who remember the early scenes of the first Star Wars film will remember the troglodyte family home of the young Luke Skywalker; these early scenes were filmed in Matmata. Centuries ago the inhabitants of this desert region, like those of many extremely hot places from Iran to Southern Spain, decided to build their houses underground. Matmata’s are some of the most sophisticated of this type. They consist of a deep, quarried courtyard approached from ground level by a tunnel. Off the courtyard were dug living rooms. We shall see a number of these houses, of which Matmata boast some forty.
From Matmata our journey continues a further 130km south to the city of Tataouine. The underground ‘cave dwellings’ of the native Berber population were designed for coolness and protection. En route we make a brief stop to view the Berber mountain village of Toujane. (Overnight Tataouine) BLD
Day 8: Tuesday 9 November, Tataouine – Chenini – Douiret – Tataouine
- 4WD “Memory of the Earth Tour” arranged by the Association des Amis de la Mémoire de la Terre de Tataouine: Dinosaur prints, fossils, cave paintings & excavation site.
- Berber villages of Chenini & Douiret
Tataouine is located on a rocky outcrop which dates from the Jurassic period (144-208 million years ago) when the area was submerged. Fossils from this area are primarily of sea animals. However, in The Dahar Mountain Range to the west of Tataouine, lies the Chenini geological formation made of rocks dating from the Cretaceous period (68-144 million years ago). During the Early Cretaceous period the Chenini Formation was a marsh-like habitat with swamps and plenty of water. Remains of dinosaurs and other vertebrates (sharks, bony fish, coelacanths, turtles, crocodilians, pterosaurs) have been discovered here. The most famous dinosaur discoveries include the remains of the carnivorous Spinosaurus. Mediterranean dinosaur remains, particularly northern African specimens, are important for understanding some of the most extreme Cretaceous ecosystems.
Today we take a ‘Memory of the Earth Tour’ of the area visiting sites where fossils have been found, local cave paintings, and a dig site for fossilized dinosaur bones. Our program has kindly been arranged with the assistance of the Director of the Association des Amis de la Mémoire de la Terre de Tataouine.
Tatouine lies at the centre of some of the most spectacular Berber villages and granaries in North Africa. These villages have traditionally depended upon agriculture. The construction of jessour (agricultural terraces) and cisterns have enabled the desert cultivation of trees such as olive and fig. During our 4WD tour we shall visit the Berber village of Chenini, whose historic 12th-century core sits on a ridge below which houses spread down the terraced hillsides. Here we may view Tunisia’s distinctive ghorfas (Berber: ‘vaulted room’). Ghorfas, used as settings in a number of George Lucas’ Star Wars series, are vaulted rooms used for storing grain that are built one above the other to form multi-story structures. The grandest of these, at Ksar Soltane, which we visit tomorrow, are four stories high. Traditionally, ghorfas were grouped together to form a ksar, a fortified Berber village where a community’s grain was protected from raids. We also visit the Berber village of Douiret containing a small museum of traditional life housed in a former troglodyte family home and the white Nakhla Mosque whose inner prayer hall, built into the rock, dates back to the 13th century. (Overnight Tataouine) BLD
Ksar Ghilane - 1 night
Day 9: Wednesday 10 November, Tataouine – Ksour – Ksar Ghilane
- Ksar Ouled Soltane
- Ksar Hadada
- Tisivar Roman Fort
This morning we depart Tataouine by 4WD to visit two of Tunisia’s most striking ksars with their distinctive ghorfas. Our first visit is to Ksar Ouled Soutane, which lies 20 kms south of Tataouine. This well-preserved fortified ksar is built completely of dry mud. Originally built in the 15th century, the ksar is spread over two courtyards connected by a passage made of palm wood. The ghorfas, which are four stories high, were used by nomadic tribes to store grain and olives. Nearby Ksar Hadada, which we also visit, also has fine examples of multi-storeyed ghorfas. Both Ksar Ouled Soltane and Ksar Hadada were film locations for the Mos Espa’s Slave Quarters in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
From Ksar Hadada we continue our journey by 4WD to Ksar Ghilane, a green oasis located on the eastern limit of the Grand Erg Oriental, and one of the gateways to the Tunisian Sahara. For those who wish, we drive out to the edge of the desert. Here are the remains of Tisivar Roman Fortress, one of the fortifications built by the Romans to control the movements of the local tribes. Our major objective is not, however, to visit the fortress but to experience the magnificent sunset over the Sahara, an inimitable, very memorable visual experience. (Overnight Ksar Ghilane) BLD
Tozeur - 2 nights
Day 10: Thursday 11 November, Ksar Ghilane – Douz – Tozeur
- Thursday Market at Douz
- Medina of Tozeur (Ouled El Hadef)
- Time at leisure
Early this morning we depart Ksar Ghilane and head northwest to the oasis town of Douz on the edge of the Sahara proper. One reason for visiting Douz is to explore its huge Thursday animal market, which rivals the famous animal market in Kashgar in Central Asia. You will see locals tending, buying and selling sheep, goats, donkeys, and purveying herbs, spices and other foodstuffs. Weekly markets provide much more than an opportunity to buy and sell animals. They enable country people from surrounding districts the opportunity to meet friends, visit the barber or the doctor, and even perhaps enlist the services of a letter writer.
The people of Douz and its hinterland are all from the Nefzaoua tribe and believe themselves to be descended from two holy men, Ahmed el-Gouth and Amar Mahjoub. Holy men and their shrines (Marabouts) are extremely important in North Africa, for claiming descent from them is the foundation of tribal identity and ensures tribal cohesion. Many members of a tribe may not be genetically descended from such figures, but rather have adhered to them and their cult as a result of clientage, which the famous North African 15th-century thinker Ibn Khaldun described as crucial to building large tribes and tribal confederations. The marabouts of both holy men are centres of contemporary religious life in Douz.
After thoroughly exploring Douz, we cross the Chott el Jerid, the largest salt pan of the Sahara, and continue to the town of Tozeur, a gateway to the Grand Sud. On arrival we take a walking tour of Tozeur’s medina, known as Ouled El Hadef. Its narrow alleyways are lined with traditional mud brick desert houses whose façades are decorated with geometric brick designs similar to motifs found on many Berber carpets.
Our day is planned to arrive at the Anantara Resort in time to enjoy the facilities of this brand-new hotel complex. (Overnight Tozeur) BL
Day 11: Friday 12 November, Tozeur – Metlaoui – Nefta – Tozeur
- Lezard Rouge train through the Oued Seldja Gorge (subject to reopening by 2020)
- The Corbeille, Nefta
- Ouled Ech Cherif & Dar Houidi, Nefta
- El Bayada & Zaouia of Sidi Brahim, Nefta
We begin today with a spectacular heritage train ride on the Lézard Rouge (Red Lizard) that follows a tortuous path on tracks laid for mining through gorges carved by the Oued Seldja. The rock formations you will see are extraordinary, and the rolling stock in which you will ride was once used by the Bey to travel from Tunis to his summer residence at Hammam Lif, a coastal town with thermal springs some 20 kilometres east of Tunis. The government restored these carriages in the 1990s.
After alighting from our train journey we transfer to Metlaoui for a light lunch before continuing south to Nefta (Naftah). Known to the Romans as Aggarsel Nepte, this oasis town is considered the heartland of Sufi mysticism in Tunisia. Within the El Bayada district are more than 24 small mosques and over 100 marabouts; marabout describes either a Muslim religious leader and teacher or the tomb of venerated saint. The marabouts still attract pilgrims from all over southern Tunisia and from parts of Algeria. From the northwestern edge of the Corbeille, a crater-like depression densely planted with palm trees, we may walk through the old quarter of Ouled Ech Cherif. Similar to the Ouled El Hadef in Tozeur, this district features winding, vaulted alleyways and some striking examples of traditional brick designs. Our path leads us to the quarter’s principal mosque, the Mosque of Sidi M’Khareg, and the Dar Houidi, a 17th-century traditional residence that has been carefully restored. In the neighbouring district of El Bayada lies the Zaouia of Sidi Brahim. This complex of tombs, courtyards and teaching rooms belongs to the Qadria, the most important of the Sufi orders represented here. (Overnight Tozeur) BLD
Kairouan - 3 nights
Day 12: Saturday 13 November, Tozeur – Sbeitla – Kairouan
- Roman ruins of Sufetula, Sbeitla
This morning we drive north to the site of Sbeitla, Roman Sufetula, which contains the best preserved forum temples in Tunisia. This region was inhabited by nomadic tribes until the Legio III Augusta established a camp at Ammaedara. After the Berber leader Tacfarinas surrendered to the Romans, the province was pacified and populated under the Emperor Vespasian and his sons (67 – 69 AD). The city, like many in North Africa, grew rich in the 2nd century AD, prospering through the cultivation and export of olives; olive presses have been found in its remains. Such wealth allowed for the construction of a splendid forum and other important buildings. The city began to decline during the Late Empire, during which it was occupied by the Vandals, a fact attested by the existence of temples dedicated to barbarian gods. The arrival of the Byzantines inaugurated a new period of splendour. The Prefect Gregory moved his capital there from Carthage in the 7th century, and declared independence from Byzantium. However, only a year later, Sbeitla was sacked by the first Arab invaders, and Gregory was killed. The Arabs abandoned the city and the region and returned to their nomadic lifestyle. We shall visit the Triumphal Arch of the Tetrarchy at the entrance to the city, Sbeitla’s public baths and the Gate of Antoninus (138 – 161) that leads to one of the best-preserved Roman fora in the world. Here we shall see the famous three temples. Instead of constructing only one temple dedicated to the three most important Roman gods (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) Sbeitla’s inhabitants built a separate shrine for each. Other important buildings to be visited are the theatre and public fountains. Built into the Roman ruins are a number of Byzantine churches (the Church of Bellator; the Church of Vitalis, the Chapel of Jucundus, the Church of Servus and the Church of St Gervase, Protase, and Tryphon). After visiting the impressive ruins we continue north to Kairouan located in the heart of the central Tunisian plain. (Overnight Kariouan) BLD
Day 13: Sunday 14 November, Kairouan – El Djem – Mahdia – Kairouan
- Amphitheatre of El Djem: UNESCO World-Heritage Site
- El Djem Mosaic Museum
- Skifa al-Kahla, Mahdia
- Fatimid Great Mosque, Mahdia
We depart early this morning, and journey to El Djem, site of the most impressive, well-preserved Roman amphitheatre after the Colosseum. The amphitheatre, capable of seating 35,000 citizens, was built in the 3rd century AD, when the city, named Thysdus, rivalled Hadrumetum (Sousse) in importance; at this time it was a major exporter of olive oil. We shall explore the amphitheatre before visiting El Djem’s excellent museum that has a mosaic collection to rival those of Sousse and Tunis. Of particular importance is a mosaic floor depicting gladiators from the amphitheatre; these men obviously enjoyed celebrity status!
Mahdia, located to the south of Monastir, was the port from which the of the Shi’a Fatimids set out to conquer Egypt. It began as a royal complex built on a small peninsula to house the Fatimid leaders, their navy and their stores. The royal complex could only be entered through the Skifa al-Kahla, the ‘Black Passage’, a huge gateway built in the walls sealing the peninsula off on the landward side. Apart from the Skifa al-Kahla, little remains today of Fatimid Mahdia. The old town is now dominated by the Burj al-Kabir, the Great Tower, built by the Spanish when they held the town for a short time; out was restored by the Turks. A typical square 17th-century Ottoman fortress, the burj has one unusual feature, high on its approach wall a tiger carved in relief stares balefully at all comers, its provenance unknown. Below lies the ruined Fatimid harbour, a deep blue niche enclosed by fragments of the Fatimid ramparts, where colourful fishing boats now float in place of the Fatimid navy. At the end of the day we will return to Kairouan. (Overnight Kairouan) BLD
Day 14: Monday 15 November, Kairouan
- Kariouan: UNESCO World-Heritage Site
- Mosque of ‘Uqba ibn Nafi’
- Zaouia of Abu Zamaa al-Balawi (Tomb of Sidi Sahab – Mosque of the Barber)
- Aghlabid Basins
- Medina: Bir Barouta, Zaouia of Sidi Ghariani & Mosque of the Three Doors (exterior only)
This morning we commence our tour of Kairouan, the first great city of Islamic North Africa. It is believed to have been founded in the 7th century by Uqba bin Nafi, the semi-mythical conqueror of the west. From the 7th to 13th century, Kairouan was the capital of Ifriqiyya, although it temporarily lost this status to Tunis and Mahdia. Its antiquity and its role in the conquest of North Africa for Islam made Kairouan a sacred city, with special connections to Mecca. A well in the city, the Bir Barruta, is said to flow with the same water as the Zamzam well in Mecca. One of Kairouan’s most loved shrines, moreover, is the mausoleum of Sidi al-Balawi, one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions. Kairouan is today a sleepy provincial town, but it is still deeply religious and has an air of quiet and dignified piety.
Our program commences with a visit to the great mosque of ‘Uqba ibn Nafi’, the oldest mosque in North Africa and the model for the Zaytuna in Tunis and slightly later mosques such as the Qarawiyyin in Fes and the Great Mosque of Córdoba. The mosque consists of a huge hypostyle prayer hall and courtyard surrounded by an arcade. Roughly at the centre of the wall opposite the prayer hall stands the minaret, a unique composition of three square storeys, each one smaller than the last. This imposing, fortress-like crenellated structure reflects the fact that the threat of attack by the local Berber population was ever present. Like so many other buildings we will see, the great mosque of Kairouan is an amalgam of different materials and styles. The columns are Roman and Latin inscriptions in the walls indicate that masonry was also gathered from antique sites. At the same time the minaret evokes the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia, already conquered by Muslim armies.
To the west of the Great Mosque, outside the walls of the old city, stands the tomb of Abu Zamaa al-Balawi. Considered one of the most venerated places in Kairouan, it contains the remains of one of the Prophet’s companions (or sahab), Abu Zamaa al-Balawi, who came to Ifriqiya in 654 AD. The tomb, called a zaouia or zawiya, is sometimes referred to as the Mosque of the Barber because Abu Zamaa Al Balawi was believed to always carry three hairs from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad. While the original mausoleum dates from the 7th century AD, most of what stands today was added at the end of the 17th century. The complex includes the mausoleum, a madrasa and a guesthouse linked by several consecutive courtyards and passages, all decorated with tile work of blue, green and yellow floral panels.
We also visit the Aghlabid Basins, located to the north of the qasba. Two pools survive of a number that stored water for the palace of the Aghlabid dynasty, which occupied the site of the nearby cemetery. At the centre of one of these is the base of a pavilion in which, in keeping with an Islamic tradition of palace arrangement (seen, for example, in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul) the ruler would relax.
In the afternoon we continue our walk through the the medina. We visit the Bir Barruta, where a camel still works the water-wheel which raises the sacred water and nearby, the zaouia of Sidi Ghariani, a 14th century shrine renovated by the Turks. The shrine complex is decorated with the tile panels beloved of the Turks, but its most noteworthy feature is the coffered and gilded wood ceiling of the tomb chamber. As we pass through the narrow streets of the old town we will also see the façade of the Mosque of the Three Doors, with its 9th century stone inscriptions and floral decoration. (Overnight Kairouan) BLD
Sidi Bou Said - 4 nights
Day 15: Tuesday 16 November, Kairouan – Thurburbo Majus – Zaghouan – Oudhna – Sidi Bou Said
- Roman city of Thurburbo Majus
- Zaghouan-Carthage Aqueduct
- Roman city of Uthina, Oudhna
Early this morning we depart Kairouan and head northwest to Thuburbo Majus, originally a Berber settlement ruled by the Phoenicians, located on the major road that linked ancient Carthage to the Sahara desert. Augustus transformed it into a Roman colonia for military veterans (27 BC); it eventually took the name Colonia Julia Aurelia Commoda. Most of the town was built around 150 – 200 AD and restored in the 4th century after a 3rd century crisis. It received a Capitolium in 168 AD. The town produced grain, olives, and fruit. Under Hadrian it became a municipium and Commodus made it a colonia. The site today is extensive. Of particular note is the tetrastyle temple that was adorned with statues of Apollo, Venus, Silvanus, Bacchus, the Dioscuri and a satyr. We shall visit its forum, amphitheatre, temples, baths and some houses.
From Thuburbo Majus we continue north, passing the Roman aqueduct which carried fresh water from the nearby mountains, the Jabal Zaghouan, to Carthage. Stretching for some 132 kms, this is one of the longest aqueducts of the Roman Empire. Hannibal’s Carthage lost a hard-fought, bitter war to the Roman Republic early in the 2nd century BC that ended with the city being completely destroyed. It was not long, however, before Rome realised the advantages of re-establishing Carthage as a Roman city and upon doing so, its population swelled to an estimated 500,000. Building the Zahouan-Carthage aqueduct was essential to provide the colonists with water for domestic and agricultural use.
Located on the cultivated slopes of Mt Mekrima are the ruins of the ancient city of Uthina, one of the Roman Empire’s oldest cities in Africa. A famous 2nd-century mosaic, now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, shows a typical private domain in the valley of the Miliana at Uthina with wheatfields, which were the source of its wealth, olive trees, pastures for sheep, goat, cattle and horses, and scrub supporting partridge and wild boar. The city had one of North Africa’s largest Roman amphitheatres which could hold over 10,0000 spectators; in its basement we may view the underground vaulted cells where criminals and wild animals were held. At the top of the hill stands the grand capitolium. Below are the enormous arched cisterns; large public and small private baths including the Fishing Angels Baths with mosaics depicting cherubs casting poles and nets into a fish-laden stream, and a sumptuous 3-room villa with mosaics illustrating the legend of wine invention and hunting scenes.
Following our exploration of Uthina we continue north to Sidi Bou Said where we shall be based for four nights. (Overnight Sidi Bou Said) BLD
Day 16: Wednesday 17 November, Sidi Bou Said – Cap Bon – Kélibia – Sidi Bou Said
- Phoenicio-Punic city of Kerkouane, Cap Bon: UNESCO World-Heritage Site
- Ancient city of Neapolis & the Nabeul Museum
This morning we visit the UNESCO-listed Punic settlement of Kerkouane, located at the tip of Cap Bon on a cliff that dominates the sea. This is the world’s best-preserved example of a Phoenicio-Punic city. Abandoned during the First Punic War, the town was never reoccupied by the invading Romans. Consequently, its chequer-board network of streets, houses and workshops remains as it was around 250 BC.
From Kerkouane we continue south to Nabeul, stopping en route for a light lunch at a local restaurant in Kélibia. Neapolis, which means ‘new city’ in Greek, is an ancient city with remains scattered across the coastal town of Nabeul. Established by seafaring traders in the 5th century BC, this outpost was taken over by the Carthaginians, destroyed during the Third Punic War and later re-established as a Roman town. In 2017 vast underwater ruins were discovered off the northeast coast of Tunisia. The find confirmed the theory that on the 21st July 365 AD the city of Neapolis was partly submerged by a tsunami. It also verifies that Neapolis was once the largest centre in the Roman world for the production of garum a fermented fish-based condiment that was a favourite of ancient Rome. Around 100 basins used to produce garam were found as well as numerous streets and monuments. During our visit to the archaeological site of Neapolis we may view the remains of the House of Nymphs as well as the remains of a fish-processing factory.
The recently renovated Nabeul Museum features Roman mosaics from the House of Nymphs at Neapolis as well as coins, jewellery, pottery and funerary furnishings from other archaeological sites around Cap Bon. There are also statues, including that of a lion-headed goddess, from a temple at Thinissut near modern-day Bir Bou Regba. (Overnight Sidi Bou Said) BLD
Day 17: Thursday 18 November, Sidi Bou Said – Bizerte – Sidi Bou Said
- Dar Ennejma Ezzahra: The Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music (CAMM)
- Bizerte: Old Harbour, Medina & Kasbah
- Farewell Dinner
The village of Sidi Bou Said grew up around the tomb and zaouia of the Sufi teacher Abu Said el Baji who established his order here in the early 13th century. When members of the Husainid dynasty moved here in the 18th century, they brought with them many leading musicians and writers. This laid the foundations for Sidi Bou Said’s reputation as an artists’ village. Today this picturesque village features whitewashed buildings with wrought-iron window dressings and sky-blue wooden doors. One of the grandest of these houses, which we shall visit, is the Dar Ennejma Ezzahra. Beautifully restored, the palace was once home to French painter and musicologist Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, who produced a multi-volume work on the history of Arab music. Today it hosts the Centre of Arab and Mediterranean Music. Beside the gardens and architecture, a mixture of ‘pure’ Tunisian and Romantic Orientalism, the main attraction is its collection of fine musical instruments.
Next, we drive north from Sidi Bou Said to visit the naval port of Bizerte, which was important between the 16th and 18th centuries because it dominated naval traffic through the Sicilian Channel. Bizerte guards one of the great natural harbours of the Mediterranean, the huge Lac de Bizerte. There is also a small and heavily defended port which dates in main from the 16th century. After the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain Bizerte became a major corsair base. Bizerte’s medina, which we shall visit, wraps around the picturesque old harbour area. Within its labyrinth of narrow alleyways and covered souqs are the workshops of metalworkers and carpenters, and the stores of butchers and grocers. Just north of the old harbour lies the kasbah, whose walls offer fine views. Nearby is the 17th-century Rebaa Mosque with a distinctive octagonal minaret. On the south side of the harbour is the golden-stoned fort of Sidi el Hani. Like the kasbah, it is an Ottoman construction and dates from the 17th century.
After exploring Bizerte we return to Sidi Bou Said. In the evening, we partake of a farewell dinner at a local restaurant. (Overnight Sidi Bou Said) BLD
Day 18: Friday 19 November, Tour Ends
- Morning at leisure
- Afternoon transfer to Tunis Airport for participants departing on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
The morning is at leisure. Participants returning to Australia on the group flights will be transferred to Tunis Airport in the early afternoon. You are scheduled to depart with Qatar Airways on flight QR1400 departing at 1600hrs. B