TUNISIA – WATER, DESERT AND NOMADIC VASTNESS


It doesn’t matter if the path is long,
as long as there is a well at the end. (Tuareg saying)

 

Water is our cool elixir being available unfortunately not everywhere in the world. However, with the ongoing climate change the desert and semi-arid areas will expand even more globally while water shortages even occurr today in countries like Spain or Italy during summertime.

Remote Cape Negro and the Mediterranean in the still greenish North

From the main road between Tabarka and Bizerte we had to drive 15 km over deserted sand tracks to reach Cape Negro, a forgotten and left place at the Mediterranean coast with typical vegetation, a quite cool wind from the sea and also a long sandy beach without other people.

Cork oak in a forest near Tabarka not far from the Algerian border

“Hotel Les Mimosas” in Tabarka

Doesn’t this hotel look really very French? The lovely place is situated on top of a small hill allowing a nice view on Tabarka and the sea.

Water reservoir Sidi-el-Barrak near Nefza

This water reservoir in the very green North of Tunisia is also a complete non-touristic place but during this moment of a late afternoon the sentiment and interaction of light, clouds and water revealed something else.

Atlas massive divides Tunisia, at its Southern edge the great Sahara begins

Take in mind that Tunisia was once serving as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire only 2,000 years ago. Since then the warming period after the last Ice age and normal climate change have transformed formerly very fertile areas to extensive badlands and endless desert zones. And the Sahara has so far not ceased its unbridled expansion.

Cracked desert between Tozeur and Tamerza, Sahara

This photo means still one of my favourite travel remembrances from Tunisia showing a single resilient bush in an area of burst and dried soil most likely due to very seldom and heavy rainfalls some time ago.

But where are the legendary dromedaries? Not a single one here.

Photo was taken on the main road coming from the North and Tunis, this is now really deep in the South somewhere between Metlaoui and Tozeur.

Matmata cave dwellings also known as Luke Skywalker’s home in Star Wars

Half way between Tozeur and the peninsula Djerba lies the cave village of Matmata where people have lived for thousands of years and which got well known by the famous cult film series Star Wars.  The landscape is quite barren with only a few apartments on the surface but the magic of Matmata goes deeper and is revealed to guests when they descend into the unique underground cave dwellings which offered its inhabitants good protection against extreme cold at night and the burning sun during the day. 

Arabic scene in Tunisia, Ernesto Quarti Marchio, 1933

Small paradise and tiny water fountain near oasis of Douz with Beatrice vested as a fabulous Tunisian princess

Oasis areas in the endless width of the great Sahara desert are often to be found in geological break zones and depressions such as here. In the desert each drop of sweet water is just more worth than a sack of gold.

Dromedaries waiting for clients at the oasis of Douz

The Sahara desert used to be a wide ocean in former times where the nomads did their endless sails on dromedaries (not camels), some do it till today. Though, I admire the desert very much (like high mountains) as a quite puristic place with a clear unlimited view till the distant horizon which may clear a mind and widen the own horizon, a real exciting feeling beside all those known hazards and risks.

Nomadic monument at road junction in Douz

The oasis of Douz is a real gateway to the Sahara with around 30,000 inhabitants today. The desert dunes near Douz are famous because they are consisting of an incredible soft and nearly white sand. The area is traditionally inhabited by the semi-nomadic Mrazig tribe, an Arab Bedouin tribe who left the Arabian Peninsula in the 8th century to settle in Tunisia in the 13th century. Today many live from the date harvest and probably the best dates in Tunisia come from Douz called Deglet en Nour. So the “gold of the oasis” is more than just any fruit for the people of Douz.

Death zone of the huge salt lake Chott-el-Jerid after sunset

The tremendous salt lake Chott-el-Jerid can be traversed today safely on a solid dam with street which is also connecting the oasis areas Nefzaoua and Tozeur. In former times such travel turned out to be a real dangerous adventure.

Not for drinking – just salty water of Chott-El-Jerid

Ruins of the old city and mountain oasis of Tamerza

Now this excursion here has really turned out to become more a collage of texts, impressions and varied images which had been picked up at diverse locations scattered all over vast and nice Tunisia. 

Breakfast always with fresh flowers at oasis of Tozeur

Most photos were made during a self-organized round trip thru all Tunisia in April 2006, but here are also 3 still analog pictures included resulting  from a short trip to Tozeur in October 2002.

51. International Festival of Sahara in Douz 2019

 

P. S. The featured image at the beginning with a Tunisian motif is a painting by another Orientalist artist: “A street in Gadames” by Giorgio Oprandi,1929.

 

CLIMBING ON MT. SINAI / EGYPT

Why is a secular person like me trekking on the mythological Mt. Sinai (Arabic: Gebel Musa, 2,285 m) in October 1985, the Moses mountain being situated in the heart of a mountainous desert on the peninsula with the same name? Well, I really have to strain my brain and memory, as no diary has been written by me during this self-organized 4-week-journey through all Egypt long time ago. At least the analog photos do still exist and must serve as a quite triggering and facilitating guide.

In the 80s of the last century travelling was much more exciting and unpredictable than today. All I did in preparation for my journey to Egypt was booking a flight-ticket to Cairo, reading a little bit in advance and taking with me a travel-guide for orientation which led me reliably to the most important sites in the country. I never had a problem to find accomodation whereever, just looking and asking while speaking sometimes simply with hands and feet. I did not speak Arabic, and in Egypt not everybody spoke English especially in the more rural areas.

“Many stone inscriptions have been found in Southern Sinai, dating from the 15th century B.C. They are written in pictograms, signs representing the initial consonants of words whose meaning had been previously conveyed by a picture – a crucial stage between pictorial representation and phonetic writing. Pictograms are generally hieroglyphics but these read as Canaanite not Egyptian. So the Canaanite alphabet was the result of a conscious creative act.”

Jean Starcky / Pierre Bordreuil, 1975, “L’Invention de l’alphabet”

I reached the Sinai with the bus going from Cairo to Suez, there I took a shared taxi, an old Peugeot, being driven with great pride by a local Bedouin. The driver stopped from time to time in the Sinai desert where Bedouins settled in tents for a small talk or just waving his right hand. The left hand may not be used for greeting or eating subject to reasons I do not like to explain in detail. The only thing I can advise in this regard to have always paper tissues with you as toilet paper quite often was not available, instead just a bottle of water. The shared taxi brought me finally completely secure to the centre of Sinai and the Greek Orthodox St. Catherines Monastery (see photo hereunder).

The monastery is a quite busy place in the middle of the desert at the mouth of a gorge being situated at the foot of Mt. Sinai as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The building is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world and was built between 548 and 565. The monastery provides also the oldest continually operating library in the world. The name originates to antique tradition telling the history of Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr, sentenced to death on the breaking wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. The Christian mythology says that angels took her remains afterwards to Mt. Sinai where monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains around the year 800. So a lot of Christian pilgrims do visit this place, and the monastery offers accomodation to them and everybody else who decides to be here and/or climb on Mt. Sinai like Moses long time ago.

So being here in a spectacular desert scenery with all these old stories and expectations implies a quite special experience. As far as I can remember I spent two nights at the monastery and one very early morning at around 4 a.m. when all was still completely dark and mysterious, I and all the others staying there (around 40 persons) started climbing on Mt. Sinai. At that time it is cool and fine in the desert, so marching to the top required only around 2.5 hours on a not too difficult path. Shortly before sunrise we reached the top of Mt. Sinai, at that moment all surrounding other mountains were immersed in a surreal blue and green (see photo above and hereunder). There was a big group of pilgrims from Austria who after singing a Christian song chanted with great pathos the hymn of their homeland Tyrole. This made it even more irreal because in the background Egyptian merchants were loudly shouting: “Chai. Hot tea.” And you would normally not expect so much life early in the morning in a desert at Alpine heights. So no, I have really not found any kind of enlightenment on top of Mt. Sinai but the magical mountainous scenery was really worth a visit. The desert is a very puristic place but risky, it can clean your mind or kill you. A lot of Europeans have a romantic view on it as visualized in films like Lawrence of Arabia. Every Bedouin prefers to stay in an oasis with water and green as a simple question of survival. The sun has an incredible drying strength and heat even in October, so moving down Mt. Sinai in the early morning for nearly 2 hours was indeed less pleasant and instead arousing a thirst.

The Sinai desert allows a lot of discoveries like canyons of all colour, prehistoric temples or the visit of an old oasis. After my visit of Mt. Sinai I spent some time at the Red Sea on the other hand, first in the quite touristic Sharm El-Sheikh and afterwards in the more Hippie-like Dahab with simple straw huts and hosted by Bedouins at the beach. There in Dahab life was easy and relaxed those days, a real welcomed and nice memory to this special and amazing land called Sinai.

 

 

 

 

 

ABANDONED DREAMINGS

In the desert nearly everywhere you easily risk to loose your way in a more or less forbidden zone vanished in the unpredictable stream of time. Here or there does not really matter distinctively because a lost place like this offers a special poetry of past developments and decay, sometimes a bit dangerous but in any case thrilling and amazing.

Since the times of the Romantic people are fascinated by such forgotten locations like old church ruins or dilapidated castles scattered over the countries. Certainly these are objects and artefacts without use, hence not useless at all while this confrontation with the past opens a wide space for dreams of another future.

The deindustrialization of modern metropoles has nowadays created a lot of postmodern ruins like closed factories from the 19th century or no longer required railway facilities. But nature covers again very quickly also former military installations with impenetrable thickets and trees. Legacies of former inhabitants and colorful tags of passers-by can there be found anyway.

By first glance such places seem to be a dead-end leading to nowhere and it takes some energy to find a secure path sometimes, however astonishingly people leave even here professions of profound love in a wild maze of pure neglection.

 

Thanks for following this short expedition to the contemporary abysmal maelstroms of daily life – to be continued.