Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Historic North
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 7 - Jendouba

  Ain Draham to Jendouba (40km, 25mi) (elev 150m)  A spectacular winding descent into the valley.
Program options:  Bulla Regia (2‑3rd C.) (Baths, subterranean villas, temples, market, theater)

Not part of the scheduled program, last night we were awakened by an extremely loud and long, rolling claps of thunder.  One person thought a wooden wheeled cart was being driven over a cobblestone street just outside a second story window and another thought it was an earthquake, but nothing was moving. It was the loudest and longest continuous rumble most of us had ever heard. It was followed ten seconds later by another one, not quite as extended. Both were accompanied by bright streaks of lightening and then an immediate deluge which lasted for all of three minutes before easing to a light rain. Sometime around four the silence and sleep that had returned was broken by the plaintiff hoot of an owl. It would give one distinct hoot followed by a shorter hoot with a tremolo in it and repeated this every ten seconds. No owl in European bird book meets this description.

By the time we had our bikes loaded, the road was drying in places and had no standing water. Though it was not as cold as we had expected based on the temperature last night, it was still cool enough for a jacket and some of us added extra layers beyond that.  Weather has featured prominently in a couple other Ibike visits to Ain Draham.  Though the locals have said each time that it was a freak occurrence, twice, out of maybe six-eighteen hour visits in mid-April (scattered over a decade), we have had measurable snow during our visits in Ain Draham.

Red trunk of recently harvested cork oakThe route south goes down for a few kilometers to a valley, and past a large gymnasium and sports field area, after which we hit another ascent that sent us into our low gears for another few kilometers. forest, southern slope, Khroumirie MountainsAgain, this was mostly cork oak forest.  This time with a few trees with naked red trunks indicating their outer layers have been recently removed. Then we enjoyed the downhill we had worked all yesterday for. Luckily the descent logged area and forest, southern slope, Khroumirie Mountainswas not as steep as yesterday's climb and the road was good so we generally didn't have to ride our brakes. For the first half we were barreling out of the wooded mountains, but then we entered road north of Ferianarolling farm land with the sparkling green fields and myriad of wildflowers we've seen in this northern section. We passed through a couple rural villages with children headed to school and adults going about their morning routines. A gaggle of foreign cyclists with fully loaded bikes racing through town must have been a real sight.    The biggest of the towns is Feriana, which means "Cork Tree."  Tree acted as oracle for Khroumir people.  This particular oracle has since been cut down.  The town looks like it is growing by leaps and bound.  About half the house and a large high school look like they had been built in the last couple of years.

farmland, southern slope, Khroumirie MountainsFeriana, Tunisiafarmland, south of Ferianacows grazing and wheat land, north of Jendouba, TunisiaWheat fields and olive trees, north of JendoubaThe last portion of the ride was rolling hills through this bucolic scene. Under the overcast skies,  the eye seemed to pick up the beauty better than camera but even so on several occasions people turned around and pedaled back to take a photo of wildflowers and scenery.

Before entering Jendouba, our stop for the night, we toured another site of ancient Roman ruins called Bulla Regia. This splendid site is the only known example of a subterranean classical city. Upon pulling in we were surprised to see the Learning about Bulla RegiaTunisian English language tour guide, Amel, who had borrowed a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide in Tebersouk to prepare for a tour she was to give her Japanese clients on the next day. She was to be our guide for Bulla Regia, her favorite site.

Roman road, , Bulla RegiaThe archeological record shows that it had been inhabited by Berber in the 5th C BC.  In the 2nd C BC, it was the throne for the Numidian King Micipsa.  By the end of the century the residence of Bulla Regia were more directly under Roman rule and felt mistreated.  From 118-105 BC,  Numidian King Jugurtha rebels against Romans.  His army was defeated 25km from Bulla Regia. This was followed by a Romanized Berber period.  It lied on a main road from Hippo Diarrytus (Bizerte) to Vaga (El Kef), with other well used connection to Chimtou and Tabarka, and west to present day Algeria.  At its height the population is estimated to have reached 5000; 30,000 to 50,000 counting women and slaves.  It was the Romans who definitely put their distinctive stamp on this city which was at its peak in the second and third centuries.

Drawn to the area because of its prime agricultural land, the Romans took a lesson from the troglodytes of southern Tunisia on how to escape the Bath of Julia Memmia, Bulla Regiaoppressive summer heat by Bath of Julia Memmia, Bulla Regiamoving underground when the weather got hot.  Typical of Roman and other towns, this town had a district of public buildings and facilities and a section of private buildings.  Though the site has a forum (political, judicial and religious center of community), Temple of Apollo (statues in Bardo, god of sun, art, music, poetry, beauty, manly youth and medicine), Temple of Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera, Zeus' jealous wife and protector of married women) and Minerva (Zeus' immaculate daughter, goddess of purity, wisdom, warfare, cities and handicraft), basilica, market with two fountains, trifollium actors baths, Theater (161-180 AD) (statue of Emperor - change only head, dedicated to Ceres, goddess of grain and summertime), Temple of Iris (E) (Fertility, sister of Isis), Monumental Enclosure (perhaps Numidian palace), library, markets, baths (Bath of Julia Memmia (3rd C),  a wealthy patron; it contained a cloakroom with 6 lockers, frigidarium with two pools, tepidarium, caldarium heated through pipes, and gymnasium with six lockers) (3rd C), and many other familiar buildings, it is really the villas that have been excavated and only moderately restored that are the standouts. Surprisingly, much of the structure is original.

Subterrainian level of villa, with hexagonal window for better light, Bulla RegiaThe villas were two story structures with the "first story" completely beneath the ground and the "second story" at ground level.  The few villas that have been excavated are generally named for a prominent feature in a mosaic found in at the location; House of the Treasure (7th C coins removed; trifollium - symbol of goodness, peace and contentment), Byzantine fort, Byzantine Christian Basilica (baptismal), House of the Peacock, House of the Hunter (heating/cooling pipes, octangle windows, plaster/painted walls, bath and toilet on ground level and near road, Roman mosaic removed), New House of the Hunter (heating/cooling pipes, Roman mosaic removed), New House of the Hunter (hunting mosaic), House of Venus (reconstructed eyes) (138-161),  House of Fishing (117-138) (oldest villa, square columns with Egyptian capitols and cobra, Byzantine fountain, no ventilation pipes, high humidity, no circulation, little light),  Amel said that during the winter, the families lived at ground level, but when mosaic, House of Venus, Bulla Regiasummer came most of their time was spent in the subterranean villa. Though the concept from the troglodytes is here, the execution is vastly different. The underground spaces are enormous with twenty foot ceilings, once marbled walls, huge floor mosaics, and large columns to hold up the roof. Although many of the mosaics have been moved to the Bardo (along with statues, frescos, and other valuable art works), some have been left in situ. Two in particular are worth Venus, House of Venus, Bulla Regianoting. One is of Venus attended by her minions and the other is a traditional mosaic, House of the hunter, Bulla Regiahunt scene with many graphic animals including a lion hunt. It is hard to imagine how these delicate pieces of colored stone have withstood two centuries intact with colors mosaic, house of the hunter, Bulla Regiaso vibrant, but then Amel told us that a series of earthquakes and erosion had destroyed much of the upper level which had then filled the lower level with debris, cutting it off from light and air and thus preserving it to some extent from the ravages of time.

ventilation pipes in subterrainian level of villa, Bulla Regiadouble vaulted ceiling, House of Venus, Bulla RegiaThe inventiveness of the Romans was everywhere evident. The area evidently gets plenty of water and the site has many cisterns, aqueducts and catch basins, as well as ducts to take away waste water. Some of the underground rooms had vaulted Temple, Opus Reticulatum, Bulla Regiaceiling and clay pipes built into the walls to reduce the humidity and promote ventilation to the surface, as well as atria and high windows to let in light and air.  It is also the only site in Africa with a distinctive wall construction pattern called opus reticulum (left).

Subterrainian level of House of Treasure, Bulla Regia mosaic, villa, Bulla Regia fountain, pool, villa, , Bulla Regia fountain, villa, Bulla Regia two person toilet, villa, , Bulla Regia mosaic and plaster wall, house of the hunter, Bulla Regia mosaic, House of Venus, Bulla Regia corridor, mosaic, House of Venus, Bulla Regia sign for bordello, House of Venus, Bulla Regia pool, House of Fisher, Bulla Regia mosaic, House of Fisher, Bulla Regia main road and Bath of Julia Memmia, Bulla Regia 

Byzantine era fortress, Bulla RegiaThe Byzantines occupied the city for awhile in the 6th C AD, adding a fort, Christian church, modern villas and replacing some of the mosaics with their own more coarse patterns. None of this is as impressive as the legacy of the Romans.  Byzantine era mosaic, baths, Bulla RegiaThen the site was abandoned for good in the seventh or twelfth century (depending upon your source) and was not rediscovered until 1850, surveyed in 1881, excavated 1919-1990. When asked why UNESCO was not involved, Amel said the current Tunisian director was the problem. Only a small percentage of the site had been excavated, a fact easily verified by a visual survey of the site which was more open field than excavations. She is hopeful that archeological work will resume again here some day.

Although we've been to the Bardo and seen the wonders there before visiting sites like Dougga and Bulla Regia from which they come, it is hard to put the two pieces together in your mind. It would be nice if they had displays at appropriate locations at the archeological sites with pictures of the mosaic now at the Bardo, in situ, before it has been removed. Even so, this site has perhaps the most complete picture of the Roman architecture than any of the other sites we've visited so far this trip.

Entrance, theater, Bulla Regia Body of emperor, design so that they only had to change the face when the Emporer changed. The theatre offered an interesting antidote:  At the entrance to a tunnel there is the torso of the empire.  They were made so the heads could be changed.  Evidently, there was little in Theater, Bulla Regiathe way of changes in fashion trends, but they needed an economical way to change to look of the statue as emperors came and went.  With this system, when the emperor was changed only a new head need to be carved, not the whole statue.

Before we left the site a group of bee eaters, always a fun bird to see, flew through displaying their aerial skills. Even in the diffused light, their bright yellow-orange flashed.

Stork take fligt, Bulla RegiaPedestrian bridge, JendoubaFor our short ride back to town, we took a short detour across a farm and down a rutted dirt lane with an explosion of wildflowers and thistles on either side. The path all butPedestrian bridge, Jendouba disappeared after a kilometer or so, and we were brushing through greenery to our shoulders -- the adjacent field was left fallow and the vegetation much more copious that when it is a controlled wheat field. After pass through a small suburb we joined a stream of non-motorized traffic to cross a bridge, which looks like it might have started life as a railroad bridge. 

Trees and roof tops, JendoubaStork at nest in the main square, JendoubaJendouba is a working class town with nothing extraordinary of note, save the large number of stork nests atop every possible nesting site. The town's minaret even has one prominently located, as does the police station. All of the nests appear to be occupied and all seem to have young storklets getting fed by their parents. Storks are very definitely a going concern in this part of Tunisia.  But even without extraordinary, Jendouba has a flow of life and a full range of activities:

Train, rail station platform, Jendouba Main square, Jendouba Market, Jendouba Fruit stand, market, Jendouba

From left to right: The train arrive and departs sending people surging through the station.  The central square. Bicyclists going through the market.  A fruit stand.

 Vegetable market, Jendouba Meet market, Jendouba street scene, downtown Jendouba Nearing the end of a chess game, Jendouba 

From left to right: Vegetable stand. Butcher shop. Shopping street.  Men playing chess.

 Three men who wanted their picture taken, Jendouba Roasted chicken, restaurant, Jendouba Jewelry store, JendoubaLife in a cafe, Jendouba  Clothing store, Jendouba

From left to right: The young guys who wanted their picture taken because I had taken a picture of the old men playing chess. A chicken roti restaurant.  A jewelry shop. A sidewalk cafe.  And, a clothing boutique.

Our supper was at the hotel.  Ojja , roasted veal and grilled chicken were popular. The ojja was excellent. The roasted veal was reviewed by the Ibike critics as being very tender and tasty, whereas the chicken was overcooked. We had seen what our guide called Berber bread at one of the tables of locals as we walked in (we were the only foreigners.)  Our effort to ask our somewhat surly waiter if we could have this instead of the normal French bread and were rebuffed in no uncertain terms. Ten minutes later one of the gentlemen from an adjacent table placed five of the malleable, flat "loaves", rolled together in a paper, a on our table. Berber bread, JendoubouHe had overheard our conversation and had left the hotel to go out on the street and purchase the bread for us. What a kind and welcoming gesture! The bread is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the naan you can order from Indian restaurants. It is shaped and looks a bit like a large pancake, but tears with a consistency more like bread. It was warm and tasty and really hit the spot.

In the area, but off on side roads are: Thuburnid (1st C BC), rounded by Romans after defeat of Jugurtha.  And Chemtou (2nd BC) a  Numidian marble quarry with the only yellow marble in the Roman Empire.  [The only green marble is from Makthar.]   Marble was first shipped to Rome in 78 BC.  Chemtou was at its height in the  2nd-3rd C Period of main site ruins: aqueduct, bathes, theater, forum, bridge, flour mill.




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