Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Historic North
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 8 - El Kef

Jendouba to Le Kef (65km, 41mi) (elev 700m) Gradually changing agricultural land and villages.
Program options:  Explore el Kef; ruins, museum, kasbah, synagogue, basilica, zaouia, hammam (Turkish bath)

After a typical hotel breakfast, we loaded our bikes.  The several stork nests that overlooked the hotel parking lot were already showing signs of life and one couple were clacking their bills at each other. 

We rode through a small market that was not yet in full swing and were soon out of town.  It was cool and stayed relatively cool throughout our ride – a nice surprise.  Ground fog blanked the fields up the valley, but generally burned off before we got to it.

prickly pear cactus with fruitThe country for the first half of the ride was flat and agricultural, mostly wheat. Prickly pear cactus line some of the field. A month later the fruit will be ripe.  We have been here in April before when the wheat was golden and already being harvested. This year both the north and the south have receivedFarm land south of Jendouba copious rain and the land shows it.  Fertile farm land south of JendoubaWe passed a group of out ten storks congregated in a field relatively close together. We have never heard of cooperative hunting with storks, so we assume it was some sort of social gathering.

hills on road between Jendouba and El KefLater flat turned into an inclined plane.  Honey for sale on the road sideThe grades weren’t tough, but they were persistent.  Up in the hills there were more forests and more mixed agricultural activities.  Hidden away must be major bee keeping activities because we passed a number of honey sale sites as we bicycled along.

hills on road between Jendouba and El Kef hills on road between Jendouba and El Kef hills on road between Jendouba and El Kef hills on road between Jendouba and El Kef

At the top of the hill was a higher plateau.  With each bend in the road the landscape seemed to get more and more beautiful, Sheep grazing, Borj Aifaand there were fresh and new snapshots into life in Tunisia: women in a Traditional tents and sheep grazing near El Keffield taking and watching their sheep graze (left) and communities of the traditional tents of Bedouins (right).  By the time we stopped for thé at a major crossroad, we had finished eighty percent of the ride and were ready for a break. For those who are keeping track, we were again picked up by a discrete security escort for part of the way.  While we refreshed ourselves and enjoyed the Tunisian café life, they chatted with the uniformed police at the crossroads.

Cycling along the highway east if El KefSand stone hills near El KefAfter thé, we turned west and had a nice tailwind which whisked us through verdant countryside and along at high speed. This is when bicyclist feel that there is justice in the world.

hills on road between Jendouba and El Kef hills on road between Jendouba and El Kef village on road between Jendouba and El Kef   Dairy farm 

School children waiting for transportation, El KefThis free ride stop abruptly when we hit the final climb to el Kef.  But that is just bicycling.  It is a little more challenging when there is a group of students scrutenizing you at the top of the hill.  You have the urge to smile, keep your chin high and not look like you are breathing hard.

Mosque and fort, El KefEl Kef's Punic period name is Sicca Citadelle.  In the Roman era is was called Sicca Veneria and Cirta Nova.   And the Arabs use the name Chakbanaria for the city.  What ever the name, we were staying here for two nights.  A couple of well traveled members of the explained that on extended tours, after a few months, whenever there is a stop in one place for more than one night you call it “home.”

El KefEl Kef lies in the Tell, a transition zone between the verdant north and dry south. It sits high on the side of a hill with commanding views of the surrounding area. Not surprisingly an old fort or kasbah dominates the upper part of the city.  It must have been a nice region to live in for a long time because they have found stone age site dating back to 2000 century BC at Kebili, Metlaoui, Redeyef, Gafsa and El Kef.  Six kilometers south, in Sidi Zine is a 450 century BC stone age site.  In the 4th century BC el Kef was a Punic/Numidian cultural center and military base.  The "modern" town was founded by Carthage as an outpost to protect its western boundary. When Carthage fell, the Numidians rebelled against the Romans but were eventually quashed. They were also part of the secessionists in the Jugurthan War.  The Vandals and Byzantines also passed this way before the Arabs took over, and the people of the region continued to exert their autonomous tendencies throughout all of this. The Ottomans revitalized the city adding new fortifications.  

"street" in El Kef medina (old city)Girls chat in El KefHip young girls descending one of the "streets" of El KefThe location and layout of the town make large section of it car-free.  The old section of town is characterized by narrow Balcony in El Kefstairways that zig-zag their way between whitewashed buildings with turquoise blue shuttered windows and doors, up the hillside. Door to Society for the Preservation of the Medina Besides being picturesque and environmentally wonderful, the people living in these sections of the town are more relaxed, smiling and welcoming.  At least some citizens of el Kef recognized this asset because there is an active Society for the Preservation of the Medina of el Kef, in a grand old building near the Roman ruins.  The city today is not yet on the main tourist route, but given its location, tranquility and charm, it’s only a matter of time.

Roman Baths, El KefRoman Baths, El KefAfter check-in, a short rest, and lunch, we took a walking tour of the city’s historical highlights. We stopped at the ruins of an old Roman bath in the center of the town; demonstrating  yet again how ancient civilizations tend to get buried beneath many feet of stuff. The level of the city during Roman times appears to be a good ten to twenty feet below the level of the current city. Our next stop was the Great Mosque alsoBasilica St Augustine, el Kef called the Bacilica St Augustine, El KefBasilica St Augustine which has a confused history. Evidently built by the Byzantines in the third century as a church or monastery, it was sometime later reinvented as a tax collection post and you can still see the Basilica St Augustine, el Kefstone hooks built into the wall where petitioners could hitch and feed their horses. Basilica St Augustine, el KefStill later a cupola was erected over the courtyard and the building was transformed into a mosque. Now, with the cupola removed in 1968, it is a small museum where the attendant, as at all the “free” sites, expects baksheesh (a tip) for showing you around.

Foundouk, El KefA couple doors up is an 18th C  Foundouk.  A few years ago you could poke around the courtyard where travelers used to stay and prepare for onward journeys, but now we had to be satisfied with the view in from the hill behind the building.

Cupola, Sidi Bou Maklouf, El KefAfter a short wait for the door keeper, were able to visited the Mosque of Sidi Bou Makhlouf (Jemda el Kebir), Quibla, Sidi Bou Maklouf, El Kefa 17th century mosque built in honor of the city’s patron saint or sidi from Morocco. The sidi’s tomb and that of his family are here. As the mosque is no Sidi Bou Maklouf, El Keflonger used as such, we could enter and look around. This mosque is very beautiful, with distinctive architecture, but more modest than many others.  It main architectural features are three cupolas and 19th century octagonal minaret.

 Sidi Bou Maklouf, El Kef Sidi Bou Maklouf, El Kef Ceiling, Sidi Bou Maklouf, El Kef  Prayer hall, Sidi Bou Maklouf, El Kef

We paid a visit to the local Museum of Art & Popular Tradition, a nicely done, small museum set in a seventeenth century zaouia, honoring Rakmania.  Rakmania was a Shiia, but the Islamic schools in Tunisia were Sunni -- this doesn't seem to cause a concern or discomfort on the part of those we have been able to ask about it.  Museum of Art & Popular Tradition, el KefThe complex surrounding the tomb of a saint, this time one Museum of Art & Popular Tradition, el KefSidi Ali ben Aissa (1666).  The four elements of the zaouia can still be distinguished but they have now been converted into exhibit halls: principle room or parlor (clothing exhibit), prayer hall (lifestyle exhibit), koranic school (equestrian exhibit), and residence (pottery/blacksmith exhibit).

Door, Turkish fort, El KefCurved entry hall, Turkish fort, El KefWhile at the museum a runner came to tell us the kasbah was now open. It seems the local site curators communicate via cell phones and were keeping track of our progress.

The kasbah is the first thing to catch your eye when you near the city. Looking like a fairy tale fort, it looms Turkish fort, El Kefover the city Commanders quarters, Turkish fort, El Kefwith high walls looking very forbidding. Some type of fort has stood her since 5 BC.  The base of the smaller fort of the current structure was built by the Byzantines in the sixth century AD and then reinforced by the Byzantine Fort, El KefOttomans in the sixteenth century.  The famous leader Ali Pasha, who initiated a number of significant projects during his reign from 1734 to 1756, built the Kasba in 1740 -- the larger fort.  The fort itself isFrench canon, fort, el Kef interesting to walkCommanders quarters, Turkish fort, El Kef through.  Along the entrance way the are Turkish mortars and French canons.  It has it's own cistern, soldiers quarters, munitions magazine, mess, Pasha's quarters and mosque.  ThePray room, Turkish fort, El Kef mirab in the mosque inQuibla with the best view in Tunisia, in pray room, Turkish fort, El Kef highly unusual in that it has a window -- the view from the window just happens to be as beautiful as can be found in these parts in the direction of Mecca (lower right).   As part of its history the fort also serve as a military prison for the Turkish and a prison for political prisoners for the French.  Perhaps the most distinguished rabble rousing resident (political prisoner)Solitary confinement cell, Byzentine fort, El Kef was Habib Bourguiba (1942), later to be theEl Kef, Tunisia first President of modern independent Tunisia.  It is possible to view the cell where he was held. himself was once held in a cell (left). A look into the cells convinces you this would not have been a pleasant abode. The real delight at the Kasbah, though, is the view out over the city and back towards the mountain where an ancient Roman quarry is still worked El Kef, city wall and Presidential Compoundtoday. You don’t often get a view down into the convolutions of a Tunisian town with the narrow streets twisting and turning into a labyrinthine maze. This bird’s eye perspective gives a bit further insight into the lives of the people here.

Old Jewish market, El KefSynagogue, El KefAfter leaving the kasbah we headed down the hill to the fifth century hara Hara is a word for the Jewish quarter around Tunisia.  The several hundred strong Jewish population of el Kef started to vacated in the 1970's and was virtually gone by 1980.  At Circumcision chair, Synagogue, El Kefthis time it is hard to tell the full extent of the former community, but it is still possible to see the former Jewish souk (commercial district) and to visit the nearby synagogue ghriba (strangers).  The synagogue is no longer used for religious education or Memorial plagues, Synagogue, El Kefrituals, and now is arranged more as a museum.  In the collection are a circumcision chair, an ark with two torah scrolls in protective wooden cases, a couple walls of memorial Torahs in Arch, Synagogue, El Kefplagues, historical photos of Memorial plagues, Synagogue, El Keffamilies and events in the former Jewish community and a couple square collection cans.  One of the collection cans said "Palestine Orphan Society" and the other was imprinted Torah scroll, Synagogue, El KefTorah scroll, Synagogue, El Kef"State of Israel".  Each had a slot in the top for putting donation into.  The items became more curious to us because they were the only items in the collection that we explicitly weren't allowed to photograph.  We could not get an explanation for the special treatment of the cans and couldn't devise one by ourselves.

Walking back from the synagogue you can walk on a stone street the dates back to Roman times.  Along this road you pass the 4th century AD  Dar el Kouss (Byzantine church).  It has a large hall with central nave.

City wall and fort, El Kef Hotel Residence Venus, El KefBack at the hotel, we had the choice of a private courtyard which was dominated by an orange tree or the view from the room window which overlooks the backside of the kasbah we were so recently atop. Down slope from the kasbah a shepherd watched his sheep grazing the lush grass of the hillside. We could lie in bed watching the antics of the young lambs when we put our feet up for a short nap before supper.

Orange treeWe had two new (to us) dishes at supper; a mess of lamb short ribs in a red stew that was very good, and dish described as beef in a green sauce, which was less popular -- to put it mildly. The green sauce was dark enough be called black and looked like a thick oil slick and covered his beef in a sort of soup. It reminded some, in looks, texture, and a little in taste of a mole sauce. We could not figure out what exactly the green sauce was.  Later investigation suggests that the sauce is made from a leaf that comes from closer to the coast.  It doesn't seem to be well known, even among Tunisians, and the wasn't a know French or English name for the leaf by our informants.

Restaurant, el KefFor lunch the next day some of the group returned to the restaurant where we had had lunch the day before try the ojja. The owner recognized the foreign faces  immediately and invited us in. As we enjoyed a delicious after lunch thé, the owner’s husband (I think) came out from the back and showed us postcards he had received from America along with photos of he, his wife, and other foreign patrons. Upon leaving we got the same anti-Bush comment as before. He sure has made himself unpopular.

Speaking of unpopular, Sakiet Sidi Youssef is a village south of el Kef bombed by French in the 1960's.  They alleged it was a base for Algerian Independence fighters who were challenging French colonial rule. After this violation of their sovereignty the Tunisian began pressuring the French to leave.

Old clothes in a tree on the road to Hammam Mellegue, El KefOn the needs-further-information-to-understand list is this tree along the road to Hammam Mellegue.  Strung in the tree were dozens of pieces of clothing and cloth.  It seemed very deliberate but was far too tattered and seemed to have been there too long to be clothing left in the tree to dry.

Another local curiosity is this sign which marks some kind of point of geological significance.  It was also off the main road, on the road to Hammam Mellegue.  None of the local stopped at it or seemed to give it any attention.  Maybe they had all read it years ago.


A pleasant side trip for El Kef is to the second century Roman Baths at Hammam Mellegue.

Countryside south of El Kef Countryside south of El Kef Bicycle tour to Hammam Mellegue

The route starts out relatively flat across the high plateau.  Military "keep out" sign on road to Hammam Mellegue
There is an interesting military sign along the way that we never got translated.  We accepted that the gist was at least "keep out".  About half Road to Hammam Mellegue Countryside on the road to Hammam Mellegue, El Kef Countryside on the road to Hammam Mellegue, El Kef

way into the trip to the baths the terrain got more rugged and the road started to descend the escarpment.  Descending the views were spectacular but it was hard to get away from the thought that

Bicycling on the road to Hammam Mellegue, El Kef we would have to climb back up in a few hours. Hammam Mellegue

At the bottom, next to the Mellegue River was a Roman ruin, and in the bowels of the ruins was a bath that was still being operated. Before indoor plumbing at every house was so common, Tunisians would go to the public baths several times a week, if not daily, but this has changed.  It seemed like a very remote location for such a going concern. Hammam Mellegue

After passing through a massive door, we descended a steep stone staircase to a 10x15 ft pool with small rooms on either side for changing. Though lit by arched skylights the place was gloomy at best. There were already eight men in the bath. We changed into shorts (no one goes naked in the baths) and entered the bath which reached not quite to the knee when standing.

Our entry caused a flurry of activity. While some of the men had been soaping themselves or scrubbing each other with an abrasive glove called a kassa (to remove a layer or two of dead skin), all this ceased as we clambered in and, instead, two men began searching the floor. We soon realized they were pulling the plug to let out the dirty water while keeping the fresh water from coming in through a hole in the stone about knee high. It took awhile for all the water to drain while everyone swept the last remnants toward the plug hole. During this time there was a lively conversation in French and a little English with two young men who had walked here from el Kef this morning. Everyone was friendly and welcoming though a few of the men took this break to leave the hammam.

When drained you could see that the bottom and sides consist of large stone blocks, deeply pitted and surprisingly not slippery to walk on. One wonders if this calderia has been in constant use the last eighteen hundred years. The water coming in was already at a comfortable temperature. Surprisingly, the ride back, even the steep climb which immediately confronted us upon exiting the hammam, did not seem too bad … or maybe we were just too mellow to notice. We just geared down and cranked on up. It actually seemed shorter going up than coming down as it paradoxically often does. Bicycling on the road to Hammam Mellegue, El Kef Congestion on the road to Hammam Mellegue, El Kef

Back at the top it flattened out again and the biggest challenge became herds of sheep.  


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