Adventure in Tunisia


Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

Dispatch 10 - Tozeur

  Click to enlarge

In contrast to yesterday, this morning, the wind have shifted 180 degrees. Presumably the gods decided to try to return what they took the day before back to its rightful, original place – the sand back to the desert – but in fact, in today's "clear air turbulence" the wind was brisk but there were very few bits of the earth's crust any place in the troposphere (i.e., the sand was where is should be  -- on the ground -- and not suspended in air pretending to be a gas).  So perhaps the reverse action was so that the metrological system could recharge itself.  The up-shot is we had a steady and forceful tail wind for the ride which was primarily crossing the chott (pronounced like "shot").  An additional benefit is east winds are cold and south and west winds tend to be hot in this area, and this was an east wind.

A chott is a seasonal crystalline (salt) lake. This particular one, the Chott Djerid, is about 40 kilometers wide, about 80 kilometers long, perfectly flat and is said to be at an elevation 16 meters below sea level--our GPS put it at closer to sea level.  It is salty enough to support a prosperous looking salt recovery operations.  To our right (east) we could see a ridge of mountains in the far distance, but to the west the chott ran to the horizon without any feature catching your gaze. About halfway across we came upon several cafes with touristy items to stop the buses for a quick sale and snapshot

In times past, the chott could only be crossed seasonally. Even so it was traitorous because the crystallized crust could give a false sense of stability, then crack and dump man, beast and vehicles into a quicksand morass below, similar to falling through ice into a lake. It is said that entire caravans were swallowed by the quicksand. In the 1980s a rock and clay causeway was built across the chott. Crossing the chott then became accessible to most vehicles year around. It now has a very nice paved road so that even the largest tour buses and their passengers can now experience this once almost forbidden journey.

With the tailwind we went 51 kilometers in 90 minutes – that works out to 34 km per hour, or about 21 miles per hour, on a load mountain with knobby tires. It might be said that we shot the chott. But we didn’t shoot the uplands -- after the flat lake bed the road climbs and our pace slowed considerably..

There is an interesting formation before you get to the chott.  They are describe in some books as petrified sand dunes.  I have my doubts that the term "petrified" applies.  In any case there is a patch of compacted or crystallized sand dune gracefully sculptured by the wide. The whole area is less than a 100 meters by 100 meters square.  It is not apparent why it is where it is.

The west side of the chott is bounded by hills.  Along the base of the hills is a ribbon of green -- a series of oasis that stretches for more than a twenty kilometers. Towards the east end of the line of oasis is Sidi Bouhel, with its backdrop of rocky cliffs cut by canyons that were the location for a number of Star Wars scenes, including the Sandcrawler Parking Lot.

Part of the surrounding area might look familiar because in the drier upland area, past the oasis along the western edge, was the Lars Family homestead scenes in several Star War movies were filmed and the craters created for the exterior location for Owen and Beru's house in Star Wars: ANH.

Click to enlargeApproaching Tozeur one knows that they are returning to a tourist zone and the tourist culture long before you even saw the rugs hanging from the eaves of the curios shops cheek to jowl along main street. Just as we left the chott the adolescent boys along the roadside started getting cheekier – nothing unmanageable, just a "C" change in attitude that is pretty consistent for the last twenty kilometers to Tozeur.  If is very unfortunate because the is an otherwise very nice section with interesting sights and views.

Tozeur, the oasis occupied by man, has been around for about since about 8,000 BC.  Later is was a Raman town and still later a stop on a caravan route across the Sahara.  Now-a-days it has four parts: the old town, the commercial district, the oasis and the tourist zone. The first two are know for the distinctive brickwork, the third for the quality of its dates and the later maybe for its ostentatiousness.

The old town is comprised of low-rise buildings and narrow streets.  Unlike the new part of town, the streets are narrow enough and the walls are high enough that there is almost always a shadow to duck into to escape the intense sun.  The ambiance is made more intriguing by buildings that extend over the streets, arched porticos and the signature brick work and doors.  Many of the doors have three knockers, each with a distinctive sounds.  It is said that one is for men, one is for women and one is for children -- an early version of distinctive ring tones so that you know who is visiting.

It is very pleasant to visit the compact ATP cultural museum stuck in an old house in the oldest section of the old town – now heavily restored. It gives you a bit of an idea how house are designed: you enter into a courtyard through an entryway. The entryway always has a bend in it or the doors are skewed so that you can see directly into the living area.  Every self-respecting courtyard in Tozeur has a palm tree. Off the courtyard are the rooms; kitchen, bedrooms, bath, storage, etc. Unlike most northern architecture which looks out, the architecture here looks in. The courtyards will often have a garden and sometime statues, tiled walls, a fountain or a cage with a song bird. The rooms of the museum are now arranged as: a marriage room; a cooking, crafts and weapons room; and a history room with the 100-year-old plan for water management in the oasis. Our guide told us that the tourist hotels are consuming so much water that they are hurting the very oasis that they hope will attract tourists to their properties.

Unlike some of the traditional housing in southern Tunisia, the medina in Tozeur is still lived in.  The brick walls seem to make a good back stop for practicing some soccer.  The narrow lanes are ideal for bicycling but a bit treacherous because the most common two-wheeled vehicles are motor bikes that come racing along.  Fortunate they are load enough that you get plenty of warning of their approach.  Unfortunately they are very loud, shattering the peace and tranquility of what the Tunisians would like declared a World Heritage Site.  If I had a vote, I would make the Tozeur government ban motor vehicles in old town before it could be declared a World Heritage Site.  

One of old towns claims to fame, at least by the locals, is it has been the set for several movies, specifically Dar Trilla, the home (palace) of a former Bey (mayor under the Turkish-Ottoman Empire).  Unlike some many other locations in Tunisia they weren't Star War movies and the aren't movies I had heard of or could remember the name of.  One apparently starred Omar Sherif.

The commercial district is dominated by cafes, restaurants, date stands and curio shops.  Off to the side is the vegetable markets.  Both of the old town and commercial district are set apart by very distinctive and elegant brickwork.  There is an ongoing effort to preserver, restore and expand the presence of traditional brickwork.  The brickwork provides both  insulation and decoration. Using the end, side and face of three bricks, horizontally and vertically, there are over 700 patterns that can be made with just three bricks.  There are also some named patterns like pendent, saw, snake, stairs and camel.

While this creates a pleasant ambiance it doesn’t seem like most of the tourists make it this far.

The oasis is similar to the others but impressive by its size and general healthiness. An exception is the west end, known as the "belvedere," which now looks very unhealthy. The story has it that this is where part of Star Wars was filmed. Since then it has been half surrounded by a dozen fortress like tourist hotels. This is the "zone tourist." It may be strangling the very element that drew them here -- the oasis..

Tourism development may be a text book example of loving something to death. A dozen huge tourist fortress hotels line the western end of oasis.  Unfortunately, it takes a lot more water to keep a tourist happy than the normal citizen of Tozeur.  A consequence is the oasis is starting to show new signs of stress.  The conventional wisdom from locals is that the tourist hotels are taking to much water.

For years there has been talk in Tozeur that the tourist hotels were using an unsustainable amount of water.  In a particularly ironic twist, as the oasis turns into a desert, a golf course is being built on the edge of the oasis. While we visited in mid-afternoon the sprinklers were going around and around.  Given the mist and low humidity (below 20%) it is doubtful that much of the water was getting into the ground.  It raise doubts about whether the golf course developer is paying the real cost of water.

We ended the day at another museum, the Dar Chariot. This is a new, private museum, with modern displays and elegant tile work and ornate ceiling. In large part the content is similar to the small museum in town.  It has a nice collection of pottery, clothing, copperware, and jewelry as well as displays of everyday life in Tunisia, but the volume is greater, there are more descriptive labels and the architectural examples are stunning. In their own ways both museums are worth the price of admission. Connected to Dar Chariot is a Disneyland-esque children's theme park "1001 Arabian Nights." We passed on this.


Well worth a visit is a in Tozeur old town is Galerie Tozart.  It is on the same street as the ATP Museum.  The featured artist is Raoudha Bribech.  She works in a variety of mediums, including paint, metal and wood.  She describes her current work as cheerful - as is she.

An unfortunate new development in old town is curio shops have set up shop at some of the most architectural significant locations and covered the architecture with rug, blanks and a thick layer of tourist crafts.

A new sign in Tunisia since 2002:

Another questionable development in Tozeur is the addition of head foams to the viewpoint in the Belevedere.  All three are the face of Abou El Kacem Chebbi (1934-1989), a celebrated Tozeurian poet.  If they are suppose to add to the esthetics of nature, they don't.  If they are suppose to attack more visitors and more money, I am skeptical.  As much as I am for celebrating the accomplishments of Tunisian artists, this memorial doesn't seem to be well placed.


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