It’s hard to imagine as you’re wandering around the ruins of the once glorious Berber village of Douiret, but in the mid-19th century this truly extraordinary place was home to more than three and a half thousand people. As I walked the streets past abandoned former homes, it was as if I was exploring a ghost town. If there are people still living in the village I didn’t see them, although I did spot a single, solitary person walking along a ridge just outside the village.
Founded over 600 years ago, Douiret was once a busy commercial centre on a desert caravan route, and camel trains would spend the night here, inside what was a Berber citadel. Seen from the shallow valley between it and the modern village of the same name, the village rises up like a Pieter Bruegel painting of the Tower of Babel. Houses seem to be stacked on top of each other in a conical shape. Uniformly brown, it blends with the surrounding landscape, the gleaming white mosque the only real sign that it’s a village and not just a hill.
I’d driven through the blasted yet beautiful desert landscape from Chenini to reach the village. It’s only a short journey of around 10km, but it cuts through post-apocalyptic scenery that makes you glad to come across signs of civilisation. Not that Douiret, old or new, really counts as civilisation. I’d passed through the new village to reach the road to old Douiret, other than a few palm trees there was very little evidence of life. You’d have to have a very particular personality type to live out here.
I parked the car at the base of the hill and set off in the heat to climb a steep track into the village. There are a couple of places to stay in the village and I can imagine that it would be a spectacular and atmospheric place to spend a night or two – provided you’d brought sufficient provisions with you. The moment you start to gain some height, the views back down the valley are breathtaking, you can see the new village but also, at the base of the hill, the old village’s cemetery.
The route I took into the village passed a rock formation that, when I turned around to take in the view, looked like a human head. It was the closest I came to seeing an actual human for the next couple of hours. Wandering around the rubble of an ancient culture may not be for everyone, but I find places like Douiret fascinating. Silent in the intense heat, eerie and just a little other-worldly, the history is palpable. Scrambling amongst the broken buildings, the views over the valley are little short of spectacular.
The mosque here is known as Jamaa ennakhla, the ‘palm tree mosque’, and is the most striking feature of the village. I don’t know who paints the holy places of the desert with whitewash, but these buildings have a dramatic effect on the landscape. Brilliant points of light amongst drab surroundings, they almost scream to you that in such an hostile environment you should make your peace with God. I found myself cursing the very same deity as I sweated my way up to the top of the hill, determined to get a full panorama.
It was hot work, but I knew that when I returned to Tataouine I’d have access to cold beer and a (not much warmer) swimming pool. Ice Cold in Alex fantasies at the front of my mind, I walked back to the car, tomorrow I’d be leaving early to head into the Grand Erg Oriental and the Berber oasis of Douz, a different but similarly hostile landscape. There would be one final stop though, in Beni Barka, to visit yet another dramatically located and abandoned ksar.
Here I would tear a massive (and embarrassing) hole in my trouser crotch, the start of a streak of bad luck that would end with me dangling upside down in the desert.