Of all the unearthly places I visited in the southern Tunisian deserts, the ghostly Berber village of Ksar Guermessa has to count as the most haunting. Founded sometime in the 12th century, it was fortified in response to the growing threat from Arab invaders, and it shares similarities with many of the other Berber hilltop villages in this area: fortified granaries built on top of an original troglodyte settlement, and a brilliant white mosque burning bright in the brown, dusty landscape.
As you approach Guermessa, it’s hard to even tell that there’s a settlement built on and into the hillside, and along a ridge stretching across the skyline. The old village is split into two hilltops connected by a ‘saddle’ where the mosque sits, and if it wasn’t for the telltale white of the mosque you’d be forgiven for not noticing the village amongst the unrelentingly scrubby landscape. I parked the car in a small car park and set off up the hill to explore the abandoned village.
Not for the first time on this trip I found myself wondering where all the other tourists were. Here is an ancient village, easily accessible from Tataouine, that not only offers a glimpse into the lives of generations of Berber inhabitants, but comes with spectacular views. As I walked along the ridge I came across the troglodyte houses for which the village is famed. Each has a surrounding wall with a door into an inner courtyard, more doors then lead inside homes carved into the rock. It’s extraordinary.
I literally got shivers down my spine as I entered these cave homes, the scattering of possessions that had been abandoned by their former inhabitants creating an almost supernatural atmosphere. The eerie silence amidst the ruins of a once thriving village was a surreal experience, and my imagination was conjuring all manner of dark and troubling illusions. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a place where the inhabitants had been forced to flee for their lives – I was expecting Morlocks to leap out from behind walls and drag me to the underworld.
The reality is far more prosaic. I’d passed through the new village of Guermessa on my way here, and from the ridge where I was walking I had fantastic views of it and the surrounding landscape. The government had built a new village with running water, electricity, schools, hospitals and paved roads. People chose to leave their old lives behind and start afresh in the modern world. While I’m sure people are far better off in their new homes, it has lent an air of tragedy to the old village.
I walked the full length of the village and visited a dozen or so houses, noting the small details of inhabitation: palm wood doors stained green with metal studs, a hand print in the mud of a wall, old olive oil jars, a box that had once contained tea. The women and girls of Guermessa were once famous for producing handmade embroidery, known as margoum. Woolen and brightly coloured, sadly the craft seems to be dying out in these communities, although you can still find it for sale.
I made my way back to the mosque, drinking in the views as I went. I thought about visiting the other half of the village, but decided it was too hot and instead headed to the new village to see if I could unearth somewhere to have lunch. I was out of luck. On my way back to Tataouine I spotted an unlikely sight, two dinosaurs striding across a nearby hilltop. After exploring the spectral delights of Guermessa, that didn’t seem so odd.