Chenini and the legend of the Seven Sleepers

There are a few different versions of the legend of the Seven Sleepers, which dates to around 250 AD. In the Catholic tradition, the story is of seven Christians persecuted by the Romans who took refuge in a cave near Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, where they were discovered asleep. The cave was sealed with them inside and still alive. Centuries later, a farmer discovered the cave and, presumably to his great surprise, opened it to find all seven men alive and well, and believing they’d only slept for a single day.

The legend is shared by Islam and a near identical version of the story appears in the Quran. In this the sleepers are persecuted for their faith and are said to have spent 309 years in the cave. During which time they had grown to be four metres tall. The Quran is silent on the exact whereabouts of the cave, but the stunning location of the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers near the ancient town of Chenini is dramatic enough to claim the right.

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape around Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape around Tataouine, Tunisia

In the brown, barren landscapes close to Tataouine, the brilliant white of mosques can be seen on hillsides for miles around. As I turned off the main highway towards the modern village of Chenini and the ancient ruined Berber village of the same name, the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers could be seen from several kilometres away. A side road took me underneath the ancient village to the mosque, where I climbed a nearby hill to get a view. It was magnificent.

The landscapes here are undoubtably harsh, and life must be tough for its inhabitants, but it is a region of extraordinary beauty as well. I’d seen photos of this area, but they don’t really prepare you for the reality of it. I wandered back to the car and drove back to the equally dramatic ruined hilltop village of Chenini. The oldest parts of the village date to the 12th century, and most of them seemed to be crumbling back into the earth from which they were first moulded.

From a distance it’s not easy to pick out that there is a village built on the steep sides of the hill, everything is a uniform brown colour and blends seamlessly together. The site of the village was strategic and defensive, communities like Chenini would have been easy picking from raiding parties otherwise. I parked the car at the foot of the hill and walked upwards through the steep maze-like streets. From afar it’s easy to imagine the village is abandoned, but I came across a few of the 500 or so people still living there.

It was clear that renovation works were well under way in an attempt to attract more visitors, and there are places you can stay in the village. Quite frankly, it deserves to be far more popular than the grand total of zero tourists that I encountered the day I was there. It’s hardly a hidden gem – it’s big and sits on a hilltop – but that day it might as well have been invisible to modern tourism. I suppose I should have been grateful, it was fabulous exploring the ruins by myself.

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

I wandered down the hillside looking for somewhere to get a drink and maybe a snack, most things seemed to be closed, if they’d ever been open. Eventually I found a place on the road beneath the village serving mint tea and some pastries, both tooth achingly sweet. I watched the world not going by for half an hour and then hit the road towards another ancient Berber hill village, Douiret.

A Tunisian road trip remembered

It was early, still dark, as the taxi took me from my Tunis hotel to the airport close to what remains of the ancient city of Carthage. We drove in silence, as much because of language difficulties as the unsociable hour. There was no other traffic on the roads, and there was just a hint of sunlight on the horizon as a dark coloured van pulled out of a side street and slipped close behind us. The driver looked in his mirror and, with what can only be described as disdain in his voice, said, “Les flics”.

It was like being in a French film noir. The police followed us for a couple of kilometres before deciding we were of no interest to them, and I was deposited at the airport to catch my flight to the famed island of Djerba. After spending several days in Tunis at various meetings, I was escaping to explore the other-worldly landscapes and cultures of southern Tunisia. There’s a good reason that this is where the Star Wars films were shot, it’s an extraordinary place that really does feel like another planet.

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tatouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tatouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tunisia

Door in the Souk, Tunis, Tunisia

Door in the Souk, Tunis, Tunisia

Ksar Guermassa, Tunisia

Ksar Guermassa, Tunisia

Fish market, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Djerba, Tunisia

I had a vague plan involving picking up a hire car in Djerba and plotting a course south and inland towards Tataouine – Star Wars references are everywhere in this area. This is Berber country, their unique culture and history can been seen dotted throughout the region’s landscape. In particular, the fortified granaries and villages known as ksar, although often referred to as ‘Berber castles’. Their striking architecture makes them a ‘must see’, but since they merge seamlessly with the landscape that’s easier said than done.

The extremes of living amongst these beautiful and severe landscapes have meant the human population has had to adapt to survive. Here you’ll find underground cave dwellings and caves hacked from rugged hillsides. Homes designed to be cool in the ferocious heat of summer, yet warm in the bitter cold nighttime of the desert winter. Many of these traditional communities have now been abandoned for modern housing in ‘new’ villages a short distant from the original, but some still have inhabitants.

At both Douirette and Chenini, as well as plenty of other smaller places, I’d find myself exploring alone. It doesn’t take much of an active imagination to imagine yourself as a latter day Indiana Jones; it was a little spooky at times, the quiet desert landscape accentuating every single noise as I nosed through abandoned homes. Without people, many of these former villages have fallen into ruin, but some, like Chenini, are being renovated with the hope of a tourist influx.

If these old Berber settlements weren’t atmospheric enough, on a whim I decided to experience a couple of days in the ‘real’ desert of the Grand Erg Oriental. This vast sandy void of over 40,000kmin Tunisia alone is part of the Sahara Desert, and home to Berber communities and oases. It has to be seen to be believed, and was probably worth the freak accident that saw me crash my hire car in the desert about 60km from the town of Douz.

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Douirette, Tunisia

Douirette, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tunisia

Mosque on Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque on Djerba, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Happily, I was able to walk away from the accident with the help of three Tunisian men who had been camping in the desert. The same could not be said for the car, which was towed back to Djerba to be used for scrap metal and spare parts. Apart from the shock of the accident, it meant I was stuck in the desert without my own transport 500km from where I needed to be get my flight back to Tunis. I found a driver willing to take me to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane and then on to Djerba.

Rather than spend time on Djerba at the start of my trip, I planned to have a refreshing couple of days on the island on my return from the heat and dust of the desert. The car crash had put me behind schedule. In the end, I only had a day to explore this attractive place. It was a shame, but my flight back to Tunis was booked and time had run out. The beguiling landscapes and friendly people of southern Tunisia will remain with me for a long time though.