Exploring Houmt Souk on fabled Djerba

The island of Djerba comes with a storied history. In Homer’s ancient Greek epic, The Odyssey, Djerba is the Land of the Lotus Eaters where, after a decade of war with the Trojans, Odysseus – Ulysses as he was known to the Romans – is stranded while trying to return home to Ithaca. On land the islanders feed his crew lotus flowers. Instantly falling into a dream-like state, they forget their desire to return home until Odysseus forces them to sail away.

Hara Kebira, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Hara Kebira, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Spanish fort, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Spanish fort, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

The 19th century English poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, described this incident in the poem The Lotos-eaters: “In the afternoon, they came unto a land, in which it seemed always afternoon. All round the coast the languid air did swoon, breathing like one that hath a weary dream.” The general impression is that Djerba’s a place where otherwise industrious individuals are lured to indulge in the sin of sloth (and probably others of the more deadly sins).

Today, it’s charms are much the same, with sandy beaches, clear Mediterranean waters and delicious food luring people to relax and forget the world for a day or two. This had been my plan, but the fates were against me and I arrived on Djerba with only a day to spare. There’s too much history and culture to explore to waste on a day at the beach, so I spent my time wandering around the island’s main town, Houmt Souk, and one of the Arab World’s few remaining Jewish communities, Hara Kebira.

I arrived on the island via the 6th century BC causeway, known as the Roman Road it was originally built by the Carthaginians. This gives a hint of just how ancient human habitation is on the island. It was fought over, conquered and occupied by Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs and Turks until, in 1881, the French arrived. Traces of all these cultures are still found around the island, but it is Djerba’s Jewish history that attracts most attention, mainly because it’s a living history.

The island’s Jewish community dates back 2,500 years, and hosts one of the oldest synagogues in the world. El Ghriba synagogue has been in continuous use for around 2,000 years, and is a focal point for what remains of the Jewish community. Tunisia was once home to over 110,000 Jews, today that number is closer to 1,500, the majority of whom live on Djerba in two distinct areas: Riadh and Hara Kebira. Attacks against the community have occurred, but these days the Tunisian authorities provide protection.

I started my day in the maze-like town centre, this is where the main souk is found and where the city does its shopping. It was early so I sought out coffee and pastries while sitting in the shade watching the world go by. Despite being touristy, this is a relaxed place and there is little of the hassle associated with other tourist areas in this part of the world. I pottered around until I found the fish market where energetic bidding was taking place on strings of fish.

The auctioneer sat on a throne-like high chair so the crowd could see the fish he was holding, and a crush of people placed their bids. A few scrawny cats wandered around. If you feel brave, you can bid on the fish and get them cooked at nearby restaurants. The market was a lot of fun, and afterwards I made my way on foot to the whitewashed buildings decorated with blue symbols in the Hara Kebira area.

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

It’s a fascinating area, more for the fact that after two and a half millennia Jews still live cheek-by-jowl with the Muslim population. It’s not been an easy peace to achieve, and is constantly threatened, but it continues to exist. Occasionally you see people wearing a kippah, the typical Jewish cap, but the main sign that this is a Jewish area are the fish and Shabbat candlesticks painted on houses. Fish are supposed to ward off the evil eye. I took that as my cue to leave, the next day I’d fly to Tunis and didn’t want to provoke the fates further.

Berber fortresses and desert landscapes, Tataouine

The deep blue and turquoise waters of the Mediterranean sparkled below as my flight from Tunis came in to land on the island of Djerba. The contrast between the brilliance of the sea and the dusty brown of the land was stunning. The lure of the water was almost enough to make me abandon my half-baked plan to hire a car at the airport and head into the southern Tunisian interior. How much more rewarding, I thought, would it be to return to this idyllic-looking place after a week in the desert?

I hired a car from a local outfit, largely because they were the only place that was open. It wasn’t the newest of vehicles but I thought that would help me to blend in with local traffic. I acquired a fairly old looking map, figuring that there was unlikely to have been a radical road building plan that made it obsolete, and set off for Star Wars country: Tataouine. First though I had to get off Djerba and onto the mainland. My route took me past one of the most ancient sites on the island.

Landscape near Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape near Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

The brilliant white 14th century Fadhloun Mosque is a stunning sight seen across the dusty landscape, but somehow it seems to fit perfectly with its surroundings of olive trees. The shape of the mosque is both attractive and surprising, I’d assumed its thick walls were a result of the climate, but it doubled as a fortification in case of invasion. It was one link in a chain of fortified mosques. I found myself alone in this atmospheric and photogenic place.

I stopped to visit a couple more mosques before heading off for the two to three hour drive. I didn’t want to miss out on seeing Ksar Ouled Soltane, one of the most famous of the fortified Berber granaries. A good place to base yourself, Tataouine is an eminently missable modern town that was established by the French as a garrison town at the end of the 19th century. The surrounding countryside though, holds some of the most extraordinary places in the region.

It is also home to some of the most evocative and gloriously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, especially in the ‘golden hour’ of sunrise and sunset. Which was lucky since it had taken longer than expected to reach the area close to Tataouine, and by the time I arrived at Ksar Ouled Soltane the sun was getting low in the sky. This brought with it the benefit of having the ksar to myself. This is definitely one of the more visited of the region’s sights but, with the exception of someone selling pencil drawings, I was alone.

The vaulted store rooms known as ghorfas that once would have held grain, and were built to be defended against marauding bandits, were glowing an impossible golden orange in the sunlight. I wandered around in the silence of the gathering twilight and tried to absorb the atmosphere of this truly magical place. As I left I stopped to chat to the guy selling drawings, I really wanted a cold drink but everything was closed in the late afternoon.

Ksar Tounket, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Tounket, Tataouine, Tunisia

Village near Tataouine, Tunisia

Village near Tataouine, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Hotel Sangho Privilege Tataouine, Tunisia

Hotel Sangho Privilege Tataouine, Tunisia

Back in the car I headed to Tataouine and the pleasant Sangho Privilege Tataouine, my hotel for the next couple of days. The landscape all around me glowed red and orange, it was so beautiful I kept stopping to take photos. On the outskirts of Tataouine a small miracle occurred and I found the hotel without a satnav or a functioning smart phone – in the dark. I was tired and just wanted to eat and sleep, but the lure of having a beer by the hotel pool as the stars came out was too enticing.