Out of Africa
Trip Start May 22, 2010
167Trip End Oct 31, 2010
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Where I stayed
Our guide was Fati and he kept emphasising the religious acceptance in the city. Most of the population is Suni Moslem but there are also some Christians and a smaller group of Jews. In the city there is a mosque, a synagogue (the oldest in Africa) and a cathedral (19th century) all close together. There is evidence of early man in the country 200 000 years ago. The country has 11 million people and Tunis is the largest city with 2 million people. 40% of the country is desert with the Berbers still living in the south.
We started with a stop at the ruins of the aqueduct that had bought water to Tunis in Roman times
The Berbers were the original inhabitants and then the Phoenicians founded Carthage in the ninth century BC. Since then the land has been occupied by the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and French. Often 1 group destroyed the work of the previous group, not always deliberately but by reusing blocks etc rather than quarrying to get new. Carthage is a very up-market area to live, with probably 60% of all the ruins believed by experts to be under various houses.
We had about an hour at the ruins of the public baths. Except for a tower with a part added to show the original height, all items on the site were original. The outline of the baths is known. The ruins were mainly of the under ground floor where the slaves would have burned olive wood to heat the water. There were hot, tepid and cool baths as well as steam rooms and a communal latrine
We explored mainly on our own and found a small underground area. We were about to go in when we realised a guard with a machine gun was in the room. He came out a moment later and marched off looking very efficient but we think he was hiding out. Our guide later said that we would see a lot of police, usually in groups doing nothing. He suggested it was a way to hide unemployment. The local nickname for the police is Scorpions.
The Antinpus Baths were built when the area was called Province Africa. This was the breadbasket of Rome, known for its grain production. It was hard to believe we were in Africa when looking at the baths. Above the area we could see the flag at the Presidential palace – not the residence but the working area. Later we did drive past his residence but were told that no photos were allowed.
On the drive to the next stop we heard about the politics of the country. It is nominally a democracy with 5 parties – the ruling party and 4 opposition parties for decoration
He also said that in many ways the country has been and still is very progressive. Polygamy was banned in 1937, 60% of university students are woman and the headdress is forbidden for women who work in the public service. Arabic is the official language but French is compulsory at age 8 and English at 11. VAT is 18% and there is also income tax.
The Bardo Museum was amazing. It contains a wonderful collection of mosaics from around the country and other finds from Carthage. The main focus was the mosaics which were often works of art. There were some that were patterns but most were pictures, often representing myths. Fati was a real enthusiast and kept telling us we needed to come back and visit the sites that the mosaics had come from. They were originally flooring, in both private homes and public bathhouses, but are now displayed on walls. The pieces of marble were tiny which made the pictures very intricate. One was called ‘The Triumph of Neptune’ and it had Neptune in the centre with women and animals representing the seasons in the corners. There was one of Ulysses sailing past the sirens with his hands tied to a mast and his companions with wax in their ears. One was like a still life, with fruit, animals and birds in squares.
Fati said that the mosaics mainly date from the 3rd century AD
One unusual mosaic from the 4th century shows a schematic representation of a church. This room also had an old baptismal font and a mosaic dedicated to Christian martyrs. I always expect Roman items to be to do with the legends and forget the Empire lasted into the Christian period. One random piece of information was that the purple dye that the most important Romans were allowed to use on their togas came from the conch shell. Punic referred to this colour (I think).
We then drove into Tunis to the souks in the Medina. There is a 14th century wall which the French destroyed part of. You can see a 9th century dome and mineret. We were told that a prayer in the mosque is the equivalent to 27 prayers at home and a prayer in Mecca is worth 100 000 prayers. The flag has 5 points representing the 5 pillars of Islam. There are 5 prayers per day and also the 5 pillars refer to Ramadan, daily prayer, visiting Mecca and 2 others which I have forgotten.
We were taken to a shop to see the view from the roof. There were mosaics on the roof and views of the various domes. On one side we could see the roof of the mosque, the synagogue and the Catholic Church.
The carpet demonstration was actually interesting
We were encouraged to buy rugs and ceramics – I was not even tempted by the ceramics but did think the rugs were good value if you wanted one (which we didn’t). We didn’t go through the spice or perfume area of the souk which Anna and Philip did. They had booked the transfer only but in fact had a person who took them through the souk if they wished. They were buzzing about this later.
We had lunch back near the aqueduct then went to the North Africa American Military Cemetery. There are 2841 US soldiers buried here and there are also other cemeteries with 8000 Germans, 6000 French and 8000 UK soldiers outside the city. The Visitors building also contains a Roman mosaic donated by the President of Tunisia.
We finished with a visit to the blue and white village, Sidi Bou Said
We heard a bit more about the country on the short drive back to the boat. The calendar has about 10 days less than the Gregorian calendar and so Ramadan is at a different time each year. During this period there is no food, drink or sex from sunrise to sunset. It must be observed by all who are able to do so - this excludes children under 15, the sick, pregnant and breast feeding women. There were cactus with prickly pear, the bitter Seville oranges trees and a lot of Eucalyptus trees, which have been here for over 100 years.
We had a good catch up about the day. Philip and Anna had been to a carpet demonstration but at a different shop. The demonstrator there was also called Mohamed Ali, so we wondered if they all took that name for ease. Trish and Rex had also seen the cemetery. So this was our first and possibly last visit to Africa and unfortunately we have no geocache from there.