“Those Romans, they were a cluey bunch.” Since I departed sub-Saharan Africa, I have travelled to eleven countries spread throughout the Mediterranean Region. Remarkably though, this entire duration has been spent within the frontiers of the Roman Empire; which has compelled me to apply to the imperial office for a visa extension before my three months expires. This unintentional quirk in my itinerary is testimony to the incomprehensible power of the Empire during Antiquity. Vestiges of Rome’s incredibly advanced civilisation are evident in most major cities in Western Europe and certainly every nation that borders the Mediterranean (except perhaps Monaco). Tunisia, once the homeland of the mighty Carthaginian Empire, is now an open-air museum of Roman ruins as it was one of the eternal city’s most important provinces. The third largest colosseum in the Roman Empire was constructed at El-Jem while the World Heritage listed Roman town of Dougga is located amidst the picturesque Tunisian countryside. Visiting these sites was the constituent aspect of the final component of my journey through Tunisia.
The Colosseum of El Jem is demonstrative that the number of tourists at a site is entirely dependent on its location. If the Romans had constructed this phenomenal structure in modern-day Spain, France of Great Britain, it would probably be among the most iconic and visited attractions in the world. Seeing the Colosseum of El Jem closely after staying in Rome did not undermine the experience but rather reinforced impressiveness of the Empire’s achievements. The Colosseum is estimated to have accommodated 30,000 spectators, which is more than the population of the surrounding town. Consequently, despite being nearly 1800 years old, the structure towers imposingly over the urban landscape. The dimensions of the Colosseum’s arena are not dramatically smaller than Rome’s and the shape is more elliptical. The architecture is also different with a more prominent use of arches. Unbelievably, this well-preserved structure was almost completely devoid of other tourists when we visited. Patrons have the opportunity of wandering around the arena surface (not possible in Rome), along the surviving platforms and seating areas of each tier and the underground tunnels where animals were housed and gladiators prepared for battle. If it were not for Liam’s ingenious realisation that we would still have sufficient time to detour to El Jem after five separate shared taxi rides across the country in the same day, Nadia may have missed the Colosseum entirely.
She did entirely miss the ruins of Dougga however. After Nadia returned to work in cold and bleak Northern Europe, I visited the Roman town in the scenic rolling green hills of the Tunis (capital) hinterland and was treated to magnificent sunny weather. The area was desolate of tourists, which made it a furthermore enjoyable afternoon for me. Dougga is situated above a gently sloped and wide valley of verdant green pastures that are occasionally interspersed with fields of poppies. Similar to Pompeii, the lower portions of most structures continue to exist, which provides a brilliant outline of the layout and perception of the form of the Roman town. Random elements of structures, such as grand door frames, have survived and form intriguing subjects in photographs. Astonishingly, the portico and defining walls of the Capitol are almost completely untarnished and consequently I consider that building to be the most impressive structure I’ve seen at any Roman ruins, including at Pompeii. The Capitol’s authoritative positioning at the centre and pinnacle of the town aides in the visual spectacle. The amphitheatre was also stunning, particularly with the view provided from the seating areas of the town and the valley below.
Not everything in the final stage of the Tunisia trip was Roman. On the penultimate day of Nadia’s break, we explored the coastal town of Mahdia which was founded by and served as the initial stronghold of the Fatimid dynasty. The Fatimids eventually established a Caliphate that ruled across North Africa and the Middle East. The dynasty however relocated their court and built a new capital on the Nile in the geographical heart of the Arab world, Cairo. For such a historically significant town, I was bemused to discover its absence from what I think is becoming an increasingly compromised list of the World Heritage sites. Ok, I recognise that few traces of the Fatmid era survive in Mahdia, but that’s usually sufficient for any site with Roman, Christian or (European) colonial origins to be listed. The medina of Mahdia is situated on an incredibly narrow islet that juts from the mainland. The town was thus strategically located for defensive purposes because of the outstanding fortification the natural geography provided. Remnants of the Fatimid wall scatter the shore and form a picturesque scene with the Mediterranean in the background. The infinitesimal medina is still quite pleasant to peruse with the faded whites and creams of the buildings, even if it takes just five minutes to walk around.
“All good things must come to an end” and with that Nadia’s journey unfortunately concluded when we returned to Tunis from Mahdia. Nadia was an excellent travel companion as we experienced no tension related incidents but laughed at many comical incidents (usually related to Nadia’s clumsiness). Complimentary to my many existing talents, I discovered that I’m also a brilliant English teacher as Danish Nadia learnt a whole range of new words, phrases and meanings. These included “slob”, “touch wood” and how “theatre” can be used to describe a room where operations are performed. The lesson for the latter came after an amusing exchange with a rather unthoughtful Kiwi. Nadia was explaining how as a nurse she works in an operation room, to which the Kiwi responded with “Oh, you work in the operation theatre!” Utterly flabbergasted, Nadia exclaimed that she is not a stage performer but rather a nurse! Derrr… of course the word “theatre” might be slightly confusing in that context for someone that speaks English as a second language. Actually its confusing for me who speaks English as the only language! Thank you Nadia for the brilliant week in Tunisia and I’m looking forward to Denmark!
I spent the last few days of my trip in Tunisia back in the capital. Other than being hassled incessantly, stalked by a psychopath, have an old crone grab my wallet pocket and have a group of dodgy youths screaming after me in the back alleys of the medina, nothing especially exciting happened. I explored the medina in greater depth than when I arrived in Tunisia, though I failed to discover any new and interesting aspects. I lunched at one of Tunisia’s most coveted restaurants, Dah Slah, where I enjoyed a three-course meal for only $12. I was served a feast of dishes for entrée, including a traditional peasant dish of “merguez tajine”, which consisted of round lamb sausages cooked in a spicy tomato sauce. I had the best couscous with lamb I’d eaten during the trip and drank the lemon juice concoction that is ubiquitous in Tunisian eateries and very refreshing. I sampled a desert unique to Tunisia, Zagougou, which is custard that is coloured black from the seeds of pine trees and served with whipped cream and crushed nuts. In Tunis, I was most frustrated by the illegality of departing the country with local currency and the inane policies of the banks to disallow exchanging Tunisian Dinars for a foreign currency (only possible at the airport). While I haven’t necessarily had any education in economics to lend credibility to my opinions, the “closed currency” pissed me of so I’m classifying that as idiotic dogma.
Although I only spent eleven days in Tunisia, I am thoroughly satisfied with that duration since I saw and experienced essentially everything that I was interested in. Tunisia boasts a variety of intriguing landscapes, some exceptional man-made attractions (namely the Great Mosque of Kairouan, the Colosseum of El Jem and Dougga) and a surprisingly awesome cuisine. However, I don’t think its recommendable for Australians to make the substantial and complex journey to just exclusively visit Tunisia. The country is though a worthwhile destination as part of a broader trip in the region.
Egypt is next. Well actually I’m already through half of that trip.
Happy Mother’s Day,