Djerba - Tunisia's Isle Of Forgetfulness
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
No different from Ulysses, who some authors have described as Djerba’s first tourist, a traveller will find the people of this Tunisian isle friendly and hospitable. From the first day of a visit, the delightful charms of Djerba (also spelled Jerba) will hold most travellers spellbound.
Why this island, which travellers have labelled, ‘Isle of Forgetfulness’, holds visitors under its spell is virtually unexplainable. A great many attribute it to its magic halo – a combination of a clear-blue sky, shining white houses, clean and well-kept towns, tree-covered countryside and warm, yet not too hot climate. Whatever the case, a good number of travellers go into raptures when describing this island – made famous by Ulysses.
According to Greek mythology, Djerba was the home of the seductive lotus-eaters. In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses almost lost his men when the beautiful maidens of the island fed them the lotus flower. The men were so pleasantly intoxicated by the lotus that Ulysses found it almost impossible to make them return to their ships.
Yet, even if this story is only a fable, Djerba has, for many centuries, enraptured travellers who have been lucky enough to land on its shores. A veritable floating garden, rising from the sea like a mirage, the island’s spell of forgetfulness which supposedly entrapped visitors in ancient times, has not faded with the passing centuries. It is said that Djerba is a land of dreams, created by nature to enchant the imagination of the human soul.
During Djerba’s Phoenician and Roman periods, the island and its principal town were known by the Phoenician name of Meninx whose ruins are found near the 6 km (4 mi) re-built Phoenician based Roman causeway, which joins the island to the mainland. After the Muslim conquest, Djerba became the haven for an Islamic sect, known as Kharidjites, which today, in its present form, only exists on this island.
During the Middle Ages, the inhabitants withstood the most powerful and ruthless rulers of Mediterranean Europe. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, the people of this Isle of forgetfulness fought almost continuously, usually against the Spaniards, but at times against the united kings of Christendom.
Djerba is a 614 sq km (238 sq mi) flat island situated off the southern coast of Tunisia, not far from the Libyan border. More than 155,000 inhabitants, mostly of Berber origin, live on this isle of mythology. Its 133 km (83 mi) shoreline abounds with sandy-white beaches, gently lapped by the warm-azure waters of the Mediterranean
Covered with trees and flowers, the island is in reality one huge oasis covered with more than 1,000,000 date palms and 700,000 olive trees, some over 3,000 years old. In between, small fields of apricots, carobs, figs, grapes, grenadines, lemons, mandarins, oranges and pomegranates cover almost every empty space. Only travellers dreaming of Djerba’s mythology are usually disappointed, nowhere is the fabled lotus fruit to be found.
Here and there amid these fields, watered from some 2,700 wells, are the breathtaking white, small villages and isolated homes. The striking white houses, known as menzels, and their architecture, unique to the island, appear like white jewels, sprinkled between the greenery. Their rounded domes and bright snowy colour, embellished by sky-blue wrought iron trimmings, sparkle in the sunlight and give the buildings an appealing charm. Inside, there are clean courtyards filled with trees and flowers. Set amid these fairy-tale buildings are the some eye-catching 200 small mosques – many of the older ones originally built as fortresses to ward off invaders but later converted into mosques.
Houmt-Souk, which means market centre, with a population of 45,000, is the capital of the island and one of the most picturesque urban centres in Tunisia. It is a well-kept bright town centred on the souk area, overflowing with handicraft products. Traditional clothing, blankets woven since the time of Hannibal, beautifully wrought gold and silver jewellery; leather goods, straw mats and beautiful pottery saturate the markets.
In town, two of the most important usual stopovers for visitors are the Museum of Folklore and Popular Art, displaying traditional costumes and jewellery; and the historic fortress of Borj el-Kebir, a 15th century Arab citadel. Interesting to many tourists is the plaque nearby marking the spot where 5,000 skulls of a Spanish defeat were once piled pyramid style
Even though overpowered by Houmt-Souk, each of the other tiny towns on the island, is noted for some specialty in its artisan’s handiwork or is a place of historic importance. Ajim, from where a ferry can be taken to the mainland, is a sponge fishing town; El- May has a colourful market; Fatou produces fine hand-woven baskets and rush mats; Guellala has been the centre for the hand manufacture of exquisite ceramics and pottery since the time of King Midas; La Ghriba is noted for its synagogue and adjoining monastery whose foundations were laid in 584 B.C.; Mahboubine is famous for its backyard gardens; Midoun is celebrated for its Gougou dancers; and Sedouikech is well-known for its handmade camel muzzles, fishing baskets and straw hats.
Enhancing these and other villages, are Djerba’s annual 300 days of sunshine and warm blue waters with their cooling breezes, edged glittering sands, embellished by the many attractive and comfortable modern hotels with the most up-to-date tourist facilities. Without disturbing the calm and peace, 125 of these eye-catching tourist palaces – the largest Dar Djerba with 2,500 beds – built in traditional menzel style, fit neatly into the palm-saturated landscape. Nature and the edifices built by man have merged together to strengthen the island’s magic spell.
These attractive and comfortable hotels, hospitable and friendly people with a slow-moving lifestyle, breathtaking countryside, mild winters, cool summers and tantalizing sea, make Djerba one of Tunisia’s most popular tourist spots. Located on Europe’s doorsteps, the island which some call the ‘Little Mediterranean Polynesia’ has since the time of Ulysses been drawing travellers. Today, it hosts some 600,000 annual visitors.
With the softness of its sweet-serene air, perfumed with the flowers of the many fruit trees, overshadowed by clear blue sky and ringed by golden sands, this paradise isle entraps even the most sceptical visitor. Our guide had a point when he remarked as we climbed the ferry at Ajim for the mainland, “I always think of Djerba as Tunisia’s isle of forgetfulness.”