From Tunisia’s Forested Mountains to Its Roman Past
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“We imported these mountains from Europe.” ‘Adel, our driver, smiled, when after surveying the thickly wooded hills, I commented, “I can’t believe this is Tunisia.”
Like myself, when the Arabs, in the 7th century, first came to northern Tunisia, they saw its deep green fields and mountains and were enthralled. Thereafter, in the Arabic-speaking world, the country became known as ‘Tunisia the Green’.
Now as we drove through this mountainous region of the country with its tumbling streams and thick forests, I thought of the desert Arabs who were captivated by this countryside and thought of it as an earthly Eden. ‘Adel still had the same view, remarking, “This is what Paradise must be like.”
The north of Tunisia is a far-away land from the country’s desert region in the south. A fertile land of farms, lakes, streams and forests, this region has for centuries been the agricultural heart of the country. Ruins of Roman towns, one of which we planned to explore during this trip, indicate that 2,000 years ago northern Tunisia supported a series of affluent urban centres.
The oak, cypress and pine forests kept us company until we reached the outskirts of Tabarka, famous for its coral production and wood handicraft since ancient times. Passing a newly constructed suburb whose red-roofed buildings carry a European air, we drove to the heart of the old town dominated by a Geneose fort, built atop an island hill in the harbour.
Carrying an historic aura, Tabarka was established in the 5th century B.C. by Hanon, the Phoenician, as a trading post which he called Thabraca – meaning ‘place of shade’. Later, during the Roman era, Thabraca become prosperous through the exploitation of its coral fields and its yellow marble – much prized by the Roman nobility for their palaces. Subsequently, during the Christian and Muslim eras, Tabarka alternated between prosperity and decline. Today, a measure of its former prosperity has returned due to the influx of visitors during the summer months.
As we strolled around, we were impressed with the clean streets, sparkling-white structures and countless cafes and restaurants – more than I had seen in other similar sized towns. These attributes, along with its sea sports, fine beaches, yachting harbour, a 18-hole golf course, surrounded by a 2,700 ha (669 ac) forest, and the July-August Coral Festival, have made Tabarka.
much sought after by vacationers during the late spring and summer months. However, for hunters, it has a yearlong lure. In its surrounding forests are to be found deer, fox, hare, jackal and wild cat and boar. To accommodate these visitors, the town has a whole series of hotels, at the top of which is the luxury resort ‘Montazah-Tabarka’ – open from April to November.
From Tabarka, we drove through thickly forested hills as we climbed upwards. Time after time we passed mostly old women carrying huge bundles of wood on their backs. Noting that I was looking with interest at these heavily laden women, Adel tapped me on the shoulder saying, “You won’t find city women doing this type of work.” “Thank God!” I thought to myself as I watched the women struggling with their loads alongside the traffic.
Further up along the winding mountain road, the burdened women were replaced with young men selling their wooden handicraft. We stopped to examine a large display of these touristic souvenirs, then continued driving through a mostly tree-covered mountain landscape, appearing no different from that of the foothills of the Alps or the North American Rockies.
Southward, 20 km (12 mi) from Tabarka, we entered Ain Draham (meaning ‘spring of silver’), backing onto the 1,200 m (3936 ft) high Jebel M`tir. Set in a wonderful natural environment in the heart of the Khroumira Cork Forest, 800 m (2,624 ft) above sea level, it is a quaint little town, edging one steep central street. Its rich plant life, freshness of its air and the nearby spa of Hammam Bourguiba, whose waters have been employed to ease respiratory ailments since Roman times, draw thousands of summer visitors.
We spent some time relishing its cool breezes before continuing our drive southward. About 20 km (12 mi) from Ain Draham, we left the forested hills behind for rolling farmland which continued until we reached the ruins of Bulla Regia – a Roman town laid out in terraces on the slopes of Jebel Rebia, 617 m (2,024 ft) above sea level.
One of the most superb ruins to be seen in any part of the former Roman world, it is famous for the underground villas, built by its wealthy citizens. After reading about these homes, I had been intrigued with these subterranean mansions, found no place else in the ancient world.
Entering the spread-out ruins, I quickly made my way to these homes. A strange way to build abodes by the affluent, they were even more captivating than I expected. I was fascinated as I gazed down on their mosaic floors, still retaining their vivid colours. It seemed to me that they were only laid a few decades ago.
How long would these and the countless other floors, uncovered in the Punic and Roman ruins in Tunisia, last as they are battered by tourists and the elements, is an important question archaeologists are asking. I asked a Tunisian tourist standing beside me if anyone worried about the deterioration of the mosaics. He shook his shoulders, “In our ruins we have thousands of these mosaic floors. How many can we afford to save?”
The man had a point. In my travels throughout the country, I had seen numerous Punic and Roman mosaic floors open to the elements. Indeed, it would take millions of dollars to save even a few.
From the underground villas we went on to examine Bulla Regia’s thermal spring structures, well-preserved theatre, the Temple of Apollo and the Christian basilica. They gave us a good idea of the city when it was one of the jewels of the Roman colonies in North Africa.
Amid its remains, it was easy to dream of the marching Roman legions who, like us, once traversed the forested mountains of northern Tunisia on their way to Bulla Regia but, of course, at a much slower pace. Their trail continues to be trod, only today by fast-moving tourists.