Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bardo Museum

Towards the end of our stay in Tunisia, we went to the Bardo Museum.  Some people many remember it as the place where, on 18 March 2015, 21 people, mostly European tourists, were killed in a terrorist shooting.  Around 50 others were injured.   

When we visited, tow years after the shooting, there was no trace of the attack other than a memorial for the victims.  The place was quiet but not completely deserted.  The shooting at the museum and another on a beach in Sousse scared away the tourists.  During our stay of 8 days in Tunisia, we saw few tourist groups.  We never have to wait in line to get anywhere.  

I feel safe in Tunisia.  We have visited museums, beaches, mosques, oases, deserts, dried-up lakes, caves dwellings, and have never had any problems.  I have run on the streets and people have been friendly.  

Bardo itself is a very interesting place and quite nicely set up.  It has a lot of wonderful mosaics.  Many were carefully removed from archeological sites and placed here for exhibition and preservation.  Many are placed on the wall, making it easier for visitors to see them.  

There are a lot of Greek legends.  

One of the most famous is the one in which Ulysses encountered the Sirens.  The Sirens sing beguiling songs that lure you to your destruction.  So Ulysses plugged the sailors’ ears with wax so that they do not hear.  But he wanted to hear the songs so he had himself tied to the mast so he could not escape.  Since the sailors could not hear the songs they looked towards home, while Ulysses looked in the direction of the Sirens.  The Sirens have beautiful form, but were betrayed by bird-like claws.  It is amazing that these are all depicted in granular mosaic.  

In another, Theseus killed the Minotaur after navigating the Labyrinth.

Poseidon was surely a popular figure.  Many mosaics showed him riding his chariot pulled by four horses.  He was accompanied by other sea creatures and lesser gods.  

Another showed him with gods and goddess representing the four seasons.  

A fierce lion bits a centaur, a half-human, half-horse creature with great strength.  

There is a very wide range of themes other than legends.  Such as food.  All kinds of fishes, lobsters, quails, deer, … 

A beautiful baptismal font was covered with beautiful mosaics. 

I can spend hours in there.  

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Cats of Tunisia galore

Not sure why, but there are many cats in Tunisia.  In the busy street in the medina (old city) in Sousse, a cat inspected a black plastic garbage bag gingerly, pretending that there was a fearsome monster hiding inside.  My wife and I had a good time watching it play acting with the bag.  

There are cats in the streets medinas, in the neighbourhood with pretty white and blue houses, and above all, in the markets.  Some eyed us curiously. 

Some are just curious.  

Some were skinny and seemed fearful. 

Some eyed us cautiously while trying to pick up bits of bread crumbsworom the floor.  

Some were huddling for warmth and security. 

Some were feeding while the mother eyed us with concern.  

A black one was grooming itself and ignoring us. 

Some watched the traffic behind shelters. 

A golden tabby looked at us confidently.  

A two-thousand-year-old fiercely biting lion hangs in Bardo Museum.  A lion is, of course, also a cat.  

Why are there so many cats in Tunisia?

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Matmata caves (of Star Wars fame)

To the south east of the dried-up salty sea Chott al-Jerid, we passed through Matmata.  Here we visited some of the cave dwellings of some tribes of the Berbers.  

Start Wars fans would find these caves familiar.  In Star Wars Episode IV,  a young Luke Skywalker lived in a cave house like this on the planet Tatooine.  

I heard that the planet Tatooine itself was actually named after the real-life town Tataouine to the south east of Matmata.  

Some of these are just caves dug into the sides of the mountain.  

Some of these are more elaborate.  A large pit was dug downwards into the ground at the edge of a cliff or escarpment to form a circular or rectangular courtyard.  Caves were then dug sideways to form rooms.  A tunnel was dug into the cliff/escarpment to make an entrance into the courtyard.  

These caves are somewhat similar in concept to the caves in Shaansi in northwest China.  In some ways they are more elaborate - in the sense there is a courtyard with caves branching off.  In other ways the caves in China are more elaborate - some are much bigger.  

I suspect these Berbet caves may be more comfortable.  It is very hot and dry here, so close to the desert.   Inside the caves it is relatively cool and dry.  

In northwest China, the caves could be cold and damp.  

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Chott el-Jerid

From Tozeur, we drove to Douz at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, through Chott el-Cherid.  

On the map, Chott el-Cherid is represented as a lake, and even coloured in blue.  I was wondering what it is going to be like driving through a lake.  I was imaging a road slightly elevated above the water. I was both right and wrong.  

I was right because there was a road.  I was wrong because there was almost no water.  This is not the rainy season and the lake is practically a desert, with small pools of coloured water here and there.  

The water, apparently do fill and lake and come up to the level of the road, in rainy season.  Then it becomes the third largest salt lake in the world.  

Now all the water had vapourized, leaving behind a lot of salt.  Salt appears in may different forms.  Such as small pebbles.  

To blocks like hardened, melted cheese. 

To chunks of beautiful crystals.  

At places the sand piles up.  But not in the scale seen in iconic pictures of deserts.  

Even though I did not see vast, hill-like sand dunes, I wasn’t disappointed.  It was quite an experience. nevertheless. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Chebika Oasis

From Tozeur, we went to visit a number of oases, one of the more interesting was Chebika.  

We drove north west from Tozeur for an hour in the middle of a seemingly endless, completely flat desert.  

Suddenly, coming up from nowhere a mountain range to our right (north).  And an oasis spilling out of a gorge in the mountain.  

We skirted the oasis on the left (west).

And soon found the source of the water - a waterfall in the desert!  It was a tiny nano waterfall, but a waterfall nonetheless.  Some Russian tourists happily bathed in the little pond.  Knowing how many people have been in there, I avoided the waterfall.  

This was not really the source because the water came from further up the stream.  The water actually came from underground, out of a spring.  

We hiked up the gorge to the rim, and was rewarded by spectacular views of the mountain range, gorgeous gorges, and the desert plain in the distance. 

Coming down the mountain, we encountered an abandoned Berber village.  The village had been occupied for more than a thousand years and was abandoned in 1969 because of the damages by a flood.  Imagine that - a flood in the desert which destroyed a village.  It sounds too incredible to be true.  Yet apparently it was. 

The people from the village have since moved to a new one a little further down.  That includes the family of our guide into the oasis. 

The whole thing is just too amazing. 

Monday, August 21, 2017


Tunisia is, of course, a Muslim country today.  Many cities in Tunisia, however, seemed to have been built on the foundation of earlier civilizations, such as Rome and  Carthage.  Kairouan is clearly one which was founded by the Muslims.  In fact, it was founded by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi as a military outpost for the conquest of the Magreb, including present day Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.  

The most notable landmark is the medina (old city) around the Great Mosque.  We stayed in a hotel converted from the old fort protecting the medina.  

I went out running in the afternoon after arrival and tumbled upon the Great Mosque.  When I came out of the hotel I wasn’t sure where I was going.  The map given by the hotel showed that I wasn’t too far away from the hotel.  When I found that the neighbourhood looked friendly enough, I decided to make a loop and tried to reach the Great Mosque before turning back.  

In the end, I did stumbled upon the Great Mosque before I realised that I had arrived.  

When I passed one of the gates to the medina, I realised that it was actually a World Heritage site.  

There are plenty of people around, but few looked like they are tourists. A couple of kids seemed quite friendly, even though they couldn’t really speak English. 
It was late, and the Mosques was closed.  I knew I would return in the morning anyway, so I wasn’t disappointed.  I did get to see the impressive mineral and the outer walls.  Just beyond the minaret was a cemetery without markings.  It turned out to be people buried there in the early days, when Islam was struggling to establish itself in the area.  The identity of the dead were lost.  The dead are buried in another cemetery nowadays. I was also told that the dead are laid by their sides, with their feet towards Mecca, so that when they rise up at the end of the world, they would see Mecca.  

The following morning, I came again with my wife and the rest of the group.  We got to see the distinctive keyhole arches and the beautiful but austere courtyard.  

We were not allowed into the sanctuary but allowed to peek inside.  Some people were praying.  

There was a water filtration system which seems to kind of still works. 

There was also a kind of a sundial that I did not recognise and did not know how it worked.  

There was also a friendly family from Algeria.  

Kairouan had left me with good impressions.