Saharan Tourism

A country of extreme contrasts, Tunisia is practically the only country in the world which can offer its visitors the impressive Sahara desert within easy reach of beautiful beaches, thickly-forested mountains and bustling towns and cities.The Sahara covers more than half of the Tunisian territory. The northern part contains human settlements in traditional urban agglomerations, mountain villages and oases. The further one travels south, the more defined the Saharan character becomes. Apart from protected species of wild flora and fauna, the deep southern region has very few human traces - wells for the survival of nomads, old caravans and fortifications.Despite the variety of its landscape, the Tunisian Sahara is a homogenous natural environment. Rich natural and cultural sites from time immemorial bear witness to the Sahara's ability to maintain different forms of human presence. The sites have a spectacularly gripping beauty, occasionally emphasised by a sense of fragility. They offer a new opportunity to discover the Sahara and develop an environment-friendly cultural tourism.


The desert is that feverish landscape where everything seems to disappear in the glaring light; a lunar landscape with a cracked soil and dusty roads that take you God knows where, mullets and people.
You will discover the troglodyte houses in villages hung in the mountainside or deeply dug in the ground. In the middle of the desert lie a green sand-staining bouquet, a heat-defying shade, and an endlessly running water to overwhelm you with coolness and a sense of well-being. This is the oasis, and so is the 'paradise' that God seems to describe in the slightest detail and only the desert people can dream of.This is magic and exalted Tunisia.


The Great Mosque was the most ancient shrine in the western Muslim world. It is also known as Jamaa Oqba, a large irregular quadrilateral building with several access gates. Founded by Oqba Ibn Nafaa in 670, the Great Mosque was rebuilt and repeatedly restored. The Courtyard The huge courtyard is paved in white marble: the central openings lead to cisterns dug under the courtyard. The Minaret Thirty-five metres high, this three-storey minaret probably had a defensive role. The third floor is crowned with a dome. The Prayer Room This is a graceful room with a forest of marble and porphyry columns. The Mihrab (prayer niche) The back is decorated with sculpted marble tiles, and is covered with a half-dome, with geometrical and floral decoration. Minbar The minbar is the preacher's chair, and is made of beautiful panels of sculpted wood. Maksoura The maksoura is an enclosure of sculpted wood installed by El Moiz, the Zirid, so that he could attend public prayers separated from the mass of the faithful. The Aghlabid Pools These open reservoirs were built in the ninth century. A 35-kilometre aqueduct fed them from Djebel Cherichera. This major hydraulic work was part of the city's water-collection system. The Zaouia of Sidi Sahab The burial place of Abou Zamaa el Baloui, one of the companions of the Prophet, the zaouia is a model of Arab architecture. The lattice-work ceilings and the colonnades give a harmonious beauty to the monument, and the Tunisian tiles add to its charm. A medersa with pleasing proportions leads to the zaouia. The Zaouia of Sidi Amor Abda Built by a blacksmith marabout this 19th-century zaouia has five distinctive domes. It hosts a small museum of popular arts and traditions where you can find the marabout's souvenirs, various wares, and especially sabres. The Zaouia of Sidi Abid Al Ghariani The zaouia is the burial place of a 14th-century saint. The zaouia proposes to the visitor a beautiful painted door, a sumptuous vestibule ceiling and an elegant courtyard surrounded with galleries. The Sidi Abid mausoleum is covered with a beautiful square-domed ceiling. Bir Barouta (The Barouta Well) The well - a 17th-century building - can be reached via a gently-slanting stairway. A camel activates the noria that lifts water from the well. The Souks The ancient souks of Kairouan have maintained an authentic character in spite of successive re-arrangements.Souk Er Rebaa, Souk El Attarine and Souk Es Sekkajine date from the 17th century. The souk des Cordonniers (The Souk of the Cobblers) and the souk des Citernes (The Souk of the Cisterns) date from the 18th century. Here you can find a large number of wares produced by a very ancient and active handicraft. The knotted pile carpets of Kairouan have a world-wide reputation. These knotted pile carpets are classified into two categories. Alloucha carpets are neutrally tinted in natural wool colours: white, brown, black, and beige. Multi-coloured carpets vary widely. Alloucha carpets have a long pile whereas multi-coloured carpets have shorter pile. The Battlements It was a little less than a century after its foundation that the town was fortified with embattlements. Only a few chunks of the adobe foundations remain from the first walls. Erected in the 11th century, the battlements were rebuilt at the beginning of the 18th century. The 4-km long enclosed area is built in a uniform red-brick system and flanked by twenty circular corner buttresses.


Gafsa's medina is interesting in spite of its advanced state of disrepair. The design of the Great Mosque, which has a very beautiful mihrab and minbar, was inspired from the Oqba mosque in Kairouan. Weaving is a very ancient activity in the city and its surrounding areas, with a varied production of clothes, kelims, and ferrachias. There is a handicraft centre in Gafsa where you can admire the skill of the local young girls while you watch them weave. An Association for the Protection of the Medina was created in Gafsa which organises conferences and seminars, restores dwellings, and endeavours to save the heritage of the town.

Thirty kilometres from Gafsa lies the town of Metlaoui, famous for its phosphate mines discovered in 1886 by Philippe Thomas, a military veterinary surgeon and palaeontology aficionado. A Natural History Museum was created in Metlaoui in order to exhibit items discovered in the region such as saurian jaws, turtles and various fossils. It also contains naturalised animals and prehistoric objects. A few kilometres from Metlaoui lies the spectacular Seldja Gorge - an impressive ravine, with steep peaked walls, which leads to a creek that narrows before it broadens and then narrows again. The Romans left behind traces of a dam in the gorge. A small train, The Lezard Rouge (Red Lizard) travels to Metlaoui through these spectacular gorges.


Tozeur, pearl of El Djerid, is located at the heart of the world's most famous oasis. This is antique Thusuros, one of the Roman outposts on the road between Biskra and Gabes. It is the largest date-producing oasis, especially the deglat en-nour, an excellent date variety with a well-deserved reputation. Tozeur was the gateway to the Sahara Desert - an active centre of caravan Saharan trade. It knew its heyday in the 14th century, and a number of sites are worth visiting. At the foot of the belvedere (Ras el Ayoun), from where you can see a large expanse (a palm grove, the town, Chott el Djerid, the Sahara), many water-springs gushed; once dried up, these were replaced with artesian wells...


Douz Thirty kilometres from Kebili, Douz is a small town that was a meeting place for nomads and owed its existence to an abundant water-spring. Today is known for its artesian wells. Douz, the urban centre of the Mrazigs, is already in the Sahara Desert and quicksand dunes surround the small town. Its weekly market is held on Thursdays, and attracts camel nomads from the region.


It is difficult to imagine a more spectacular site, a place where the local colour can express itself more forcibly. Matmata is located in a basin scattered with innumerable minute hills. This sun-burnt landscape of hillocks has something lunar to it. The surrounding mountains are bare. From afar, the land seems riddled with countless craters. Dug into these small hills, the houses are no less troglodyte than in the plain. The central excavation, a kind of a courtyard, measures around ten meters wide and is six or seven meters deep and includes a tunnel leading into the mountainside. This is the central court gate usually shut off by a palm leaf door. The two-level rooms open onto the courtyard. While the lower level is intended for various uses, the higher level is intended for living and storage. Housing is well adapted to the climate, as cave houses are cool in the hot summer and warm in the cold winter. Matmata's Handicraft Centre is very interesting. Beautiful weavings are produced here, especially the typical local carpet - the Oudhref carpet. First-class hotels are built in line with troglodyte architecture. They enchant the dazzled tourist with highly unexpected comfort, originality and perfect adaptation to climate conditions. There are other interesting sites In the Matmata region, which stretches to the northern end of the Dhara chain: Tijma, Haddege, Tamerzet with its stone houses hanging on to the mountain, Zeraoua where beautiful bakhnougs are made, Beni Aissa, where one finds a certain type of troglodyte housing, and Techine. Toujane is a beautiful village in the mountainside, renowned for the quality of its honey and its handicrafts such as attractive shawls, sumptuous kelims. There is also a camel-driven olive press.


The most northern oasis in the country is that of Gafsa. To the west of Gafsa, just near the frontier between Tunisia and Algeria, visitors can find mountain oases: Chebika, the most southern, Tameghza, a little bit further north, and nearby, Mides. In the south-west of Gafsa, between Chott el Gharsa and Chott el Djerid, lies the Djerid region with its four oases: El Hamma and El Oudiane in the north and Nefta and Tozeur in the south. Crossing the Chott el Djerid from Tozeur, you can discover the region of Nefzaoua with its various oases, especially Kebili and Douz.