Ksars, Tataouine, Matamata, Tunisia, 21 September, 2008

We began the morning at 8:00, climbing north out of the desert and doing a little off-roading along the way. The day was spent visiting several ksars, which is a Berber word that basically means fortress. Ksars were built for defensive living: located atop mountains or other areas with open views of the surrounding countryside, they are long, narrow buildings built of sand, bricks and cement. They have small doorways and display one of the classic components of Berber architecture: an arched rooftop that sits atop a squared rectangular building, much like a statue on a plinth, and from the front many of the ksars resemble school-buses. Many of these communities date from the 12th century, though they’ve been abandoned for decades. Several of them have been covered with a sort of plaster that has left them wavy and smudged, making them seem surreal. If the pictures look familiar in any way, it’s because many scenes in the Star Wars movies were filmed in this part of Tunisia, and it’s clear that Lucas and Co. found inspiration for the sets in the surrounding landscape.

We visited several ksars of varying interest and quality, then drove south to the city of Tataounie, where I did my best Luke Skywalker impression, only to find that when you’re playing it out exclusively in your own head it’s really not as cool as you’d hoped. From there we drove south and toured the Berber village Chenini, a giant, sprawling village built into the rising mountaintop. Afterwards we visited the Tombs of the Seven Sleepers, which is a mosque and cemetery and has a legend about Christian saints who converted to Islam after sleeping 400 years, little of which made sense to me. The mosque is a white, sleepy affair, tilting like Pisa, and like many of the ksars has a surreal, moonlike quality to it.

We drove up to Matamata, which features many homes that are referred to as troglodyte. Though the word originally refers to underground homes built in Ethiopia, these homes were built by the Berbers to mitigate the heat and winds blowing across the deserts and mountains. The homes are built on hilltops and are large circles of earth, seventy-plus feet in diameter, bored out fifty feet deep; the sides of the ensuing hole have rooms dug into them, and the layout is much like spokes on a wheel. Entrance is gained through a long corridor that sits on ground at the base of the hill.

We spent the night in Matamata, where is was cool with a gentle breeze. The people were very friendly and accommodating, and we did meet several people with classic Berber features: dark, bark-like skin and bright, wind-blown green eyes, a strong contrast from the brown eyes that most Arabs here possess. The following day we rose, toured a couple more homes, and then departed from Gabes. I took a louage to Sousse and then another back to Enfida, where I showered, ate dinner, and then got a haircut and shave, the latter of which was simultaneously the closest and bloodiest of my life, but still served to refresh me greatly.

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