topics: Salade méchouia (food), ribat, mosque, rules of the road, medina, catacombs, daily life; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log

Tunisia

Rider Notes: October 27, 1997

Breakfast: Today was a busy day, so we ate on the run for most of it: more chocolate croissants, called, as you know by now, pain au chocolat (which is not chocolate pain — although sometimes it's so good that it hurts — but bread, or pain in French, wrapped around some melted chocolate); regular bread; and a little cheese.

Lunch: We returned to same the restaurant we dined at last night because it was near the Maison des Jeunes, reasonably priced in a very expensive town, and had simple but good food.

Dinner: Corinne raced out just before the gates at the Maison des Jeunes closed and got sandwiches for herself, andrEa, and Ethan. They had just returned from a weird adventure to a disco (!) and were very hungry. Padraic and Anthony took a short break from an evening of writing to return to our favorite restaurant — the same where we had dinner yesterday and lunch today — and had spaghetti and pizza. They must have been confused and thought they were in Italy. Ethan had to remind them they are still in Tunisia.

Food of the Day: Salade méchouia

Salade méchouia is found in just about every eating establishment in Tunisia. Better still, it is finally something that everyone, vegetarian and omnivore alike, can enjoy! We have not been able to find a standard recipe, probably because there is no standard recipe, but it is basically a delicious mush that consists of tomatoes, eggplant, roast garlic, olive oil, and spices like the cayenne red papers that are used for harissa. Sometimes it can be very spicy, but it is often mild and tasty. As with just about everything, it comes with olives in it.

Person of the Day: Mr. Rachid Bouwazra click to view a photograph

Sousse is a center of activity and interest surrounding the Internet. And BikeAbout arrived at a perfect time for moving everything along. Particularly involved in this process is Mr. Rachid Bouwazra, a power systems specialist who works at the electric power station in Sousse. Ever since the Internet has gone public in Tunisia, he has seen its potential and been working with the Mr. Tarchouni Ridha, Director of the Maison des Jeunes (where we stayed while in Sousse) and local businesspeople involved in computer-related fields, to bring the Internet to Sousse. He hopes to open a cyber café or manage an Internet connection through a youth center like the Maison des Jeunes. And it would appear that, with some help from BikeAbout, he will succeed.

In addition to a visit to his home to discuss the Internet with his family and young neighbors, on Wednesday and Thursday — two separate occasions — even though BikeAbout had continued on to Kairouan and El Jem, Ethan returned to Sousse by louage (see the Tech Fact of the Day) and participated in presentations. This was all in the interest of helping to guarantee an Internet presence in Sousse. First, on Wednesday, Ethan spoke to the directors of all the Maison des Jeunes in the area of Sousse, and then, on Thursday, he made a presentation to a group of businessmen and women. In all cases, he demonstrated some of the many interesting qualities of the Internet through the BikeAbout site.

By the time Ethan left on Thursday, it appeared as if there was enough enthusiasm and business interest to make Mr. Bouwazra's dream come true. And Mr. Ridha thanked Ethan for the effort made by the whole BikeAbout team, claiming that it was instrumental in bringing the Internet to Sousse. We will be keeping an eye out for the work begun by Mr. Bouwazra and Mr. Ridha.

Place of the Day: Ksar er-Ribat click to visit the World Heritage Site page click to visit the World Heritage City page

Today we visited the Ribat of Sousse, a former military fortress/monastery like those that used to exist up and down the length of the North African coast (from Egypt all the way to Morocco!). The Ribats were training and artillery holding grounds, as well as living, studying, and praying spaces for monks. Given their military and religious significance, they became the homes of people who were both soldiers and monks at the same time. Not surprisingly, they were called soldier-monks, or mourabitines — a strange title in any age.

Much the way the Knights of the Order of Saint John later protected Christian pilgrims during the Crusades, the mourabitines and the Ribat protected North African Arabs from the Christian Byzantines who hoped to regain the Tunisian coast. In the ninth century, after the Arabs had established their hold over Ifriqiya (their name for what is now North Africa), the Byzantines staged frequent raids. Hence the Arabs needed two things: (1) to protect themselves; and (2) to fight back by striking their enemy's nearest camps. To accomplish this, they built a series of Ribats and Ksars — fortress-like holdings in times of war and quiet retreats in times of peace. Although these fortified positions stretched all across North Africa, they were particularly concentrated in the Sousse area, since it was so prone to attacks from Sicily, which the Arabs finally succeeded in conquering in the ninth century.

Originally built at the end of the eighth century, but destroyed and rebuilt two times, the current Ribat of Sousse dates from the ninth century (construction began in the year 821!). Its 27m (88.5 ft) lookout tower click to view a photograph is easily more than 1,000 years old and was particularly useful when watching the port for invaders.

This fortress was particularly fun for us to explore click to view a photograph because each level offered a new perspective of the city click to view a photograph, and the sea — particularly from the high, narrow staircased lookout tower. We even visited a room from which boiling oil could be spilled onto intruders!

Group Dispatch, October 27

picture of Ethan

Earlyish in the morning, thankful that the day did not seem too hot, everyone pulled on long pants and shirts with sleeves so that we could visit the Great Mosque of Sousse, located in the heart of the medina. When visiting Muslim holy centers, like mosques, respect for the establishment is demonstrated by wearing less-revealing clothing. Many tourists who appear in shorts or tank tops are required to wrap themselves in a special gown to cover their exposed skin. The BikeAbout team was not sure if these were going to be available (they were), so they followed local etiquette and went covered.

During the 20-minute walk to the medina, the group made a stop for breakfast pastries along yet another glitzy tourist strip packed with hotels. The team could not get over how developed the tourist industry was (and later learned about nearby Port El Kantaoui, Tunisia's forst and largest resort), like it was in Hammamet, especially for Germans. Everywhere we went, people called out guten tag and wilkommen, instead of the more common bonjour in the rest of Tunisia. Modern-day Sousse certainly is one huge resort city, but the Sousse of the past, especially in the ninth century, was an important commercial and military post.

Sousse has had many names in its history. Originally founded by the Phoenicians (probably before Carthage) as Hadrumet, Sousse was destroyed by the Romans after the fall of Carthage. In the second century AD, it became a prosperous city under Roman control, before it again suffered during the battles sparked by a revolt in El Jem. But it came back to life yet again, this time called Hunericopolis and controlled by the Vandals. Next the Byzantines conquered it and named it Justinianopolis. Finally conquered by the Arabs in the ninth century, the city took its current form and name. Since then, despite being occupied by the Normans (12th century), Spanish (16th century), and French (18th to 20th centuries), Sousse has retained the feel of a city from the first centuries of Islam in Africa.

For this reason — and because it has some of the best remains of the huge system of defense that used to stretch across all of North Africa — the medina and monuments of Sousse have been named to the list of UNESCO-recognized World Heritage sites. click to visit the World Heritage Site page click to visit the World Heritage City page

So, after reviewing the history, the BikeAbout team stepped inside the doors of the Great Mosque. Like so many of the monuments of Sousse, it was built in the ninth century by the Aghabid Arab residents, specifically the Emir Abou Al Abbes Mohamed. Also like so many monuments in Sousse, it looks distinctly like a fortress. Squat and square, with heavy bricks and thick walls, it did not feel like a mosque. click to view a photograph But a glimpse at the prayer area — a glimpse is all that non-Muslims are allowed — showed that it is clearly a working mosque. Carpets of many colors littered the floor around the bases of a thick forest of orderly columns. A quiet air ruled, and everyone silently admired the calm.

From the Great Mosque, the team moved almost directly across the street to the Ksar er-Ribat (see the Place of the Day). By now, the sun had come out and everyone could enjoy the magnificent view out to the harbor and over the city, a view once very important to the mourabitines, or monk-soldiers, who protected this part of North Africa from Byzantine invaders.

After the Ribat, the team moved through the great Medina of Sousse. Like the other great medinas we have seen (Tetouan, Chefchaouen, Tunis), it is a living and well-preserved example of an old city, still enclosed by thick walls between six and nine meters (20 and 30 feet) high. No wonder Sousse was so hard to capture!

But the walk through the medina was a passing pleasure as the team headed toward the museum and catacombs. Unfortunately, both were closed. The museum is said to have one of the most impressive collections of mosaics in Tunisia and the five kilometers (three miles) of catacombs link some 240 underground burial galleries that are more well preserved than those in Rome. Oh well, maybe next time.

By early afternoon, the long morning of walking had wearied the team. A quick taxi back to the Maison des Jeunes, left us to our lunch and a few hours of writing. click to view a photograph

At this time Ethan was lucky enough to bump into the Director of the Maison des Jeunes, Mr. Tarchouni Ridha, who was about to sit down with a Tunisian gentleman and his French friend for a discussion about the Internet. The Tunisian man, Mr. Rachid Bouwazra (see the Person of the Day) wanted to stress to the director of the Maison des Jeunes the importance of securing an Internet connection for the youth of Sousse. When Mr. Bouwazra learned about BikeAbout, he almost could not believe his ears and expressed his eagerness not to let the moment pass without making the most of it.

Later that evening, Mr. Bouwazra returned and, while Anthony and Padraic continued their work, drove Ethan, andrEa, and Corinne to his home in the southern suburbs of Sousse for a gathering with about ten young people very interested in the Internet. click to view a photograph Sitting in his living room, with his wife, two sons, and some local students click to view a photograph, he hard-wired an adaptor to his telephone, thereby allowing for a connection to the Internet and a truly wonderful eye-opening exchange.

A friend of Mr. Bouwazra drove Corinne, andrEa, and Ethan back to town, but instead of going straight back to the Maison, he took them along the coast as far as Port El Kantaoui, the first and largest of Tunisia's tourism centers, with a yacht marina, supermarket, souk replica, golf course, beaches, casinos, night clubs, restaurants, and resort hotels. The darkness made it impossible to see much except the neon glow of lights and pristine polished glass. The special surprise for the three was a visit to a big, modern disco club in one of the giant first-class hotels. On a Monday night in late October, it was empty. But it was fascinating to see — a reminder of the other ways in which many people choose to travel.

Just before 10 p.m., the group was reassembled at the Maison des Jeunes, more reports and email were typed, and everyone turned in to prepare for another day of biking.

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