topics: makroud (food), bike tech, Great Mosque in Kairouan, history, architecture, Byzantines, caravans; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: October 28–29, 1997

Breakfast: For breakfast we snacked on pastries from a patisserie in Sousse. We had lots of the usual — pain au chocolate and pain au raisin (a pastry with raisins in it) — but we also had a new pastry click to view a photograph that was shaped like a star or a sun and that had a yummy date and nut filling.

In anticipation of the Chat 'n' Debate that was happening in the evening (and every Wednesday 1-3 p.m. EST or 7- 9 p.m. Tunisian time), the BikeAbout team had a larger than normal lunch of fried chicken and spicy rice (for the meat eaters) and couscous with vegetables (for the vegetarians).

Dinner: After we had finished the Chat 'n' Debate and had e-mailed the dispatches for the last few days, we sent out food foragers to see what food could be had at 10 p.m. in Kairouan. We were a little fearful that we might go to bed hungry. Fortunately, Padraic and Corinne not only managed to find a sandwich shop that was open, but a sandwich shop with the best sandwiches we have had since leaving the U.S. They were deliciously prepared with a kebab of lamb meat placed in a piece of pita-like bread covered with harissa and tons of vegetables (the vegetarians had practically the same sandwich without the meat). There were also three olives in each sandwich. Everyone agreed that the olives were some of the best that we have eaten (having consumed almost 900 in the last month we consider ourselves somewhat expert) and that the sandwiches were absolutely heavenly.

Food of the Day: Makroud

Makrouds are a dessert specialty of Kairouan. They are made of semolina flour and usually stuffed with ground dates, although sometimes with ground almonds instead. These pastries are cut into small squares (or occasionally balls) and are then saturated with honey. They may also be served with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. We found them extremely yummy and very, very sweet.

Word of the Day: Cebaha el care — "good morning"

Our word of the day means "good day" or "good morning" and is usually used as a greeting, also when one could use assalam u-alaicom or ah-salaama. It is pronounced cebaha el care. click to hear an audio clip

Person of the Day: Mr. Bouhdida Mantassar

Mr. Bouhdida Mantassar works at the Maison des Jeunes in Kairouan. He is in charge of both the Video/Audio Club and the Bike Club and works with about 35 youth from the youth center. In an effort to combine his interests into one activity, Mr. Mantassar has designed bike rides that visit important historical sites within a 50-km (31-mi) radius of Kairouan during which riders videotape the sites. These videos are later shown to the other members of the Maison des Jeunes. BikeAbout's tour of the Mediterranean was very interesting to Mr. Matassar and we talked about how important it was to learn about both historical events in far away places and in the locations that are close to your home.

Place of the Day: Great Mosque in Kairouan click to view a photograph

The Great Mosque, or Central Mosque (also known as the Jammaâ el Kebir Mosque), in Kairouan is the fourth most important mosque in the Muslim world (after those in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). It is the first building Uqba ibn Nafi built upon founding the town. We were very intrigued by the simple fortress-like appearance of the mosque, similar in some ways to the Great Mosque of Sousse. It came as a surprise when we learned that the mosque has been destroyed twice (both times during the eighth century) and that what we see today dates back to the ninth century.

Inside the mosque we looked into the prayer room and saw the "forest of columns." click to view a photograph We noticed that all of the columns were different. Apparently, all the columns were "borrowed" from other buildings, including the Roman amphitheater at nearby El Jem, the ancient cities of Carthage, and Hadrumete (today known as Sousse). For this reason the tops of the columns are all different styles: Punic, Roman, Byzantine, and Arabic. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph The floor is covered with mats for praying click to view a photograph and there were beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. click to view a photograph

From the courtyard, the minaret towers over the mosque. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph A minaret is like a church steeple, but instead of having bells that announce when it is time to go to church, a man (called the muezzin) standing on its highest balcony chants a call to prayer five times daily (at dawn, in the early morning, at the end of the morning, in the afternoon, and at dusk). ausio clip The minaret is high (40 m/131 ft tall) so that the entire town and even surrounding countryside can hear these calls. To make sure the calls to prayer occur on time, the mosque has three different sundials. click to view a photograph We also learned that the stairs to the top of the minaret are made of 128 Christian tombstones!

Tech Fact of the Day: Spinning 90

Biking is a non-impact sport. Well it should be, although we wear helmets just in case it accidentally becomes an actual impact sport. This means that your body should suffer no real impact during the time you ride your bike (unlike jogging which is an impact sport that can affect your knees). So, for example, the process of pedaling should be no harder on your body than swimming is.

To help with this, there is a technique called "spinning." Scientists have determined that the stress that can be caused by biking is most evenly distributed throughout the entire body when the cyclist spins his or her pedals 70-90 revolutions a minute. By keeping this high cadence, biking quickly becomes an aerobic workout that produces very little stress on your knees (but it can stress your heart and lungs!). Thus, the importance of gears. By shifting into an easier gear when going uphill and a harder gear when going downhill, while keeping in the 70-90 revolutions a minute range, a cyclist will be ensured biking health.

N.B.: Following this 70-90 revolutions a minute rule would mean that, to date, the BikeAbout team has collectively "spun its pedals" approximately 2,640,000 times! That would leave us with about 23,760,000 revolutions to go!

Group Dispatch, October 28–29

picture of Anthony

Yesterday, we left the coast of the Mediterranean for our trip inland to Kairouan. click to view a map While we were sad to watch the sea disappear over our shoulder, we were a little happy to be getting away from all the tourists (we had heard more German than Arabic in Sousse!). Plus, the route to Kairouan was flat as we cruised through huge fields of olive trees that seemed to stretch as far as we could see.

We could tell that the local people were used to seeing tourists only in tour buses because when we rolled by, they would stare at us, wave shyly, and then yell out "bonjour" as we zipped by. We found only one village along the way at which we could stop, and as soon as we paused, a huge crowd of children gathered around us click to view a photograph, some smiling, waving, and wishing us well, others just staring at us and our bikes. click to view a photograph Maybe they were just amazed at how much water we could drink in such a short amount of time. After a couple of quick questions to locals about the road ahead click to view a photograph, we headed out of town through yet more olive grooves.

Arriving in Kairouan and riding our bikes along the walls of the city, we were very impressed with their ochre color and excellent state of preservation. Unlike most of the medinas that we have seen that resembled the most recent one in Sousse, the walls of Kairouan's inner city still made it seem like a big fortress — seemingly impossible to enter unless those on the inside allowed it.

One possible reason why Kairouan's walls are so well preserved is the vital importance of this city to the Islamic religion. Kairouan is most important Islamic city in North Africa, and its Great Mosque (see the Place of the Day) is the fourth holiest in the world (after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). Kairouan's cultural and scholastic influence has extended as far as Europe and Asia.

Kairouan visit the World Heritage Site page visit the World Heritage City page was founded by the Arab conqueror Uqba ibn Nafi, who led the Arab armies of Islam across North Africa, driving out the Christian Byzantine rulers and converting the native population to Islam. According to legend, in 670 AD on the dry steppes of what would become Kairouan, Uqba ibn Nafi stopped his army and declared, "This is where we are going to found our settlement, which will become the bastion of Islam until the end of time." His lieutenants looked around in amazement at the barren landscape full of scorpions and snakes until one brave lieutenant said, "But this land is completely desolate, there is no water and the land is infested with scorpions and snakes." Uqba ibn Nafi responded, "Be patient." Soon thereafter, a miracle occurred: A water spring appeared at the bottom of a dry well, the same spring that, to this day, many people insist runs underground to the Zem Zem spring in Mecca (several thousands of kilometers away).

Uqba next dealt with the scorpions. Standing on the desolate plain, he proclaimed, "In the name of the Prophet (Mohammed), we wish to settle here in the town of Allah. Be off with you!" After that, all the scorpions and snakes left the area, except for a female scorpion who begged for mercy for herself and her young ones. This was granted on the condition that she and her young never hurt the men in the region. To this day, all the scorpions live buried under stones and never hurt anyone. The BikeAbout riders can attest that they didn't see any scorpions, not even under rocks.

The importance of this legend is that Kairouan became the Arab capital of North Africa, serving both as a base for future military campaigns in the Maghreb and Spain, but also as the administrative capital once the Arab expansion ended. Located far enough from the coast to not be threatened by the Byzantines and also on the caravan route between Egypt and the Maghreb, Kairouan was well placed. The ancient name of Kairouan (pronounced: care-o-wan) is Quairawan which is even thought to be the root of the word 'caravan.'

With Kairouan's important past in mind, we took a tour of the Great Mosque (also known as the Jammaâ el Kebir Mosque). click to view a photograph For more about our visit, see the Place of the Day.

After the Great Mosque, we decided to visit the Bir Barouta, a water well 12 m (39 ft) deep. A blindfolded camel is used to draw the water. He walks around and around, turning a large wheel that raises vases full of water. This well is supposedly filled by the water from the spring that miraculously appeared on the spot chosen by Uqba ibn Nafi for the location of Kairouan. Anthony and Padraic tasted the water and deemed it "refreshing." Maybe there's something in these legends after all.

The rest of the day the BikeAbouters wandered around the medina of Kairouan, another of UNESCO's World Heritage sites click to visit the World Heritage Site page click to visit the World Heritage City page, visiting the blaghgia (leather souk, or market), munching on makrouds (see the Food of the Day), and examining kessa (special Kairouan flannel cloth) before returning to prepare for our regular Wednesday Chat 'n' Debate.

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