Kesra, a Tunisian destination with unique scenery

Sunday 05/03/2017
The famous painted stairs with letters from the ancient Berber script are seen in the village of Kesra. (Houssem Aoun)

Tunis - Perched higher than any town in Tunisia, the Berber village of Kesra is a remark­able place to visit, both for its scenery and rich histori­cal content.

Nearly 1,000 metres above sea lev­el, the town is picturesque: It clings to a mountain face overlooking the Siliana landscape and is within for­ests of Aleppo pine trees.

Hiking to the top of the village is challenging but results in the reward of a magnificent panoramic view of the region and the winding roads that connect neighbouring towns.

Originally named Chusira, Kesra is one of the country’s oldest Berber villages and has retained its cultural identity through the centuries.

“Despite its small size, this is a town that has witnessed the suc­cession of many civilisations, from the Roman to the Byzantine to the Berber,” said Moez Attia, president of Kolna Tunis, an association that promotes cultural heritage.

“It has a wealth of natural re­sources, including water springs, caves, forests and a historical site at the top of the mountain,” he said.

Locals refer to the village as “the princess of the mountains”, a name they say reflects the wealth of past civilisations that have enriched the village. Others say the nickname derives from a Persian legend about the seventh-century King Kisra.

“There is little information about the town’s origins in history books but legends and stories from the oral tradition trace it back to the time of Kisra, the old king of Persia,” said Samira Midani, curator of the Mu­seum of Traditional Patrimony in Kesra.

The legend says the king’s daugh­ter became ill and doctors advised taking her to a place to recover where she could enjoy fresh air, high altitude and fresh water. The doc­tors recommended the region where Kesra was built as the perfect place for the princess to heal.

Midani said the legend has been “debunked by historians who dis­covered the town goes back to Ber­ber origins” but it is “strongly be­lieved by locals”.

“This legend contributes to the mystery the town inspires in visi­tors,” Midani added.

From afar, the village’s homes look like thrusting spires of rock sculpted into the formation of the mountain ridge. This unique architectural de­sign adds to the intrigue of the small village, where alleys guide visitors through a maze of stairs and small streets to a fort dating to the Byz­antine era. The stairs also lead to the village’s water springs, another popular attraction for guests.

“This village, with its water springs and rock-based stairs, con­stitutes an urban fabric that distin­guishes it from other regions,” Attia said. “The alleys are structured in a way that leaves open courtyards as communal space for local meet­ings.”

“The walls are also uniform in colour,” he added, “which gives the town a homogenous appear­ance. When you first see it, it looks like a part of the mountains, since the houses are built using the same rocks.

“Using dry rocks in forming uni­fied façades is a traditional con­struction method of the town.”

Beyond the alleys of the village lay the town’s old Byzantine fort and the Museum of Traditional Pat­rimony of Kesra.

“The museum contains an over­view of all aspects of the village’s daily life and traditions,” said Mida­ni. “It has four rooms, each focusing on a certain aspect of life in the re­gion. There are rooms dedicated to wedding rituals, death rituals and pottery and traditional garments.”

“Pottery of Kesra has various characteristics,” Midani said, add­ing that the techniques used to decorate the pottery were similar to those used to tattoo with henna.

In another room, various gar­ments and sewing materials used by women during wedding ceremonies were showcased. Midani pointed out the allegua, a basket given to the bride before the wedding by the mother-in-law.

The museum contains sections dedicated to rituals, including those related to birth, circumcision, death and “the evil eye”.

“People come here for different reasons,” Midani explained. “They come for the unique scenery that the village offers, for the unique architecture, for the waterfall and for the hikes. The culinary art too is interesting for people who come to visit.”

Despite its small size and isolated position, Kesra has much to offer, including a wealth of fig trees that surround the village. Each year the village celebrates a festival of figs from July to September, during which festivities and events feature fig-based recipes.

“The town is known for its figs and olive oil, which attract visi­tors during the festival times,” said Faten Ranen Tarhouni, who owns a travel agency in Siliana that pro­vides trips to Kesra.

“Kesra is also a very popular place for hikes, as visitors get to ex­plore its mountains, waterfalls and have adventures in caves all in one place.”

She added: “The town offers unique opportunities to have dif­ferent activities that are popular among young people, such as hik­ing, cave exploration, and rock climbing. The town waterfalls are also a unique sight.”