Looking for an untypical beach resort? Try Tunisia’s Zarzis
ZARZIS, Tunisia - The beautiful, endless coastline surrounding the land from almost all sides highlights the uniqueness of Zarzis, on a peninsula in south-eastern Tunisia. The large coastline is but one of the many attractions it boasts.
Zarzis, 540km south of Tunis, is famed for its mesmerising beaches, rich history and natural wealth.
Not a typical touristic zone, Zarzis is an alternative destination for those who seek a simple, yet fascinating, journey to a peaceful town that retains its traditions and customs while being famed for olive production and sponge diving and harvesting.
Close to another prominent touristic attraction, the island of Djerba, Zarzis is believed to have taken its name from the biblical tribes of Girgashites, who left the Arabian Peninsula and settled in North Africa. Other historians claim the region was called “Gergis” after the Byzantine King Gregorius. Before the Roman period, the town was known as Zita.
The Sebkha of Zarzis features many ancient artefacts, including geometric microliths as well as armatures of arrows from 3000-2000BC.
“Zarzis has great potential being one of the oldest cities in the southern sphere of the Mediterranean. Its rich history covers many periods and civilisations. Years ago, evidence of the prehistoric existence was uncovered proving the town is steeped in antiquity,” said Sadek Hafiane, general-secretary of the Association for the Protection of the Patrimony of Zarzis.
During the Phoenician rule, Gergis — the old name of Zarzis — was an important trade centre. The town became even more influential under the Roman Empire thanks to its port and strategic positioning. The town served as a link point for trade in the south-eastern side of the Mediterranean.
Zarzis has several significant sites belonging to historical periods ranging from Punic to Roman, notably the archaeological site of Zita (Henchir Zayen) and the site of Henchir Kelah.
Archaeological digs at Zita uncovered the structure of a forum and a temple dedicated to the Goddess Tanit. Also found were carved and inscribed stelae and marble statues now on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
“The archaeological site of Zita is one of the richest historical sites in the region. The diggings that took place there uncovered the existence of ruins belonging to the pre-Roman period and buried buildings that are still being explored,” Hafiane said.
“It is a rich historical site that witnessed the passing of Carthaginian, Punic and Roman civilisations. Zita is a rich site that used to host a village that was often visited by Roman kings and was also known for exporting [olive] oil to the Roman Empire. There is also Henchir el-Kalakh, which consists in a decaying spherical chamber that is believed to having been a burial site for the rich inhabitants of the Roman town and old Roman water basin.”
The Zarzis Museum, one of the most recent established in Tunisia, is a jewel of history and culture, combining ancient history, heritage and contemporary patrimony. Visitors are exposed to the industrious rituals of agriculture and the maritime resources Zarzis is known for.
One also cannot visit Zarzis without taking a dip in its sea, going for long strolls on its beaches and visiting its Punic port, which remains one of the main attractions of the town. Dating to the Punic period, the remains of the port are visible in clear weather. The Punic port is a must-see because it provides insight into the history of the town and its economic importance as it is one of the oldest cities in the southern Mediterranean.
In addition to its historical role, Zarzis is known for its agricultural sector, producing some of the finest olive oil in the region, which it has been exporting in great quantities since ancient times.
Zarzis is famed for the sponges it produces and one of the most popular maritime activities is sponge diving and harvesting. Zarzis is known for its good quality sponges.
Every summer, the town celebrates its maritime wealth with the National Festival of the Sponge of Zarzis, which includes outings in the sea to observe sponge harvesting and diving for sponges to conferences and discussions of the maritime life and activities of the town.
“It is one of the oldest festivals in Tunisia and it is one of the hallmarks of the cultural life in Zarzis,” Fares Said, vice-director of the festival, explained. “It is famous for ‘kharja,’ which is a celebratory outing during which festival attendees go to the port and take part in the harvesting of sponges and learn about its methods. Fishermen and attendees of the festival take part in this event.”
“Tourists visit and many people come to attend the shows. (Zarzis) also has conferences on sponge harvesting and maritime life, which characterises and occupies a big part of the lives of the locals,” he said.
One cannot but fall for the charm of the town of Zarzis, which, on top of ancient history, offers visitors the serenity and peace that cannot found elsewhere.