Tozeur, Tunisia’s oasis town
Tozeur - Lying on the edge of the Sahara is the Tunisian oasis town of Tozeur, a charming traditional village that beckons visitors to savour the country’s mysterious desert terrain.
About 430km south-west of Tunis, Tozeur has a rich history dating to before the Middle Ages when it served as a crossing point for Sahara-bound caravans. In subsequent centuries, it was influenced by the passage of civilisations — the Romans to the Byzantines to the Muslims and Berbers, each of which added to the town’s culture and heritage.
Tozeur was an important Numidian town on the route between Algeria and the Gulf of Gabes on eastern Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast. When the Romans arrived, Tozeur served as an important outpost and metropolis. After the rise of the Hafsid dynasty, Tozeur was used as a slave market.
“Tozeur, being a source of water in the desert, has always attracted people who eventually settled there,” said Karem Dassy, president of the Association of the Safeguarding of the Old Medina of Tozeur. “This contributed to the personality of those who settled in Tozeur and their open mindedness.
“It also influenced their lifestyle and deepened the values of tolerance that can be strongly felt in this part of the south of Tunisia. It has been very open to different cultures and to the passing of tribes and travellers.”
“The type of Islam that is popular here is moderate Islam and it is very tolerant and encloses all different sects of Islam,” Dassy added. “These elements of history explain Tozeur’s peaceful present. It has never witnessed terrorist or violent events. It is against the nature of the people there.”
Tozeur’s peaceful character has reinforced its image as a resting place. Since ancient times, travellers and caravans have stopped in the area to rejuvenate and refuel before continuing their journey deep into the Sahara.
Today, visitors are fascinated by the town’s historical sites, such as the medinas of Tozeur.
“Tozeur has more than one medina,” Dassy said. “The most famous medina — Ouled Hadef — is a relatively modern neighbourhood that goes back to the 15th century, while the original old town of Tozeur goes back to the medieval times. The oldest medina is the one known today as the oasis town around the mosque.”
Dassy added: “When the Turks came in the 1800s, they destroyed the old town of Tozeur and it has since changed. The focus has shifted from the medieval town of Tozeur to the newly built one but the remains of the medieval town still exist. Now the neighbourhood that is known as the old town of Tozeur is the neighbourhood that was built between the 15th and the 18th centuries.”
Walking through the old medina’s narrow streets is an enchanting experience. Its architecture showcases beautiful brick façades and intricately patterned yellow brickwork, all in the traditional style of Tunisia’s south. Decorated with a range of geometric shapes, the brick designs bear similarities to motifs found in artefacts from the ancient Berbers, whose tribes settled in Tozeur in previous centuries.
To maintain the town’s distinct architectural style, the local government has mandated that builders conform to the traditional brickwork.
“The uniqueness of the town’s architecture is based on the use of old bricks that are unique to the Djerid region,” Dassy said. “This style was used during the antiquity period too, as it can be found in some archaeological sites.”
The town’s oasis contains beautiful palm trees and red-dirt paths, stretching across the landscape like a green paradise in the middle of the desert. The oasis can be reached by Tozeur’s main street and has many resorts.
Among the historical monuments in Tozeur is the Mosque of Sidi Abid, which dates to 1030 and “has one of the first scriptural inscriptions in the town”, Dassy said.
Dassy pointed out the town’s train station, which was built in 1913.
A few kilometres outside the town is the majestic statue of renowned Tunisian poet Aboul- Qacem Echebbi, who was from Tozeur. Another popular destination for visitors is the Museum of Art and Popular Tradition, which houses early artefacts, such as jewellery and ceramics.
Within the town limits is the Desert Zoo of Si Tijani, named after a famed Tozeur snake-handler. The zoo contains various rare animals, including desert monitors, raptors, scorpions, fennec foxes, camels and sand and horned vipers.
To celebrate its cultural heritage, the town holds the International Festival of Oases of Tozeur each November and December, paying homage to the artistic and folkloric heritage of the Djerid region.
Tozeur has also been the set of several famous Hollywood films, such as the Star Wars saga and The English Patient.
Visitors can reach the town via collective taxis, trains, buses and the Tozeur-Nefta International Airport.