Tozeur, Tunisia’s oasis town

Sunday 02/04/2017
People visit the sculpture of the great Tunisian poet Aboul-Qacem Echebbi in Tozeur. (AFP)

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.