Tunisia’s Althiburos cave, an artists’ sanctuary in lush landscape
DAHMANI, Tunisia - On the outside, the cave looks like a typical natural sight. Amid green fields, the cave is surrounded by high hills in the distance at Tunisia’s El Kef province. Trees circle the cave, which feels deserted, almost outside time and place. One can sense the solitude of the place. The entrance is narrow and dark. Walking closer to the cave, one is met with an eerie feeling that suggests mystery.
Yet, the minute visitors step inside, that feeling dissipates. Walls are decorated in paintings, colourful and joyful, standing in contrast to the location’s seemingly deserted appearance. The cave feels cosy and welcoming as intended by its owner.
Only two hours from Tunis, the cave of Althiburos, in north-western Tunisia, welcomes visitors who can enjoy the historical as well as the cultural inspiration of the site.
Tunisian painter Ammar Belghith transformed the natural cave into a cultural and artistic temple, which became a sanctuary for artists looking for inspiration and visitors seeking a break from modern life.
After spending a large period of his life abroad, Belghith returned to his father’s land and wanted to transform the cave into a workshop for artists. For the past few years, the cave served as an art gallery and a workshop.
Having hosted a festival for alternative music in March, the cave is gaining a reputation for being a sanctuary for artists seeking residencies in natural surroundings.
The cave of Althiburos is not only a home for legends and myths that have haunted the people of the village of Dahmani, it is a haven and statuary for those who seek inspiration and peace.
Product designer and artist Yasmine Chelly is a member of the team in charge of cultural programmes at the cave. The goal is to implement a new vision of culture.
“Along with the owner, Ammar Belghith and artist Gaith Neffti, we are seeking to launch a new concept. The place is an art gallery and an archaeological site but, at the same time, we want to make it an experience,” Chelly explained.
“People are interested in camping on the site to enjoy being in nature. We want to include artistic workshops and residencies to allow people to be inspired by the energy of the place but we don’t want it to be only a question of using the space. We want artists to exchange knowledge and expertise.”
The cave is situated amid beautiful landscapes and has a camping site. There are also rooms to accommodate guests. Spending a couple of days at the cave is guaranteed to restore one’s peace and energy as visitors enjoy strolls in nature as well as traditional cuisine.
“We want to encourage a notion of sharing and learning among people. The experience has to be participatory,” Chelly said. “They are inclusive and we are planning to be the venue for events that also encourage people to be part and to give also.
“Whatever experience they have or skills or expertise, they can share it while they live with us. We want to encourage traditional cuisine and farming. It is a whole life that people should adapt to be and to embrace and be connected to nature.”
She added: “The cave will also host a festival for circus arts. The architecture also will be a focal point. We can have architecture students to build small huts or pools using materials that are bio- and eco-friendly. It should be a spiritual experience for one to reconnect.”
Chelly said the idea of using the cave began with a desire to promote a different image of tourism in Tunisia as well as to explore different cultural programmes.
“It started with exploring new places for camping and discovering these gems in Tunisia. Knowing the painter who owns the place, I got to know more and the cave has energy. Ammar wants it to be a sanctuary for artists,” Chelly said.
“We don’t want it to be just a venue for events but a spiritual journey to connect with nature and people.”
The site has much to offer, between exploring the mythical side and the natural and historical side. Outside the cave, one can explore the “wells of love,” which is based on a legend that Belghith knows how to tell best. The land belonged to his ancestors and the well has a sad legend that two lovers, Maysar and Marconda, fell in and drowned but returned as trees that stand near the well.
Not far from the cave, one can explore the ruins of Althiburos, an archaeological site that dates to before the third century when it was under Roman rule. The site has remains of a forum, a theatre and a house with mosaics. The theatre is 60 metres long and 35 metres wide.
While it is still being excavated, the site offers a glimpse to the influence of the Roman Empire in north-western Tunisia. The site was chosen by Numidians to build their town, which was granted the status of a municipality under the Roman rule because it was on the route from Carthage.