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North Africa: Tunisia
August 3, 2014, 1:07 pm
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Where Africa meets the Middle East and gazes longingly across the waters towards Europe.

Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, is a big country packed into a small one, with deserts, forests, mountains, beaches and settings weird enough to be used as star wars locations.

Capital City: Tunis, Population: 10.2 million, Area: 163610 sqkm, Official languages: Arabic, French

LANDSCAPE

Tunisia has 1400 kilometers of Mediterranean Dorsale (the eastern end of Morocco and Algeria’s dramatic Atlas Mountains) the main mountain range that tapers off to form the Cap Bon Peninsula. North of this spine lie bountiful plains and the Medjerda River valley, beyond which are the Kroumirie Mountains. South of the Dorsale, a barren plain meets endless salt flats, which give way to the rolling dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental.

Tunisia has hot, dry summers and mild winters, but the further south you go, the hotter and drier it gets. Though it is an astonishingly diverse country, ever since the Romans started clearing woodland the environment has suffered, with forests shrinking from 30 percent of the country, then to two percent today.

HISTORY IN A NUTSHELL

Carthage, the Phoenician imperial capital, dominated from the 6th century BC until it was destroyed by arch-rival Rome in 146 BC. Vandals and Byzantines invaded next, and then Islam arrived in the 7th century with the Arabs, followed by centuries of Islamic Arabian dynasties.

In the 16th century, Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire. The French had control from the 19th century until Habib Bourguiba led the country to independence in 1956. Socialist, secular, autocratic Bourguiba ruled for 32 years, until president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali headed a 1987 coup. He continued along socialist, secular, autocratic lines, winning subsequent elections with an autocratic-style 95 percent or so of the vote.

In 2011, the Arab spring, which claims its origins here, overthrew Ben Ali and the country witnessed its first free elections. Since then the country has been consolidating its democracy.
 

NATURAL BEAUTY

South is the Sahara of your dreams, undulating southwest into Algeria: silent, shifting gold. North of the famous desert lie the great salt lakes, weirdly flat surfaces that refract mirages and blister in the heat, with drifts of salt that sparkle like snow. Around the coast, limpid Mediterranean waters lap at pearly sands - there are some particularly impressive beaches in the north of Tunisia, around Cap Bon and also on the desert island of Jerba. The Tunisian Dorsale peaks rear up from the plains surrounding them like ghostly islands.

Jugurtha’s Table is the eeriest; a flat-topped mountain used as an ancient fortress, with steps hacked up one side. Further north, the Kroumerie range is on an alpine scale, blanketed in tall cork-oak forest.

PEOPLE

After 14 centuries of intermarriage, the indigenous Berbers and more recently arrived Arabs are thoroughly entwined. Arab- Berber Muslims form 98 percent of the population, the other two percent being Jews and Christians. You are most likely to see Berber culture in the south.

RANDOM FACTS

• Its gets so hot and so cold that both the Romans and the Berbers resorted to living underground.
• In the middle ages, Monastir was said to be the first step on the road to paradise
• Tunisia has stood in for any number of other places on film: Cairo, Jersulaem Tatooine. Star wars:
• A new Hope (1977), Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars; Attack of the Clones (2002), The
English Patient (1996), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981),

Life of Briar (1979) and Jesus of Nazareth (1977) were all filmed here.
• From Tunis on the north coast to Tataouine deep in the desert is only a 10-hour journey.
• The French were so attached to the port of Bizerte that they stayed for six years after independence.

Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, is a big country packed into a small one, with deserts, forests, mountains, beaches and settings weird enough to be used as star wars locations.

Capital City: Tunis, Population: 10.2 million, Area: 163610 sqkm, Official languages: Arabic, French

LANDSCAPE

Tunisia has 1400 kilometers of Mediterranean Dorsale (the eastern end of Morocco and Algeria’s dramatic Atlas Mountains) the main mountain range that tapers off to form the Cap Bon Peninsula. North of this spine lie bountiful plains and the Medjerda River valley, beyond which are the Kroumirie Mountains. South of the Dorsale, a barren plain meets endless salt flats, which give way to the rolling dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental. Tunisia has hot, dry summers and mild winters, but the further south you go, the hotter and drier it gets. Though it is an astonishingly diverse country, ever since the Romans started clearing woodland the environment has suffered, with forests shrinking from 30 percent of the country then to two percent today.

MARKETPLACE

Tunisia has one of Africa’s strongest economies. However, in 2002, growth slowed due to drought and tourism slackening in response to 9/11. Better rains from 2003 to 2005 improved matters, and tourism has bounced back since. In 2008 it had a GDP of $82 billion (purchasing power parity). The agricultural sector accounted for 11.6 percent of the GDP, industry 25.7 percent, and services 62.8 percent.


URBAN SCENE

The capital Tunis is a cross-cultural marriage between wide, tree-shaded, French-style boulevards and the North African medina’s tangle of soups and lanes. This curious cultural sandwich isn’t just architectural: young women in Western fashions swish past elderly men in chechia (red felt hats) and women in headscarves and slippers.
In central Tunisia, Kairouan, Islam’s fourth holiest city, was once the Arabian capital of North Africa. Here all roads lead to the beautiful Great Mosque, surrounded by a whitewashed maze of streets, where flashes of blue and green brighten the doors and windows and elderly women hurry along in dusty black.

CUISINE

In Tunisia, fiery food s equated with hot passions. The nation’s favorite spice is harissa, a hot chili paste that real men eat with everything. The national dish, of course, is couscous, steamed with a vegetable, meat or fish sauce.
It is traditionally eaten communally, with the whole family delving into a large bowl. A Tunisian peculiarity is the addictive brig, a fried pastry envelope usually filled with a satisfying slurp of runny egg. Eating it without getting splattered is a specialist skill.

HISTORY IN A NUTSHELL

Carthage, the Phoenician imperial capital, dominated from the 6th century BC until it was destroyed by arch-rival Rome in 146 BC. Vandals and Byzantines invaded next, and then
Islam arrived in the 7th century with the Arabs, followed by centuries of Islamic Arabian dynasties. In the 16th century Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire. The French had control from the 19th century until Habib Bourguiba led the country to independence in 1956. Socialist, secular, autocratic Bourguiba ruled for 32 years, until president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali headed a 1987 coup. He continued along socialist, secular, autocratic lines, winning subsequent elections with an autocratic-style 95 percent or so of the vote. In 2011, the Arab spring, which claims its origins here, overthrew Ben Ali and the country witnessed its first free elections. Since then the country has been consolidating its democracy.

NATURAL BEAUTY

South is the Sahara of your dreams, undulating southwest into Algeria: silent, shifting gold. North of the famous desert lie the great salt lakes, weirdly flat surfaces that refract mirages and blister in the heat, with drifts of salt that sparkle like snow. Around the coast, limpid Mediterranean waters lap at pearly sands - there are some particularly impressive beaches in the north of Tunisia, around Cap Bon and also on the desert island of Jerba.

The Tunisian Dorsale peaks rear up from the plains surrounding them like ghostly islands. Jugurtha’s Table is the eeriest; a flat-topped mountain used as an ancient fortress, with steps hacked up one side. Further north, the Kroumerie range is on an alpine scale, blanketed in tall cork-oak forest.

PEOPLE

After 14 centuries of intermarriage, the indigenous Berbers and more recently arrived Arabs are thoroughly entwined. Arab-
Berber Muslims form 98 percent of the population, the other two percent being Jews and Christians. You are most likely to see
Berber culture in the south.

ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCE

• Threading through the labyrinthine Tunis medina and sipping mint tea laced with pine nuts
• Wandering around Roman underground houses - as if their residents just popped out - at Bulla Regia
• Watching mirages flit across the Chott el-Jerid salt lake

• Imagining the crowd erupting at EI-]em’s stadium, the most spectacular Roman monument in Africa
• Camel trekking across the Grand Erg Oriental’s golden blankness
• Exploring Berber underground houses and hilltop granaries that look like they were built by aliens
Observing Roman minutiae in the Bardo Museum’s incredible mosaic collection
• Getting scrubbed by an enthusiastic elderly masseur in a hammam (bathhouse)
• Watching the sun set over Dougga, a hilltop Roman town amid ancient wheat fields
• Using your imagination to reconstruct Carthage’s legendary civilization

SURPRISES

Ancient cultures, remote mountains, desert and unspoilt beaches add up to so much more than a package-holiday heaven.
Tunis’ Bardo Museum has the world’s greatest collection of Roman mosaics.
Tunisia had banned the hejab (headscarf) in schools and public administration in 1981, over 20 years before France did.

 

 

 

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