We begin with an early morning departure out of Tunis, the capital city, through a hectic maze of traffic. Scooters and trucks filled with freshly cut granite weave together in roundabouts. Our bus is sideswiped by a cement truck and it takes off the side mirror – minor incident! As we drive, the landscape changes: more olive trees, set wide apart – only 17 trees per hectare in some areas. This allows the olive trees to soak up the rich desert soil and abundant sunshine. Some of these trees are hundreds of years old and it is said that the olive cultivation in Tunisia dates back to the 8th century BC, even before the founding of Carthage by the Queen Dido. The Phoenicians were the first to introduce this crop to North Africa.
Scattered along the road and among the olive trees are fallen columns and stone walls left behind by the Romans, crumbling slowly in the desert landscape. Our route takes us along a raised stone aqueduct that has stretched 80 kilometers for over two centuries. A shepherd wearing a hooded cape made from the wool sits patiently under the roman ruins. The olives ripen, the ruminants eat and the man does as his ancestors did.
We stop at a road side café for a break, a weathered yet handsome 83 year old sits outside enjoying his afternoon sweet Turkish coffee. The place is Spartan but clean. There’s a coffee machine, incense burning and a pile of Hookah lying in the corner. We travel on for hours and the countryside changes again.
Large ponderous boulders, agave and prickly pear pierce the landscape. We climb through a cedar forest and back down to olive groves. We are amongst a moonscape of olive groves separated by living walls of cacti. We are clearly not in Kansas anymore. Women dressed in colorful long skirts and floral headscarves are planting perennials.
We turn a corner and enter the grounds of the modern olive oil facility Safir Foods.
Suddenly two additional cars surround us and out pops two officials in suits and two armed policeman sporting semiautomatics. Suddenly I am in a panic: are we in trouble? Are we being kidnapped? With relief and a chuckle, I realize they are all here for our protection. We are Americans traveling as guests of the Tunisian government and they are guaranteeing our complete safety. They will remain with us for the next two days.
After touring the facility, we are guided into a room with a long table bejeweled with a colorful Tunisian lunch. Each of us is seated before a rosy dish of couscous and garbanzos topped with a tender joint of mutton. The meat is so large and succulent it can only be maneuvered to one’s mouth with the hands. A salad nicoise with tuna and corn is drizzled with harrissa and sits beside a feisty green hot chili paste called “Machouia”. But first we are served a traditional tomato barley soup. We consume great bowls and multiple dishes, and once again I totter away in a food faint.
After this prodigious lunch, we literally head to the hills to a place called Kesra. Located at 1000 meters high, people have inhabited this mountain top for 3000 years. Marble etched with Phoenician symbols accent more modern mortar and stone. Dogs bark, children play and shepherds in hooded capes resembling Obi-Wan Kenobi offer roasted acorns in a tin. The icy winds howl. A grandfather loads his donkey with plastic water bottles filled from the ancient spring. Ageless doorways of various shapes and colors embellish the front of structures three centuries old.
I have never been to a place such as this and may never again. I take it all in and I meet the young threesome who is working to preserve the ancient city of Kesra, as the modern inhabitants continue to build and change the landscape. They are looking for support and you can begin by checking them out and liking them on Facebook. They asked me to send you dear reader this message, and if you have ideas on how they can raise money and awareness, please email them here.
We have a four hour drive in the dark to our next hotel. Our driver grows weary and stops for another Turkish jolt of black sweet coffee. We play modern Arabic dance music and begin belly dancing to stay awake. The driver is distracted but we arrive safe in Sfax just late enough to have a bite and fall into my room. My bed is literally strewn with rose petals and I sleep well.