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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 9 of 30: El Kef - Hitting the High Spots

photo by MAW

Oued Kseub at Hammam Mellègue

El Kef is an important regional centre surrounded by a large grain and cattle raising area. Few tourists go or stop there. We had chosen the area as it is convenient for visiting Dougga and Chemtou. We also wanted to visit Ain Drahmen which is Tunisia’s only ‘hill station’. To the south, Jurgurtha’s Table and Haïdra make a good day out.

We stopped at Dar Chennoufi, a delightful old house set in the countryside surrounded by olive, almond and orange trees and fields of wheat and onions. It is about 10 minute drive from the centre of El Kef. It is built round a central courtyard. We had a huge room with a large double bed set in an alcove at the far end and separated from the rest of the room by curtains. There was decorative tile work above the bed and it really did feel as if we were sleeping in the Bey’s bed. Dinners were home cooked Tunisian food and excellent. Breakfasts were ample and filling with freshly squeezed orange juice, and a choice of breads croissants and sweet items as well as eggs.

The old town with the Kasbah is perched high above the new town on the flank of Jebel Dyr mountain which rises dramatically above the plain. It has a long history as the area has been settled since Neolithic times. The Carthaginians established a town here to protect the western fringe of their empire. It was annexed by the Romans, raided by the Vandals and captured by the Arabs in the 7thC. The Ottomans arrived in the 16thC and rebuilt the fortifications. It was the first town to be occupied by the French in 1881 and was the provisional capital of Tunisia during WW2.

Traffic in El Kef can be chaotic around Place de l’Independance and Av Habib Bourguiba, particularly at lunchtime. Away from here and up to the Kasbah is a lot quieter. This is built on a strategic site at the top of the hill. The wall which originally surrounded the old town can be seen running up the hill behind the Kasbah to the Presidential Palace. The wall was demolished to build this for President Bourguiba and it occupies a prime spot in El Kef surrounded by large grounds. It is rarely used now.

There is limited parking on the side of the road leading to the Kasbah. This is actually made up of two forts. The Grand Fort was originally built by the Byzantines in the 6thC and was reinforced by the Turks in the 16thC. To the south west of it is the Petit Fort, which was added later and is now closed and in poor condition. There is talk of turning the stables into a cafe and the fort into a hotel.

Entry is through a large wooden gateway. On one side is a grassy bank with cannons and the wall of the Kasbah on the other side. The remains of the Petit Fort are ahead. The road climbs past the remains of the prison block to the Grand Fort, which has been restored. This has two entries. The older one on the right is smaller and crosses a drawbridge with a right angle turn through a barbican into the fort. To the left is a larger entrance made by the French, which gave easier entrance directly into the courtyard. Above the entrance were the Governor’s quarters.

The courtyard is a large open square lined with rooms which served as barracks and the garrison for the army. There are large bastions at the corners and a walkway round the top. This has good views down on the 6thC Basilica (shut for lunch) and 17thC Zaouia and Mosque of Sisi Bou Makhlouf (closed for restoration). Further along the ramparts there are views across the town to the remains of the Roman baths and cisterns.

The Roman Baths occupy a massive site but the layout is very confusing as the site was subsequently used as a church. One wall is lined with tomb stones. These had a jug carved on one side and an olive press on the other. There are the remains of a large hexagonal pool surrounded by arches which is filled with dirty water and litter. The site was partially excavated but is now getting very overgrown with vegetation.

The cisterns are across the road and are massive covering an area of 40x42m. They still have their ventilation covers on top and contain water.

Below the baths is Ras El Aïn, which can be reached using the path down the side of Sidi Ahmed Gharib Mosque. This is squalid as it was used as a lavatory. There is a mosaic and a lion’s head fountain which is dry but should flow into a bowl. A spring runs down a channel fed from another piped water source. The large fountain area is surrounded by a scruffy unkept garden. The area felt run down and unpleasant. Avoid.

Being a Monday, the Regional Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions a short distance from the Kasbah in the former Zaouia of Sidi Ali ben Aissa was shut. The Al-Ghriba Synagogue was also closed and although we knocked loudly on the door, there was no answer.

We did however manage to get into the ruins of the Church Of St Peter, Dar el-Kousse. This is 4thC and being restored although there did seem to be a lot of sitting and not much work being done. Our arrival was a good excuse to down tools and watch us. It is unsigned and the frontage on the street is very plain. Wooden doors lead into a roofed porch area with the walls of the church beyond which still stand to nearly their full height. They are made up of rows of massive blocks which supported the arched roof with smaller blocks between them. At the east end is a beautiful brick arched apse There are the remains of pillar bases lying around and the remains of a large carved tombstone. Doors lead to the outside of the south wall. Above the doorway is a carved cross with palm tree and dates. The outside walls are made of huge stone blocks with plain borders and stippled inside. This was a delightful place and worth finding.

On the whole we were disappointed by El Kef and it didn’t live up to our expectations. The old town is fairly unexciting to explore and is mainly residential with shops collected on the main shopping streets. The Roman Bath sites are run down and not worth visiting.

We drove out to Hamman Mellegue a few miles to the west of El Kef. It is a lovely run along a ridge with Aleppo pines with rosemary and juniper. The road drops steeply down the hillside with very dry soil and little vegetation to a river valley cut by a large fast flowing river from Algeria and Hamman Mellegue. We drove past a small farm house with children playing outside, who were intrigued by the arrival of foreign visitors. As we left one little girl came up to me and shyly gave me a sweet.

This was the site of a Roman bath house. It doesn’t feature in the guide books and there is little information on the web. It is a popular spot with the locals. The Roman remains are close to the river and there are still working hammans for men and women next to them. Entry is into a changing area. Beyond is a room with a deep pool full of hot water. It was quite busy when we visited. We were assured the water was changed twice a day.

Beyond is a typical domed Berber building which is a small guest house for people visiting the hamman. The water is supposed to be good for rheumatism and arthritis. There is a nice short walk downstream along a track to a huge cliff face cut by the river. There has been differential erosion of the strata with the bands of harder rock standing out clearly. There was a lot of drying silt left on the river bed as the water level dropped after the winter rains. There were men fishing in the river. It is a delightful place and worth visiting if you are in the area.

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