By Habeeb Salloum M.S.M.
The January morning air was cool as we left behind the oasis town of Gabes situated on the southern coast of Tunisia. Ahead, we could see clearly the mountain range of Matmata whose barren peaks reach up to 2,000 feet. As we drove through the rose-coloured hills, I turned to my traveling companion, “Yesterday we were walking between the thousands of palms surrounding Gabes, now look at this wild, deserted land. It appears we are in another world.”
Driving on Highway MC 107 through the barren hills toward Matmata was truly a panorama of contrast when compared to the rippling waters and green orchards of Gabes. As we drove over a ridge we were astounded. Before us the side of the mountain was dotted with craters, no different than the landscape of the moon. Near a signpost marked in both Arabic and French ‘Matmata’ we stopped to view the lunar scene before us. It seemed we were looking at a newly bombed field showing evidence of where the bombs had fallen.
Among the countless craters we could see a few scattered buildings and a number of camels between the occasional olive or palm tree. Puffs of smoke curled skyward from a number of holes in the ground. However, the crater filled land appeared to be uninhabited. No streets or avenues as in other cities could be seen and not one human being was in view. An eerie atmosphere seemed to engulf the site.
The vivid image we had as a first impression is not unique. It is no different than that of any other traveler who initially lays eyes on Matmata, the largest of the dozen underground towns in Tunisia. This city of caves and the surrounding troglodytic villages have been populated by Berbers for, perhaps, 2,000 years. Through the centuries the inhabitants have eked out a living from their tiny hand-terraced barley, fig, olive and palm fields, watered from and-honed cisterns in which rainwater is gathered. For comfort they have developed subterranean dwellings which are ideal for the desert climate with its great differences in the daily and seasonal temperatures. Naturally air conditioned and heated, they are cool and pleasant during the scorching summer months and warm in the winter.
Each hole in the ground is a separate dwelling, honed in the soft rock or clay. To begin building the home, a shaft of about 10 m (33 ft) wide and 8 m (25 ft) deep is sunk into the ground. An entrance to the pit is then dug on a gentle slope. An entrance tunnel is then dug on a gentle slope followed by hollowing-out two level arched rooms on the vertical face at the bottom of the pit. The base of the hole, which is called haush (courtyard); is at times planted with trees and/or flowers. Here the children play and the housewife, dressed in her colourful blue or red futa (dress), cooks the daily meal.
The bottom chambers are the living quarters and the upper level cubicles, which can only be reached by climbing on knotted ropes, are the storage rooms. In these compartments, grain and olives are stored for the winter months. In the past, the upper cubicles were also used as nuptial chambers. After the newlyweds had climbed into the room, the rope was withdrawn, making it an ideal love nest – inaccessible to the curious.
Many of the homes have their own cisterns where rainwater is stored to be used sparingly, especially during the dry summer months. For furniture, beds and cupboards are made by chiseling out alcoves in the wall, and if the family increases in number, an extra bed is chiseled, or another room is hollowed.
Today many of the inhabitants have become sophisticated due to their association with the thousands of tourists who arrive the whole year round. The worldly ways Matmata’s residents have acquired make a stranger feel at home.
The ingenuity of Matmata’s merchants has produced restaurants and souvenir shops in abandoned cavern homes. The services these converted subterranean abodes have to offer, plus the camel rides and trips to the lunar-like countryside are some of the lures which entice the tourist.
Visitors come in appreciable numbers from all over Tunisia, especially from Djerba, Tunisia’s island paradise and the oasis town of Gabes, 27 miles away. Tour buses pick up the travelers from the hotels and bring them to Matmata, usually as a part of a larger tour. From Gabes, a traveler can take louages (group taxis) or buses which make trips back and forth several times a day. The road is in fair condition and, if one wishes, an auto can be rented in Gabes or any other city in Tunisia where the tourist may be staying.
If visitors wish to experience the life of a troglodyte, there are three hotels where they can stay. The Hôtel Marhala Touring Club and the Sidi Driss Hotel are combinations of simple clean whitewashed disused underground homes, made into tourist lodgings. Sidi Driss and another, newer hotel, Hôtel Les Berbères, are well maintained with electricity and plumbing. All three hotels are extraordinary inns, unique in the tourist trade – a delight for an adventurous traveler. However, a guest must be spry to enjoy these accommodations. For the uninitiated, climbing narrow staircases, at times only lit by oil lamps, could be an unnerving experience.
Spending a few hours in that crater-town with its fascinating atmosphere on that cold invigorating January day, I became captivated with its handsome inhabitants and their strange homes. When the time came to bid a young man we had befriended adieu, I left him with these parting words:
“Here you have a town which is unique; a town that will always fascinate the stranger. Do not rush into the modern world and destroy your past. Yours is a rare way of life which has stood the test of centuries.”
Habeeb Salloum M.S.M.