No different from Ulysses, who some authors have described as Djerba’s first tourist, a traveller will find the people of this Tunisian isle friendly and hospitable. From the first day of a visit, the delightful charms of Djerba (also spelled Jerba) will hold most travellers spellbound.
Why this island, which travellers have labelled, ‘Isle of Forgetfulness’, holds visitors under its spell is virtually unexplainable. A great many attribute it to its magic halo - a combination of a clear-blue sky, shining white houses, clean and well-kept towns, tree-covered countryside and warm, yet not too hot climate. Whatever the case, a good number of travellers go into raptures when describing this island - made famous by Ulysses.
According to Greek mythology, Djerba was the home of the seductive lotus-eaters. In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses almost lost his men when the beautiful maidens of the island fed them the lotus flower. The men were so pleasantly intoxicated by the lotus that Ulysses found it almost impossible to make them return to their ships.
Yet, even if this story is only a fable, Djerba has, for many centuries, enraptured travellers who have been lucky enough to land on its shores. A veritable floating garden, rising from the sea like a mirage, the island's spell of forgetfulness which supposedly entrapped visitors in ancient times, has not faded with the passing centuries. It is said that Djerba is a land of dreams, created by nature to enchant the imagination of the human soul.
In Djerba's Phoenician and Roman periods, the island and its principal town were known by the Phoenician name of Meninx whose ruins are to be found near the 6 km (4 mi) re-built Phoenician based Roman causeway, which joins the island to the mainland. After the Muslim conquest, Djerba became the haven for an Islamic sect, known as Kharidjite, which today, in its present form, only exists on this island.
During the Middle Ages, the inhabitants withstood the most powerful and ruthless rulers of Mediterranean Europe. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, the people of the island fought almost continuously, usually against the Spaniards, but at times against the united kings of Christendom
Djerba is a 614 sq km (238 sq mi) flat island situated off the southern coast of Tunisia, not far from the Libyan border. About 164,000 inhabitants, mostly of Berber origin, live on this isle of mythology. Its 133 km (83 mi) shoreline abounds with sandy-white beaches, gently lapped by the warm-azure waters of the Mediterranean.
Covered with trees and flowers, the island is one huge oasis covered with more than 1,000,000 date palms and 700,000 olive trees, some over 3,000 years old. In between, small fields of apricots, carobs, figs, grapes, grenadines, lemons, mandarins, oranges and pomegranates cover almost every empty space. Only travellers dreaming of Djerba's mythology are usually disappointed - nowhere is the fabled lotus fruit to be found.
Here and there amid these fields, watered from some 2,700 wells, are the breathtaking white, small villages and isolated homes. The striking white houses, known as menzels, and their architecture, unique to the island, appear like white jewels, sprinkled between the greenery. Their rounded domes and bright snowy colour, embellished by sky-blue wrought iron trimmings, sparkle in the sunlight and give the buildings an appealing charm. Inside, there are clean courtyards filled with trees and flowers. Set amid these buildings are found some eye-catching 200 small mosques - many of the older ones built as fortresses to ward off invaders.
Houmt-Souk, which means market centre, with a population of 75,000, is the capital of the island and one of the most picturesque urban centres in Tunisia. It is a well-kept bright town centred on the souk area, overflowing with handicraft products. Traditional clothing, blankets woven since the time of Hannibal, beautifully wrought gold and silver jewellery; leather goods, straw mats and beautiful pottery saturate the markets.
In town, two of the most important usual stopovers for visitors are the Museum of Folklore and Popular Art, displaying traditional costumes and jewellery; and the historic fortress of Borj el-Kebir, a 15th century Arab citadel. Interesting to many tourists is the plaque nearby marking the spot where 5,000 skulls of a Spanish defeat were once piled pyramid style.
Djerba's annual 300 days of sunshine and warm blue waters with their cooling breezes, edged glittering sands, embellished by the many attractive and comfortable modern hotels with the most up-to-date tourist facilities are what draw visitors and nationals alike. Without disturbing the calm and peace, many of these eye-catching tourist resorts built in traditional menzel style, fit neatly into the palm-saturated landscape. Nature and the edifices built by man have merged together to strengthen the island's magic spell.
These attractive and comfortable hotels, hospitable and friendly people with a slow-moving lifestyle, breathtaking countryside, mild winters, cool summers and tantalizing sea, make Djerba, located on Europe’s doorstep, one of Tunisia's most popular tourist spots.
With the softness of its sweet-serene air, perfumed with the flowers of the many fruit trees, overshadowed by clear blue sky and ringed by golden sands, this paradise isle entraps even the most sceptical visitor. Our guide had a point when he remarked as we climbed the ferry at Ajim for the mainland, "I always think of Djerba as Tunisia's isle of forgetfulness."
Habeeb Salloum, M.S.M.
DJERBA TUNISIA'S ISLE OF FORGETFULNESS
Habeeb Salloum, M.S.M.