Djerba is an island on the east coast of Tunisia. It is also known as Jerba, Jarbah or Girba. It is situated in the Gulf of Gabes in the Southern Part of the country. With an area of 514km, Djerba is the largest island off the North Africa. It lies between two peninsulas Jorf and Zarzis.
Greek Mythology makes mention of Djerba in Hommer’s Odyssey. It was thought to be the home of the seductive lotus eaters who so enticed Ulysses’ men by feeding them lotus flowers that he was unable to coax them back to their ships to continue his journey through the Mediterranean. Today the island with its warm temperate climate and picture perfect scenery composed of turquoise seas, white sandy beaches and white washed houses under clear blue skies entices 600,000 tourists annually. The majority of the visitors to the island are from Germany. The amenable Mediterranean climate of the island is perfect for the pursuit of water sports at one of its many resorts and this is what makes Djerba an ideal tourist destination.
The history of Djerba can be traced back to the ninth century BC, when it was a trading post of the Phoenicians and it was known as Menix. The name can be attributed to the large quantity of murex shells which were found on the island. These shells yielded a precious purple dye and there is evidence of a dye factory on the island during these times. During Roman times as well Djerba was an important trading post for wares to be shipped from Central Africa to Rome. Under the rule of the Romans Djerba flowered as the Romans built a viaduct which connects El Kantara( ancient Menix) in the south-east to the mainland. After the fall of the Romans, the Muslims took hold of Djerba and after this there was a period of turmoil for the island as conquerors such as the Spanish fought to establish control of the island. Later the Turks ruled here, followed by the French in 1881. There were a number of rebellions against the French and the modern republic of Tunisia was formed in 1957.
Djerba enjoys the famed Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot summers, average daily temperatures from May to October are 19C to 26C. August is the hottest month of the year and the island is tourist infested during this month. The temperatures from December to March hover around a pleasant 15C. There is little rainfall on the island and hence great aridity which can cause water shortages. The supply of water is a problem on the island and Djerba depends for its water supply on the mainland. A pipeline from the mainland comes into to the north east part of Djerba which is densely populated by tourists. This scarcity of water supply has an important part to play on the landscape and vegetation of the island. Along the coastal areas one sees thousands of date palms, in the shadow of these palms corn and figs are cultivated, as one goes further inward the vegetation is dominated by olive groves some of the olive trees here are 3000 years old, until one comes to the irrigated oasis of Cedghiane where one witnesses palm trees, lemon trees, orange and grapefruit trees as well as pomegranates and grapes. Only the famed lotus flower of the folk lore is nowhere to be found much to the disappointment of those who come to Djerba in order to seek it.
Getting to Djerba
Djerba has an international airport called Djerba-Mellita international airport and it is located 10kms away from the main town of Houmt-Souk. Tunis Air,Tunisavia and Air Franced come into the airport from other parts of Tunisia and Europe. Numerous charter flights cater to the island’s tourists as well.
The bus station of Djerba is called Gare Routiere and is in the town of Houmt Suk. There are excellent bus connections from many cities in Tunisia to Djerba.
By car Djerba is accessible from the mainland thru the main highway from Houmt Souk to Zarzis which is along the Roman viaduct which connects El-Kantara to Tunis.
Ferries operate 24 hours a day between the port of Anjm and Jorf
Travel round the Island
Travel around the island is easy as there are metered cabs and reasonable bus services which ply between the villages and the towns on surfaced roads. There are also shared cabs called ‘Louages’ which operate on the island. However the best way to explore this island of white sandy beaches lapped by turquoise waters is to rent a bicycle and explore the island. The island has an altitude of only 30 metres above sea level. Cars can also be rented on the island for a sum of 75 dinars a day. Tour companies also organize tours to explore the island but it advisable to ask for an English guided tour otherwise the tour will be conducted in French which is one of the official languages.
Djerba is often described as a paradox because here on the island are people who follow three different major faiths of the world. There exist 250 mosques on the island built in the classic Mediterranean style with white washed walls but the Muslims who inhabit the island belong to two different sects the Ibadites or Kahrjites and the Malikites. The Ibadites separated from the Shias and Sunnis in the seventh century and settled in Djerba. They are only found on the island, Muslims in the rest of Tunisia are Malikites. The Ibadite mosques have a square minaret or no minaret at all while the mosques of Malikites have thin and tapered minarets. Apart from the Muslims there existed a large Jewish population on Djerba in the towns of Hara Kebira and Hara Seghira during the 1950s.. The world famous synagogue of Ghariba is situated in Djerba. The Jewish population has significantly dwindled due to emigration to Israel; however Jews from all over North Africa congregate at Ghariba in April for the Passover festival. Maltese Catholics who earn their livelihood as sponge fishermen form the third religious group on the island of Djerba and live around the port of Anjm.
The Berber Language is still spoken in Djerba as well as French and Arabic the official languages of Tunisia. Other European languages are also spoken in order to deal with the hordes of tourists who come in the months of July and August.
The Tunisian currency is the Tunisian Dinar the rate of the Dinar is artificially fixed by the government .It is illegal to import and export the currency and Tunisia is the only place in the world where hotels offer a better exchange rate than the banks.
Djeba’s Towns and Villages
The capital and most prominent town with 60,000 inhabitants is Houmt-Souk .The name itself means market center and the Souk dominates the town. It is overflowing with treasures like carpets, gold and silver jewelry, wall hangings, leather goods and wonderful pottery and ceramics. Tourists enjoy the shopping at the Souk. Situated 10 km from Houmt Souk is the peninsula of Remel where colonies of the migratory pink Flamingoes congregate in the winter months. Other Towns are Ajim , which was the setting for scenes in the first Star Wars movie .Ajim is a center for sponge fishing as well as the ferry port. These sponges are sold at exorbitant rates in Houmt –Souk. Midoun ,the second largest town and is another market town famous for its GouGou dancers.
Handicrafts form an important part of the Djerbian economy along with tourism and several towns and villages function as specialized handicraft centers. Guella is world renowned for its ceramics and pottery, Fatou for its straw baskets and hand woven rush mats, Sedouikech is the center for handmade camel muzzles, straw mats and fishing baskets. However the handicraft industry is second to the major income earner of Djerba which is tourism and to cater to this tourism a number of fine hotels and restaurants have been built in the north east part of the island.
Hotels and Restaurants
The island has 125 hotels and resorts catering to the tourists. The most famous is the 2500 bed Melia Djerba Menzel Hotel which is set amongst palms and has many amenities. Other resorts on Djerba are Dar Dhalia Djerba ,Dar El Minara Djerba and Melia Palm Azur Hotel. Most of the hotels are located in the North east of the island around the gorgeous beaches of Sidi Mahrez and La Seguia. The tourist area of Djerba is called the Zone Touristque and like other tourist populated centers in the world, the beaches tend to be commercialized to capitalize on the spending power of the tourist.
Since fishing plays an important role in Djerba’s economy it is no surprise that the best restaurants in Djerba serve fresh sea food. One of the best restaurants on Djerba is ‘Haroun’ in Houmt Souk.
Apart from the white sand beaches and azure seas Djerba has a number of sites for the tourist if they want to venture out of the Zone Touristique.
The Fortress of Borj el Kebir
Also known as Borj Ghazi Mustapha it has been occupied by the Berbers, Jews, Sicilians, Spanish and Turks. It has a plaque showing the location of a pyramid of skulls built out of 5000 Spanish Skulls which was displayed for two years.
The El Ghriba Synagogue
Located in the former Jewish village of Harah Sghira it is the location where Jews from all over North Africa congregate during the Passover festival in April. They come to pay their respects to the Talmudic Master Shimon Bar Yashai who lived here 400 years ago. There are other synagogues in the village of Harah Sghira as well as the other two Jewish Villages but the ancient Torah scrolls are kept at EL Ghriba. The name itself means ‘Marvelous’ in Arabic and highlights the importance of the synagogue for the Jewish faith. A non Jew can visit the synagogue on the payment of a donation.
The local tour operators conduct desert safaris for the tourist in 4×4 vehicles. These safaris take visitors to the troglodyte village of Matmata which featured in the first Star Wars movie as well as the movie set at Onc El Jmel. Desert Safaris are also conducted to see the isolated Berber community at Chenini and the other remote villages of the Ksour region. Tours also feature trips to Douz the town which was used by traders of yesteryear to trade wares from the Sahara as well as trips to the oasis town of Tozeur and trips to the renowned pottery and ceramic town of Guellala.
The Festival of Ulysses
The Festival associated with folklore and the history of the island is celebrated with great pomp and pageantry with much dancing and singing in the month of August on the island. During the festival a Miss Ulysses is also elected.
Shopping and the wonders of the souks
The Souks of Djerba serve up a veritable treasure trove of delights from authentic Berber necklaces and bracelets. These are sold by weight depending on their silver content and their craftsmanship. Silversmiths and gold smiths abound in Djerba to make other jewelry including the Hand of Fatma which is famous all over Tunisia. Guellela is famous for its utilitarian and simple pottery and ceramics including jars, bowls and jugs typical of the region .These are sold in the Souk too as are embossed and engraved brass and copper utensils. Silk Carpets, undyed wool blankets, camel hair carpets, Tunisian slippers, Tunisian stamps, Tunisian bag pipes and tambourines, delicate carved perfume bottles and heavy perfumes are just some of the other wonders one can find in the souks of Djerba.
Another feature of Shopping in Djerba is the Market day held on different days of the week at different towns when merchants congregate to sell their wares in the local town square. These market days are over by noon.
Market days in Djerba
Monday at Houmt Souk
Thursday at-Houmt Souk, Douz( camel market in Douz on Thursday)
Friday at Midoun
Saturday at El Mai