The Inner Sea

04/10/2013 10:41

From the perspective that provides a satellite point of view Tunisia is a country split in two. Descending to bird's eye view Tunisia inside fracture seems a kind of lake or inland sea. The approach to land turns it in the huge reflection of a salt desert. Chott el Djerid, Chott el Garsa and Chott el Fejaj form three large depressions and a large salt lake, which, when summer comes, is barely nothing else than salt.

Chott el Garsa is a great wasteland wilderness covering anything from the Algerian border and the city of Tozeur, must be extended by the product of the multiplication of fifty square kilometres for another twenty. Much more, totalling about seven thousand square kilometres, Chott el Jerid is a huge salt lake, at a depth sometimes negligible, which almost reaches the Gulf of Gabes. In winter, when it actually contains some water, some area is navigable for shallow-draft boats. The rest of the year is rather a shiny surface, as well as the illusions that cause the air temperature in the distance. Mirages that are borne by the same salt, endless, infinite, extending in all directions beyond the eye can see. A road cuts across the northeast flank of the white desert. It runs between the cities of El Hamma, Kebili, and beyond, Douz, the gateway to the desert, in this case a true sand desert, the Sahara.

Chott el Jerid means something like lake of the palms. A clay soil devoid of vegetation holds the extensive layer of salt. It also supports a company employing fifty workers: Sahara Sal. Summer temperatures range between twenty-five and forty degrees Celsius, if the sirocco blows, the wind coming from the south, can raise the temperature up to ten degrees higher. So no wonder the shallow water layer disappear. The rain is a rarity rather than an anomaly. Statistically depression gets just one hundred fifty millimetres annually. In fact most of the low humidity emerges from groundwater tables. In the puddles that remain in summer with the underlying clay, salt crystallizations form spectacular marked reddish layers. Other melts in the reflection of a deep blue sky adding shades of turquoise.

Halfway to nowhere a cairn marks the distance to Kebili: forty-nine kilometres. In the opposite shoulder work a ramshackle shed is pleased to announce a tuilet (sic) with confor (sic) services and normal. Both lack door. There are no doors in the desert.

The concentration of these great depression and its continuation in Algerian territory gave the idea to a French official, François Élie Roudaire of flood them to, changing the local climate, generate arable land. Roudaire thought it was Triton Bay described by Herodotus. He presented his project in May 1874 in the Revue des Deux Mondes in an article entitled Une mer intérieure en Algérie and contacted Ferdinand de Lesseps to ask for assistance. Lesseps had recently completed the Suez Canal. A new channel would to flood the Chott Melghigh, in Algeria, from Gabes through Chott el Jerid, but the high cost of the work prompted the French Minister of Public Works to dismiss it on July 28, 1882. Jules Verne was inspired by the subject to write his latest book L' Invasion de la Mer.

The largest city along the chotts is Tozeur, already in the fifteenth century was a port of call for large caravans crossing the desert. Even in the mid-nineteenth century crossed the city slaves brought to be sold at the big market of Kebili. The oasis feeds the vast palm grove of Tozeur, where twenty thousand palms generate, in addition to the salt industry, the main source of income of the population. Their dates, Nur Deglet, are translucent, sweet and juicy, among the best in the country even though they aren’t less than those of the neighbouring Nefta, where the palm, the oasis and the town itself is a shortened version of Tozeur. A large round ravine known as The Corbielle, the basket, home to much of the city palm trees, splits Al Bayadha, the new district and Ouled al Cherif, the Old Town. Another product of the region are desert roses, curious formations of hydrated calcium sulphate crystallized by thousands under the sand.

Nefta, after Kairouan, is the second holiest city in the country. In the sixteenth century was an important Sufi stream of Islam that once numbered a hundred dozen mosques and madrasas. Here is the mausoleum of one of the Sufi saints, Sidi Bou Ali. From Tozeur Tarik ben Zayid started with twelve thousand Berbers in 711 the crossing of Strait to stay on the other side for eight centuries.

Leaving behind the interior sea, the Chott el Jerid and across the languid Tamezret population, is Matmata known for its troglodyte dwellings most of them protected by the hand of Fatima and because in them and in these landscapes George Lucas filmed Star Wars. The Hotel Sidi Driss was Luke Skywalker's childhood scene and was in Chott el Jerid where he saw two moons rising in the sky. Perhaps a mirage.

© J.L.Nicolas


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