The isle of Djerba, off Tunisia’s Cape Bon peninsula, blends Islamic sensibilities with a distinctly Mediterranean ambiance. In contrast with the arid mainland, Djerba is filled with flowers, orange groves, olive trees and the square-shaped, whitewashed houses called menzels. Djerba has wonderful beaches, fascinating historical ruins and Houmt-Souk’s charming marketplace but its biggest tourist attraction may be the village of Ajim where exterior scenes in the very first “Star Wars” movie were filmed.
Berber tribes initially settled Djerba. They remain the island’s largest demographic segment today and they speak their own Berber language rather than Arabic. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Jews began settling in Djerba. These descendents of the Cohanim priestly caste have been a respected and influential minority over the centuries. A few still remain although most have emigrated to Israel or France.
Historians believe that Djerba is the Island of the Lotus Eaters Homer writes about in the Odyssey. If true, this would make Odysseus Djertba’s very first tourist! The island was certainly well known to the Phoenicians and the Romans. The causeway that still connects Djerba to mainland Tunisia was built in Roman times. Archeological evidence shows that Djerba was heavily populated until approximately 650 AD when its numbers abruptly declined. This roughly coincided with the Arab invasion of North Africa, though archeologists don’t know whether the two events were linked. Islam remains the dominant religion in Djerba today.
In medieval times, Djerba became a sanctuary for members of an Islamic sect known as Ibāḍiyya. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily disputed their control, and numerous wars were fought. Twice the island was occupied by Sicily, twice by Spain. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the island was a stronghold from which the notorious Barbary Coast pirates planned their raids.
Djerba Tourist Attractions
Djerba’s most exquisite white sand beaches are found in the northeast corner of the island, in the so-called Zone Touristique. Many of these beaches are owned privately by luxury hotels but a few are open to the public, notably the Plage des 5,000 Ans, 8 km outside the village of Houmt-Souk, and the Plage Municipale. Some of the resorts allow day-trippers to use their beaches for a small fee. Hotel beaches also offer water sports like windsurfing and jet-skiing.
The heart and soul of Houmt-Souk, Djerba’s biggest town, is its two large markets. The crafts souk is vaulted; the food souk is open to the air. At either end of the souks are plaza squares filled with outdoor cafes that are frequented by tourists and locals alike. Houmt-Souk has a tradition of small, family-run hotels called funduqs, some of which have been in operation for hundreds of years. Houmt-Souk also has some beautiful mosques. The two most outstanding are the Mosque of the Turks and the Mosque of the Strangers. The interiors are not open to non-believers but there’s a lot to admire about them from the outside.
Guellala, a village on Djerba’s southeast coast, has a pottery-making tradition that predates Roman times. You can tour an underground studio for a short lesson in how ceramics were traditionally made here. A world of caution for pottery buyers: Most ceramics sold in this village are made elsewhere on assembly lines and shipped in specially to be sold to tourists.
Borj El-Kebir Citadel
In 1289, Roger de Loria, the Norman King of Sicily, built the Borj el-Kebir Citadel on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean. He built on the ruins of an old Roman fortress. The fortress was requisitioned by Spain in 1560 when that country invaded parts of North Africa. A few years later, the infamous Barbary Coast pirate Dragut freed Djerba from Spanish domination, massacring the entire Spanish guard who’d tried unsuccessfully to hold Borj el-Kebir citadel. Dragut made a huge pyramid of 500 Spanish skulls on the grounds of Borj el-Kebir. The pyramid was finally dismantled in the mid-19th century but the citadel’s massive walls, square towers and canon are still a grim sight.
The El-Ghriba Synagogue, 7 km outside Houmt-Souk in the Jewish village of Hara Sghira, contains what many scholars believe to be the oldest Torah in existence. The current building, one of 11 synagogues on Djerba, only dates back to the mid-19th century but the congregation it serves traces its origins all the way back to the Jews who fled the destruction of the first Jerusalem temple in 586 BC. Djerba’s Jewish population has a long history of peaceful coexistence with the Islam majority. The El-Ghriba Synagogue is open to Jews and non-Jews alike.