On Monday morning I left Sidi Bou and started to make my way south. Our first stop was in Kairouan, Islam's 4th holiest city. Kairouan is a fascinating, ancient city and we were able to visit a shrine and the Great Mosque. It's rare here for non-Muslims to be able to enter mosques but we were allowed inside the courtyard to take a look. Only followers of Islam could enter the prayer room however. The building itself is very interesting architecturally because the columns used to build it are left over from the Roman empire. I guess early Arab conquerers weren't real concerned with symmetry or matching because none of the columns are alike. They literally recycled columns from all sorts of random Roman buildings---the capitals (the top part of the column with the decoration) are a range of different designs. Here's a picture---how many different capital designs do you count?
We also stopped at a cafe with a well that supposedly contains water attributed with incredible religious and healthful virtues. Muslims who drink from the well on a regular basis are exempt from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Water is drawn from the well by a water wheel pulled by a blinded, muzzled camel who looked as if he hadn't seen life outside the dark cafe interior. A little put off by the treatment of the animal (hint: more animal cruelty to come in later posts), we left the well room and opted instead to drink mint tea and Turkish coffee and to smoke some chicha.
The greatest discovery I made in Kairouan, however, had nothing to do with architecture, religion or history. It had to do with food. Surprised? Here's the deal: Kairouan is famous for their Makroud, little seminola cookies with date centers sprinkled with sesame seeds. They are absolutely, completely addicting and though you can find them throughout Tunisia, my first and best Makroud experience occurred in Kairouan. After we bought a kilo to share we spent the entire rest of the trip taking turns buying kilos or two kilos or more of the delicious desserts and each time they were gone as soon as someone mentioned they had a box full in their possession. I absolutely expect to go through some sort of painful withdrawal when I go back to the states and I'm dreading it. I also wish I could say that previous statement was a joke!
After Kairouan we continued on to Sbeitla, a Roman ruins site. It's extremely well preserved, though having also seen the colosseum at El Jem, I have to say it doesn't quite compare but that will be clear in later posts when I put up El Jem pics. Here are a few views of the temples at Sbeitla.
While most Roman cities chose to construct a single temple in honor of the three most important gods (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), three were built at Sbeitla, one for each god. The ruins of a theatre also remain.
Finally we reached Gafsa, a town known for little more than a convenient overnight hotel stop for desert-bound travelers. That is exactly what we used it for. The hotel we stayed at, Hotel Gafsa Palace, was rather extravagant, however, and a nice treat after a long bus ride. We ended the night with a group game of charades in one of the hotel rooms. Tunisian charades was a bit of an adventure, especially when trying to act out "lablabi" or "S'lim, the Coste waiter." :)