July 25, 2004

A Photo Tour of Tunisia


Here is the North African coastline along the Gulf of Tunis as seen from the cliffside seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. In the days of Carthage the pagan God Baal was worshipped in a sanctuary atop the larger mountain Djebel Bou Kornein - the “two-horned hill” in Arabic.


I have never been to Greece, but I felt like I was there in Sidi Bou Said. This was the most pleasant place we visited in Tunisia. A riot of vegetation tumbled down the cliff toward the shimmering Mediterranean. The streets are finely cobbled, the restaurants elegant, and the walls perfectly whitewashed. Here you’ll see as many women as men. You’ll also see couples holding hands. It’s a long way from the deeply conservative, seemingly all-male, offensively hot south of the country.


The most intoxicating place is the haunting and labrynthine old medina of Tunis. You can avoid getting lost if you stay on the main paths. But what fun are ancient twisting streets if you don’t get lost in them? Pick a side street and start walking. You won’t truly feel like you’ve travelled far from home until you think you’ve tresspassed in someone else’s neighborhood and you don’t know how to get out.


This is the view across the street from our hotel in Tunis. The name of that tower, the Hotel Africa, seems wrong somehow. Is Africa really this prosperous? Well, yes, at least one part of it is.


Here is my wife Shelly at breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Carlton where we stayed for three nights. The street below is the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after Tunisia’s own Kemal Ataturk. The ancient medina is only a few blocks away.


150 miles down the coast is the smaller city of Sousse. Like Tunis, it is a relatively liberal and cosmopolitan place. A lot of tourists from Europe visit Sousse. Most go to the beach. I preferred the medina, which is what you see in this picture from above.


And here is a photo of the inside of the medina. The medieval wall you see on the left was built when the Arabs conquered Tunisia.


I was tempted to use up an entire memory stick on my digital camera taking pictures only of doors. Even the poorest Tunisians have a nicer door than the one on our house. We really do need to upgrade.


Here is a picture of me on the medieval wall at the top of the Sousse medina. The Mediterranean keeps this place cool, at least when compared to the Sahara.


This ribat is inside the medina. It, too, is medieval as you can see by the look of it. Its purpose was purely military. Ribats like this one were closely spaced along the North Africa coast and were built to watch out for Crusaders. When ships were spotted a signal fire was lighted at the top of the tower. This set off a chain of signal fires along the coast from one ribat to the next. Tolkien geeks will remember seeing something a lot like this, only on mountain tops instead of along the sea, in The Return of the King.


Here is where you’ll find most of the tourists in Tunisia. The beach is pleasant enough, if rather ordinary. The beach looks and feels more like Miami than the Middle East. Even so, the Pacific in our Oregon is far too cold for swimming, so we couldn’t resist spending one day in the sea. No regrets.


You don’t have to venture very far inland before Tunisia changes dramatically. 50 miles from the sea and it no longer looks like Mediterranean civilization. For one thing, mosques are made of mud instead of marble.


You know you’re far from home when you see buildings that look like this one. I don’t know how to “read” this, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for when I travel.


Exotic as the interior is, you can still find places that look familiar and “Western.” The temperature was more than 100 degrees when I took this courtyard photo, but somehow the architecture made me feel cooler. I suspect it may have been designed for that purpose.


Before I went to Tunisia I didn’t know how to tell a Berber from an Arab. I knew the Berbers were in North Africa first and that they have their own traditions. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell on sight what was Berber and what was Arab. So let me help you out and give you an example of the difference in style. This is a picture of an Arab bar. (Yes, this is a real bar. They do drink booze in Tunisia.)


And this is a picture of a Berber bar in the same town of Matmata. This place was tunneled into the ground. The Berbers went underground more than a 1000 years ago to escape the infernal heat of the Sahara. You would, too, if you didn’t have central air. You would tunnel into the walls with your hands if you had to. Trust me. It’s f-ing hot there in July. But these “troglodyte” houses are a cool 75 degrees at midday.

The Arab bar is more formally “nice,” but the Berber place was a lot more fun to hang out in.


Here is where we slept in Matmata, at the Hotel Sidi Driss. This place won an award for the world’s “loopiest hotel.” This was also where part of Star Wars was filmed. This was where George Lucas filmed Luke Skywalker’s homeworld of Tatooine.


This is what it looks like when you drive into the Sahara. The sky is as white as the background of my Web site in this picture, even though it was a perfectly clear day.

The desert isn’t all a sea of sand. (If it were there would be no roads.) Most of it is scrub and gravel plain bisected by mountain ranges and rock. All of it is hotter than Hell. I just can’t say it enough. That place is hot, the hottest place on the Earth during the summer.


Some of the Sahara looks like this. This is the Chott el Jerrid. Don’t try walking across it. It’s a dried-out ancient sea bed, cracked by heat and encrusted with salt. If you do walk out there you had better cover your face. A hat isn’t good enough. Sunlight bounces off the surface and will burn you from below.


I took this photo after a ten minute walk from our hotel in Douz. The dunes there are low and white. They manage to be pretty without being spectacular.


The dunes around Ksar Ghilane are spectacular. We paid a guy a handsome sum to drive us deep into the desert and hook us up with another guy who took us into the dunes on camels. It was a physically brutal experience in the blistering heat of July, but we got to sleep outside that night and Shelly thanked me for dragging her out there. How could anyone take a look at this view and wish they were anywhere else?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 25, 2004 08:51 PM

Wonderful images! As a magazine editor who picks all the photos in each issue, I applaud your eye for composition (c:

Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: A Recovering Liberal at July 25, 2004 09:06 PM

Awesome, simply awesome

Posted by: Ry Jones at July 25, 2004 09:49 PM

Fantastic pics.
Funny how the funky is more fun to hang out.

When there is low cost solar air-conditioning, and (nanotech?) desalination, there could be an agro revolution around the deserts.

"The ocean is a desert with its life underground, and the perfect disguise above." (America -- or were you too young for Horse with no name?)

Posted by: Tom Grey at July 26, 2004 01:06 AM

You almost make me want to visit the place. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Eric at July 26, 2004 05:45 AM

>>>"And here is a photo of the inside of the medina. The medieval wall you see on the left was built when the Arabs conquered Tunisia."

That can't be. The only people who did any conquering were the evil Crusaders. That's why they resent us. The Arabs, on the other hand, were peace-loving missionaries.

By the way, those were some stunning pictures Michael.

Posted by: David at July 26, 2004 06:56 AM

ps. your wife is hot. And what's the deal with that white sky?

Posted by: David at July 26, 2004 06:57 AM


Thanks for posting your travel pics. What an amazing looking place.

Did you make it to Djerba (sometimes written "Ghriba" in English as well)?

Aside from being the location of an Al-Qaedaesque attack on a synagogue, it's supposedly beautiful.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at July 26, 2004 07:21 AM


Whoops. Djerba is the name of the island. Ghriba is the name of the synagogue.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at July 26, 2004 07:23 AM


No, we didn't make it to Djerba. Djerba is, for those who don't know, the "Lotus Eaters" island from Homer's "The Odyssey."

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 26, 2004 08:20 AM

David: And what's the deal with that white sky?

I saw a white sky in the clear hot days of the Midwest during the summer and I thought it was because of the humidity. But the Sahara is not humid. I'm tempted to say the sky turns white when it gets really hot, but I wouldn't be able to explain the mechanism. So I'm not really sure. But white skies do correspond to extreme heat in my experience.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 26, 2004 08:24 AM

So Michael, was it hot enough for you? (Sorry, couldn't resist).

Great pictures, thanks for sharing.

Posted by: bob at July 26, 2004 09:30 AM

Thank you for posting these pictures. They are wonderful.

Posted by: crionna at July 26, 2004 09:33 AM

Yay! Tatooine! My life is complete ;)

But seriously, was there ever any trepidation to going out into the desert on camels? My only thought would have been that my guide might have a heart attack, and someday someone would wander by and dig up my bleached white bones?

Posted by: Barry at July 26, 2004 10:21 AM

Barry: was there ever any trepidation to going out into the desert on camels?

No, we didn't go far enough. Only an hour into the dunes. Camels walk the same speed as a human, so it would only take an hour to get back to the oasis. And we could see the oasis from the tops of the dunes. It was the big green thing.

If you go in the Winter you can organize week-long treks. But no one does any such thing in July. It's too dangerous, and it certainly wouldn't be fun.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 26, 2004 10:49 AM

Wonderful pix Michael! Thanks so much for sharing them.

The color of the sky is a function of the light scatterng off of molecules of air, and particulate matter. The blue color of sky results primarily from scattering off of air molecules - in the polar regions, where there is very little particulate matter in the air, the sky is intensly blue. Larger molecules cause a more generalized scattering leading to a less color-filtered result - i.e. white light. I imagine the dust of the desert might be the contributing factor to the scattering seen in the desert.

Posted by: Tano at July 26, 2004 11:15 AM

Michael, welcome back! I agree with you about the Medina. When we were in Morocco we could have walked for hours in the Medina in Tetouan.

Posted by: Randy Paul at July 26, 2004 12:35 PM

"I was tempted to use up an entire memory stick on my digital camera taking pictures only of doors"

When I was thinking about taking a digital camera to Russia, I bought a Sony FD Mavica, doesn't hold as many photos in memory but it stores them in floppys.

Floppys are easy to get. ;-) Plus I could store the photos of one floppy in temporary memory and make a second copy and leave it as a gift.

The FD100 also comes with a memory stick as well as floppy storage but only has 3X optical zoom, my cheaper version has 10X .

Posted by: Daniel Kauffman at July 26, 2004 01:09 PM


It only happens every once in a great while but, alas, David and I wholeheartedly agree on something again. Your wife is absolutely beautiful, Michael.

Oh, and the rest of your pictures are great too. ;)

Posted by: Grant McEntire at July 27, 2004 03:18 AM

About the rest of your pictures...

You've accumulated quite a few posted pics on your site, Michael. A suggestion, if I may: Gather them all up on one page and post a link we can visit for it. Pictures of all your trips and your cat and your garden and all of it, all in one place. You may say, "Hey, this is a blog and not a personal webpage," but it is called MichaelTotten.com. I'm just saying, maybe you ought to stretch the classic definition a little. Seems to me you've got enough regulars around here that would be interested in such a thing. You take really awesome pictures for someone who admittedly knows diddley about photography.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at July 27, 2004 03:25 AM


I lived in Tunis--downtown, near Avenue Bourguiba--when I was assigned to the Embass there. Your pictures--of excellent quality, BTW--exactly capture the country. Too bad you didn't get to Bulla Regia, a Roman town, now in ruins, where they emulated the natives by building below ground. And the mountains in the northwest of the country, near the Algerian border. But you definite captured the essence.

How are the Europeans behaving these days? When I was there, they had a hard time keeping their clothes on, on the beach, causing more than a little offense in a conservative society.

Posted by: Hatcher at July 27, 2004 09:08 AM

Amazing. I want to go there.

Posted by: praktike at July 27, 2004 11:02 AM

"What is the deal with that white sky?"

OK, I'll try to give a short explanation. First, you have to understand why the sky is usually blue. White light, as most of us know, is composed of all the colours of the spectrum. Light is (partially) electromagnetic waves, and each colour has a different wavelength. As sunlight passes through our atmosphere, it bounces off of a lot of different things, like molecules, particles of dust, water vapour, and since each colour that makes up that white light has a different size wavelength, they "bounce" off of the atoms, molecules, particles, in different ways. Since blue has a shorter wavelength than all the other colours (except violet which I will get to), it bounces or "scatters" more than any of the other colours of light (all this scattering is called Rayleigh scattering. Thus, there is more of this "scattered" blue light around to reach our eyes than the other colours of light, so we perceive the sky as blue. But you say "violet has a shorter wavelength than blue!" which is true, but the mechanism of our vision is not nearly as sensitive to violet as it is to blue, so our perception of the blue wins out.

Now, that behind us, why is the sky in Michael's picture white? Well, as I said, all sorts of things in the atmosphere affect how those waves of light scatter around. Ice particles, water vapour and hot air scatter and diffuse the light in different ways and therefore affect our perception of sky colour. The hot air over the desert, combined with an abundance of dust particles, changes the way the light is scattered, causing the other colours of light to be scattered more than they would under "normal" conditions and changing our perception of the colour of the sky from a predominant blue colour to a more evenly scattered, and therefore more white colour. Glare from the light hitting the mostly light white/yellow of the ground (which in the desert provides a much more evenly coloured surface than we're used to) also contributes to this perception of white sky.

And, to tie up the whole thing, the camera is naturally tuned to be approximately sensitive to the same range of colours that our eyes are, so the camera also perceives the sky as white. (there are different kinds of film and digital sensors for cameras to be sensitive to other waves than we don't visually perceive, such as x-ray film and the infrared balanced film which I used to use in college because it produces such beautiful contrasty black-and-white prints).

Sorry to bore you with all this, but the question was asked and I hope my explanation sufficed.

Beautiful pictures, Michael. I want to go there now.

Posted by: goldsmith at July 27, 2004 01:10 PM

Great pictures! It's funny that wives are sometimes squeemish about things like riding out into the middle of the desert and sleeping there overnight... yet, after the experience is over, they thank you for dragging them out there. I had the same thing happen to me with a glacier in Patagonia!

I'm curious how your wife dressed, especially in the south -- long sleeves, scarf over hair?

Posted by: Al at July 27, 2004 03:12 PM

Al: I'm curious how your wife dressed, especially in the south -- long sleeves, scarf over hair?

She dressed more conservatively than she does at home. But no scarf over her hair. No one expected her to do that, and they probably would have thought it strange if she did. Western women are not expected to ack like Arab women, not even in the conservative parts of the country. Tunisians are tolerant people. They pride themselves on it, and are taught to be tolerant in school.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 27, 2004 05:14 PM

That's great to hear, Michael. Quite the opposite from my experience in Pakistan. Let's hope that the Tunisian way takes hold throughout the Middle East.

Posted by: Al at July 27, 2004 05:44 PM

More pictures of Shelly!

Posted by: Zak Braverman at July 27, 2004 07:35 PM

I'm glad my wife is popular!

Here are two more pictures.

One. Two.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 27, 2004 09:01 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member


"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere

Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com

News Feeds


Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button


Tip Jar


Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn