The Berber Inheritance: Amar Grover Travels through the Breathtaking Scenery of Tunisia to Visit Some of the Last Remaining Traditional Berber Buildings

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Today, the Berbers--North Africa's indigenes before the arrival of Arab tribes--area minority in the Maghreb. When the Arabs first encountered them, they were struck by their peculiar, almost hissing language. Ibn Khaldum, the 14th-century Moorish scholar, claimed in his Universal History that the name Berber derived from the Arab word bambara, or 'a mix of unintelligible noises', a label given to them centuries earlier by the Yemeni conqueror Ifriqish.

Today's often mutually incomprehensible dialects reflect the diversity of a people scattered across an immense area. On a linguistic basis, around 40 per cent of Morocco's population, perhaps 20 per cent of Algeria's and barely one per cent of Tunisia's are nominally, if not actually, Berber. While Morocco boasts the most intact Berber culture, picturesquely cradled in the Atlas Mountains, Tunisia has retained--although only just and in a rather museum-like way--some of the finest and most distinctive Berber architecture.

Tunisia's Berber heartland lies in its southeast, on the edge of the Dahar Plateau, the Jebel Detainer and Jebel Abiadh. It stretches roughly from Matmata in the northwest down to the Libyan border about 200 kilometres away. For years, tourists have ventured here for a glimpse of the Berber's heritage and a taste of this stark, sub-Saharan landscape. Filmmakers--perhaps the most celebrated being George Lucas with his Star Wars films--have been drawn, too, by the seductive, stirring locations.

In their architecture, too, the Berbers were governed by location, for theirs are marginal lands defined by practical and strategic constraints. In their construction, for example, of jessour--earthen dams across gullies that retained rainwater and rich sediments and retarded soil erosion--they effectively more than doubled their average rainfall. Their most singular constructions, however, were underground homes and fortified granaries, with lofty fortress-like villages often combining elements of both.

Neither pit nor cave

Perhaps the most drastic solution to the harsh climate--intense heat coupled with sudden but relatively low rainfall--was to build underground homes. These remained virtually isothermal: cool in summer, warm in winter. Either excavated as caves or dug as pits, the latter especially echo a pithy old Matmata proverb: Here the living live under the dead. The clay soil around Matmata is pockmarked with craters up to ten metres deep and the same across. Living and storage rooms were dug from within these courtyards. The main entrance usually comprised a long tunnel--sometimes with a bulge or chamber serving as a stable--sloping outward to drain sporadic rainfall. Ceilings were often vaulted and, together with the walls, lime washed.

Few remain inhabited today, having succumbed to concrete and breeze-blocks. Most visitors to Matmata visit one of three basic troglodyte hotels for a meal and a look at the surreal remains of sets, still in situ, from Star Wars. The oldest, and arguably best, hotel was opened in 1964, and boasts a cavernous entrance hall with five radiating pits or courtyards. There is also a 'troglodyte museum', whose chambers display domestic utensils and mannequins sporting traditional clothing. Its owners, an extended family, no longer live here ("too uncomfortable, no facilities," they say with a shrug) but eke a living from tourism.

With a little effort, one can see an inhabited pit-home. At Madame Hamila's on the outskirts of town, I strolled down towards a maze of low dusty hills where a 25-metre tunnel led into a deep courtyard with five main rooms. Above these was space for more--accessible by rope and footholds. This family had stayed because it was cheaper and cooler and, of course, tourism brought an income, too. "We must always live here with cats," they explain brightly. "Ours are very good at catching the rats and snakes."

This particular vernacular has virtually no relevance in a modernising Tunisia. …