Magazine article Geographical

A Room with No View

Magazine article Geographical

A Room with No View

Article excerpt

If you were beamed down to Matmata, Planet Earth, you might well be confused. The deeply eroded, lunar landscape is pockmarked with hundreds of crater-like holes, some emitting a thin whisp of smoke. TV aerials stand about on sticks, eerily close to the edges of some of the craters. A strolling schoolgirl glimpsed against the skyline one moment, is gone the next, seemingly swallowed up by the Earth itself. Curiouser and curiouser.

We are in the surreal land of troglodyte pit houses, dug by the Hammama des Matmata Berber tribe, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, in southern Tunisia. The Berbers, subjected to Islam by Arab conquerors in the 7th century and marginalised by further Arab expansion in the 11th century, took refuge in the mountain tops. Around 400 years ago, some of these people came down from the mountains to settle in Matmata and the surrounding villages. Here, they created a kind of troglodyte dwelling that survives virtually unchanged. Photojournalist Jamie Carstairs visits the rock homes that are literally at the bottom of the property ladder

in Matmata, a sign like this often points to nothing visible. However, persevere with caution and you will soon come across a large, usually roughly circular pit, typically 12 metres in diameter and about ten metres deep. You may then be invited in for a tour of an underground hideaway home. Some villagers make their living from tips given by tourists

about half of the 700 pit houses are still lived in and many are now connected to Tunisia's electricity supply. Often a satellite dish or car, seemingly parked in the middle of nowhere, is the only indication that a house is there. In the 1960s, the government tried to eradicate the underground houses, and some families moved to conventional concrete houses in New Matmata

a view of Matmata from the cemetery, graced with domed marabouts (shrines of holy men). The soft tufa rock is easily worked and is ideal for excavating rooms that will not collapse or need shoring up. In the harsh environment, the houses retain the heat in winter and remain cool in summer. They were never built for defensive reasons, as is sometimes claimed

Tunisian pit houses, despite being underground, are built to the typical Arab or north African ground plan. Around the haouch (central courtyard) there are up to eight rooms, used for eating, sleeping, stabling and storage. This abandonment pit house is in El Haddej, which was devastated by heavy floods in 1969. The property is now used exclusively to stable sheep and goats

typical entrance doors are made of palm tree planks pegged together with olive wood. …

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