Situation and characteristicsThe island of Djerba lies 5km/3mi off the southern coast of Tunisia in the Gulf of Gabès, known in antiquity as Syrtis Minor. Thanks to its long and for the most part gently sloping sandy beaches, particularly on the northeast and southeast coasts, and its unchanging Mediterranean climate Djerba ranks with Sousse/Monastir and Hammamet/Nabeul as one of the three most popular tourist centers in Tunisia. In addition to the chief town, Houmt-Souk, there are many other places of interest, which are described below in the form of a tour of the island. Another rewarding possibility is a trip into the interior on a dromedary - an attraction which many dromedary boys will be ready to offer. Information can usually be obtained from your hotel. With an area of 514sq.km/198sq.miles, measuring some 30km/20mi from north to south and from east to west, Djerba is the largest island off the North African coast. Geologically it belongs to the mainland, but when the level of the Mediterranean rose after the Ice Age it was cut off from the coastal plain. The little Gulf of Bou Grara, which separates Djerba from the mainland, is still shallow and lagoon-like. The island is linked with the mainland by a 6.4km/4mi long causeway. The chief place is Houmt-Souk, on the north coast.Vegetation and water supplyDjerba is built up of Tertiary deposits, partly covered by a layer of chalk. Apart from a low hill (54m/177ft) in the southeast of the island it is flat. Djerba's problem since time immemorial has been its water supply, for with its low rainfall (an annual 200m/8lin.) and lack of hills it has no above-ground water resources. Apart from the tourist areas on the north coast, which are supplied with water by pipeline from the mainland, Djerba is dependent on some 4,000 wells and 2,000 cisterns, the water in which is slightly saline. The quality of the water farther inland is rather better than on the coast. The shortage of water influences the structure of the island's agriculture. In the coastal areas the pattern is set by large numbers of date-palms (1.2million in all), in the shadow of which figs and corn are grown; farther inland are olive-groves (some 600,000 trees); and in the center of the island are extensive areas given up to irrigated horticulture (fruit-trees).EconomyApart from agriculture major contributions are made to the economy by the traditional crafts of pottery and hand weaving. Djerba is famed for the pottery of Guellala, the fabrics woven from wool spun from sheepskins imported from the mainland and the work of its goldsmiths and silversmiths. Fishing and sponge-diving are also traditional activities. The waters around Djerba are well stocked with fish, the commonest species being horse mackerel, barbel, tunny, bass, bream, prawns and shrimps. Cuttlefish are caught by putting out long lines with large numbers of small clay jars in which the fish take shelter. After the World War II the island's traditional sources of income were supplemented by the development of tourism along the north coast, with its dry, sunny and, thanks to the moderating influence of the Mediterranean, equable climate, which combined with its long sandy beaches to make Djerba, together with the mainland oasis of Zarzis, the largest resort area in southern Tunisia. On the northeast coast round Sidi Mahrez and La Seguia there are now some 20 hotels offering European standards of amenity, with a total of around 10,000 beds. The airport at Mellita, only 20-35km/12-22mi away, provides a convenient link with the European countries from which most of the holidaymakers come.PopulationCharacteristic of Djerba is a scattered pattern of settlement. This does not, however, imply a low density of population: on the contrary, the population density of Djerba, at 156 to the square kilometer (404 to the squaremi), is very high by Tunisian standards. The pattern of settlement seems rather to reflect the predominance of smallholdings on Djerba, in contrast to the rest of Tunisia. A quarter of the inhabitants, known as Djerbi, still speak Berber dialects. In the past many people left the island because its agriculture could not produce enough to feed the rapidly growing population. Only a few of them found work in the large tourist centers, since many hotel employees came in from other parts of the country; while in all the larger Tunisian towns incomers from Djerba are found working as skilled craftsmen and tradesmen.JewsFormerly there were large numbers of Jews on Djerba, but in recent years there has been a sharp decline in the Jewish population as a result of emigration. The two villages of Hara Kebira and Hara Seghira (now Er Riadh) were founded by Jewish incomers. Every year, 33 days after Easter, Jewish pilgrims from all over North Africa make their way to the famous synagogue of La Ghriba. As noted above, most of the inhabitants of Djerba live in scattered settlements (menzel) - walled farmsteads with enough accommodation to house the extended family. Characteristic features of the landscape are the impenetrable hedges of prickly pears which enclose the fields. Typical of Djerba, too, are the numerous little mosques scattered over the island, most of them used only by a few neighboring families. The Berber people of Djerba belong to two different schools of Islamic belief, the Ibadites and the Malikites (the sect to which a majority of Tunisians belong). The Ibadites split off from the mainstream of Islamic belief in the seventh century under the name of Kharijites ("Seceders") and found many adherents among the Berbers. Fleeing from their orthodox fellow-Muslims, they found a refuge on the island of Djerba, where they established a new home and began to call themselves Ibadites. Now adherents of their version of the faith are found only on Djerba (mainly in the west of the island), in Algeria (where they are called Mozabites) and in Oman. It appears nowadays that adherence to one or other belief has lost its divisive function. Altogether there are some 250 small mosques on Djerba - plain and simple buildings in line with the worshippers' religious beliefs. Ibadite mosques have either a square minaret or none at all; Malikite ones have slender tapering minarets.HistoryDjerba is claimed by some to be the island of the lotus-eaters on which Odysseus landed during his wanderings. Historical knowledge of the island goes back to the ninth century B.C., when the Phoenicians established trading posts on what was known in antiquity as the island of Meninx. It seems likely, on the evidence of the great quantities of murex shells (the shellfish which yielded a precious purple dye) found on the island, that they also operated a dye factory. Under Roman rule Djerba prospered, since it was from here that the slaves and other wares brought from the Sahara and central Africa by the merchants' caravans were shipped to Rome. There were four cities on the island - Haribus, Tipasa, Meninx and Girba (from which the name of Djerba is probably derived). To improve access to the island the Romans built a causeway (possibly on even earlier foundations) over a stretch of water ranging between 4m/12ft and 25m/80ft in depth; its remains are now incorporated in the foundations of the present causeway between El Kantara (ancient Meninx) and the mainland. The fall of Rome meant for Djerba the beginning of a long decline. The raids by the Vandals in A.D. 410 were followed by the Byzantines, the Arab conquest in the seventh century and the devastation wrought by the Beni Hilal nomads in the 11th century. The fight for dominance in the Mediterranean opened up a new period in the history of Djerba. In 1135 it was captured by Normans from Sicily, from whom it was recovered only twenty years later by the Almohads. The Spaniards gained control of the island in 1284, but were driven out by a bloody rising in 1334. In the second half of the 15th century, under the Hafsids, Djerba enjoyed a further period of prosperity, when it became notorious as a pirates' lair. A questionable fame was enjoyed by the great corsair Dragut, who had the full support of the Ottoman Sultan. Around 1550 he strengthened the fortress of Houmt-Souk for protection against Spanish reprisals. Ten years later Spain sent a force of 30 ships and 30,000 men against Houmt-Souk and took the fortress; but the returning Spanish fleet was attacked by Dragut and some 18,000 Spanish and Maltese lost their lives. Finally Dragut laid siege to the fortress, whose garrison of 5,000 men were compelled to surrender and were forthwith beheaded. As a further deterrent Dragut had their skulls built up into a pyramid, which stood outside the fortress for almost 300 years, before being removed in 1848. There is now a monument commemorating the inglorious history of the fortress. Later Djerba came under Turkish rule and in 1881 under French rule, against which there were several rebellions.AccessBy airThe Djerba-Mellita international airport lies 10km/6mi west of Houmt-Souk, the chief place on the island. There are regular flights by Tunis Air from London, as well as from Tunis, Monastir and Tozeur, and by Tunisavia from Sfax; regular flights by Tunis Air and Air France from Brussels, Frankfurt, Geneva, Lyons, Marseilles, Paris and Zurich; and numerous charter flights from European airports.By busThere are bus services to Djerba from Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, Gabès, Médenine, Zarzis and Ben Gardane. The bus station (Gare Routière) in Houmt-Souk is in Avenue Habib Bourguiba. On the island itself there are bus services between the tourist hotels and Midoun, Adjim, Guellala, Sedouikech, Er Riadh (also called Hara Seghira), Qualegh, Houmt-Souk and Mellita (airport).By car and ferryGP 1 (Gabès-Médenine). Turn off just south of Mareth into MC 116, which runs northeast and comes in 50km/30mi to Djorf, from which there is a car ferry to Adjim on Djerba.By causewayAlternatively turn off GP 1 15km/9mi northwest of Médenine into MC 118, which runs north- east to Zarzis. From there it is 20km/12.5mi to the 6.4km/4mi long causeway leading to El Kantara on Djerba.
AccessFrom the mainland end of the causeway from El Kantara MC 117 runs southeast to Zarzis (20km/12.5mi). The "Route Touristique" (Route des Hotels), which also starts at the end of the dam, follows the coast and leads direct, via Hassi, to the hotel zone on the sea.Situation and characteristicsThe second major tourist center of southern Tunisia is the oasis of Zarzis, 20km/12.5mi southeast of Djerba on the Akkara peninsula. Geographically belonging to the Djeffara plain, this coastal oasis was developed by the French in the late 19th century. The landscape pattern is set by olive plantations (700,000 trees), groves of date-palms (110,000 trees; the dates are used only for animal fodder) and market gardens. The town of Zarzis (pop. 11,000) is strongly marked by the tourist trade. The hotel zone extends for some 8km/5mi along the coast, ending 4km/2.5mi from the town, with which it is connected by regular bus services.
Djerba is a good base from which to visit places of interest on the mainland: in particular Chott el Djerid, Gabès, Gafsa, Tozeur, Nefta, Kebili and Médenine.
Map of Djerba Attractions