Nefta Tourist Attractions
Situation and characteristicsThe little town of Nefta lies in its oasis (area 1,100 hectares/2,750 acres) southwest of Tozeur, only 36km/22mi from the Algerian frontier, on the western edge of the Chott el Djerid.
It is the market center of Tunisia's most westerly oasis, with a busy market on Wednesdays. Its inhabitants earn their living from oasis agriculture (over 400,000 date-palms, including 70,000 which produce the high quality deglat en nour or "finger of light" date), trade and craft productions. Nefta is famed for its carpet-makers, its silk weavers and its potters.TourismIn recent years tourism has come to Nefta. Here as in the oasis of Douz the magic word "Sahara" has begun to attract large numbers of visitors. Many new hotels have been built or are under construction, and the town's bed capacity is to be still further increased in coming years. Apart from permanent sunshine the attractions offered to tourists include Landrover excursions into the desert, visits to other oases including Tozeur and the Nefzaoua oases and trips across the Chott el Djerid or through the Seldja Gorge.EventsNefta is a pilgrimage center to which pilgrims travel throughout the year. There is a Folk Festival in April and a Date Festival in November/ December.Nefta as a religious centerNefta is the religious center of the Bled el Djerid, the "Land of Palms", with more than 24 mosques and 100 marabouts. The marabouts still attract pilgrims from all over southern Tunisia and even from Algeria. This great veneration of the marabouts reflects the continuing vigor of Sufism, the movement which grew up in the 12th century around the learned Sufi Abu Madian (d. 1197). The name of the Sufis came from the simple woolen garment (suf) they wore. They believed that the adherents of Islam, a religion of the desert, should show particular modesty of behavior and asceticism, and were much given to mysticism, the veneration of holy men, spiritual contemplation and meditation. Sufism is also marked by religious forms taken over from the pre-Islamic, animistic religions of the Berber population which orthodox Islam seeks to repress - belief in spirits, witchcraft, fortune-telling, the efficacy of amulets, etc. Regional variants of Sufism were propagated by holy men, who frequently founded their own brotherhoods, with centers for the teaching of disciples. They are credited with numerous miracles and revered for their holiness, and their tombs (marabouts) are places of pilgrimage, attracting varying numbers of pilgrims according to their reputation. In the past these holy men were also appealed to as judges in the conflicts which frequently occurred between the nomadic tribes and the settled population of the oases. Nefta is the last stronghold of this Sufism, and is sometimes called, not without justification, the "Kairouan of the South". The marabouts venerated here are scattered about throughout the old town of Nefta and the oasis.The townNefta is divided into two parts by a small oued and a depression at its northern end. To the east of the oued is the new town, with the old souk quarter at its southwestern corner; to the west, on the slopes of a hill, is the old town. The main road from Tozeur runs through the new town as Avenue Habib Bourguiba, which then crosses the oued and skirts the old town. At its western end a street branches off on the right, ascends the hill, goes round the old town and the sand-bowl and returns to Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Nefta is a town of cube-shaped, flat-roofed houses huddled closely together, with Tozeur-style decoration. In some of the streets the upper storys of the houses, borne on round- headed arches, project over the street, forming a kind of tunnel which offers protection from the sun. It is planned to restore the old town in the very near future.HistoryThe history of the oases of the Djerid reaches far back into the past. They are believed to have been settled by Numidians, but only their Roman names have been preserved, such as Thusuros (Tozeur), Aggasel, Nepte (Nefta), Thigae (Kriz), Aquae (El Hamma) and Capsa (Gafsa). The Romans and later the Byzantines built forts in the oases to provide protection against raids by desert nomads. In Byzantine times Nefta and Tozeur were episcopal sees. In the mid seventh century Nefta was conquered by the Arabs and, in spite of fierce resistance, converted to Islam. In subsequent centuries it prospered as an important staging-point for caravans (for a time the most important in Tunisia). Its decline began in the 15th century as a result of more frequent raids by the nomadic tribes and the general falling off in the caravan trade. With the coming of the French in 1881, however, it took on a fresh lease of life.AccessNefta lies on GP 3 (Gafsa-Nefta), 25km/16mi southwest of Tozeur (airport; regular services to and from Tunis, Monastir and Djerba) and 113km/70mi southwest of Gafsa. From the bus station (Gare Routière) in Avenue Habib Bourguiba there are regular bus services to Tozeur and Gafsa and a once-daily service to Douz and Hazaoua, the frontier post for the crossing into Algeria. The 4km/ 2.5mi from there to the frontier must be done either on foot or in a louage (communal taxi). From the Algerian frontier post there are buses to El Oued.
Corbeille de Nefta
The Corbeille ("Basket") is the name given to the 30m/100ft deep depression at the head of the oued in Nefta, filled with a closely planted grove of tall palms. Here two small streams fed by a number of springs at the north end of the gorge join to form the oued which waters the oasis. The springs which feed the oued now have a much less abundant flow than in the past. In 1893 they supplied 1,000liters/220gallons of water a second, but in 1982 the flow was only 300liters/66gallons a second. It has been necessary, therefore, to drive wells down to a depth of 600 to 1,000m (2,000 to 3,300ft) to tap the ground-water far below. There is a pleasant walk through the Corbeille, following the warm stream to a clearing in the palm-grove where the water has formed a pool.
To the south of the Souk quarter the town of Nefta comes to an end, giving place to the garden-like country of the oasis, traversed by sandy tracks and small irrigation channels which distribute water to the various holdings of land in accordance with traditional rules.The most important products of the oasis, in addition to corn, vegetables and citrus fruits, are the famous deglat en nour dates. Since the economic and social structure of Nefta, like that of Tozeur, is antiquated - with a small number (some 2% of the population) of large landowners owning over 1,000 palms each and some hundreds of smallholdings of under 50 palms - productivity is much lower than in recently planted palm-groves such as those in the oasis of El Hamma.
Marabout of Sidi Bou Ali
The most important marabout and place of pilgrimage in the oasis is the Marabout of Sidi Bou Ali, reached on a narrow road which branches off the main road to the frontier opposite Avenue Esslim (to the east of the Hotel Marhala) and runs south into the oasis. The marabout is dedicated to a Moroccan holy man who came to Nefta in the 13th century to settle a serious religious dispute which had almost led to a schism. He died in Nefta and was buried at the place where he had been teaching. The tomb (not open to non-Muslims) has a beautifully decorated burial chamber and prayer hall with a plaster stalactitic ceiling. On the northern edge of the oasis, opposite the Mosque of Sidi M'Khareg, is a cafe.
Before looking round the sights of Nefta it is a good idea to get a general view of the town and its surroundings. There are two fine viewpoints on the north side of the town, the Cafe de la Corbeille and the terrace of the Sahara Palace Hotel to the east, overlooking the whole of Nefta with the white domes of its marabouts, the Corbeille, the oasis and the surrounding desert.
Market Square (Chorfa Quarter)
From the Great Mosque a narrow lane on the right, partly roofed over, leads to the Place de l'Indépendance, the market square of the old town of Nefta and in particular of the Chorfa quarter in its center. The houses in the square have elaborately patterned mud-brick facades.
Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Nefta's main street, runs southeast to the bridge over the oued, emerges from the Corbeille, and continues into the new town, with its banks, petrol stations, modern shops, post office and tourist information office (ONTT).
At the post office in Nefta a narrow street goes off on the right, leading through the picturesque little lanes of the souk quarter to the market square of this quarter, the Place de la Libération, with numerous shops and cafes and the market hall.
Zaouia of Sidi Brahim (Sidi Kadria)
Adjoining the Cafe de la Corbeille in Nefta, immediately in front of the Hotel Mirage, is the Zaouia of Sidi Brahim (Sidi Kadria), with the tomb of the holy man and his sons. Visitors are admitted to the prayer hall and the teaching room. Sidi Brahim was an important Sufi, and the Zaouia is a much-visited center of Sufism.
Mosque of Sidi Salem (Great Mosque)
A tortuous route through the old town of Nefta leads to the 16th century Mosque of Sidi Salem or Great Mosque (Djemaa el Kebir), the town's oldest mosque. Situated on the western edge of the Corbeille, it offers a fine view of the palm-grove.
15km/9mi west of Nefta the main road into Algeria (GP 3) runs through a large area of dunes, an offshoot of the Grand Erg Oriental.
The old town of Nefta is a warren of picturesque streets and houses with decorated brick facades, interspersed with the domes and minarets of the mosques.
Map of Nefta Attractions