Exploring Tozeur's Oasis: A Visitor's Guide
For tourists just in from exploring the attractions of the desert, Tozeur's palm oasis provides a welcome reprieve from all that sand, and a visit here is one of the town's top things to do. The oasis is an intensively cultivated area southeast of town, covering some 1,050 hectares. It contains around 400,000 date palms, which provide shade for fruit trees (peaches, apricots, pomegranates, figs, citrus fruits, and bananas). The palms yield between 25,000 and 30,000 tons of dates annually, including only 1,000 tons of the top quality deglet nour dates - particularly aromatic, semi-sweet, and not too soft - which grow only at the tips of palms in good soils well supplied with water.
Some 200 springs and artesian wells (with a total flow of 700 liters per second) supply the oasis with water. Most of the springs are near the Belvédère, where they join to form a river flowing through the oasis and petering out at its end, on the edge of the Chott el Djerid. The water from the river and the artesian wells is channeled to the various land holdings within the oasis through an intricate network of little open channels, known as seguias, and in accordance with a complicated distribution system that still follows the ancient rules.
Imam Ibn Chabbat originally laid down regulations for the water distribution in a book written in the middle of the 13th century. Under this system, each holding of land, depending on its situation, size, and time of irrigation (morning, evening, etc.), is assigned a particular unit of time during which it is supplied with water through the seguias, all of which are of the same size.
This close control over the distribution of water is necessitated by the scarcity of the supply. The artesian wells bring up water from depths of between 60 and 100 meters, but in recent years, the water table has been slowly but steadily falling. The yield of the wells has been decreasing, and they are now giving place to modern deep wells, which tap deposits of fossil water at a depth of 600 meters - a supply dating from earlier geological periods which is not renewable.
Land ownership in Tozeur is still based on traditional and rather antiquated concepts and structures. Most of the land in the oasis belongs to no more than 60 families, who account for less than two percent of the population, and the Zaouia Tijaniya, a wealthy and influential religious brotherhood found throughout the Maghreb. Only eight percent of the land belongs to smallholders, who work their own land and usually own no more than 50 palms.
The large landowners - many of them merchants or nomads, who are traditionally disinclined to work on the land - and religious brotherhoods own more than 1,000 palms apiece. Their land is worked by sharecroppers (khammes), who retain between a tenth and a third (depending on the crop) of the harvest. The name khammes comes from khamsa ("five"), the croppers' average or traditional share being one-fifth. This pattern of land ownership and employment developed over the centuries, when the caravan routes fell out of use and oasis farming remained the only means of subsistence. The wealthier landowners bought up the impoverished smallholders' water rights, cut off their water supply, and finally acquired their land. The dispossessed peasants were then compelled to become their tenants. The share of the harvest they receive is sufficient only to meet the most basic requirements of subsistence.
The oasis is a relaxing diversion from desert sightseeing trips. The major attraction is simply the shady, peaceful atmosphere. Most people choose to cycle through the meandering dirt lanes here, as the area is too large to explore on foot. Bicycles can be hired from hotels and many shops in Tozeur.