Djerba, or Jerba, covering 200 square miles and now owned by Tunisia, the largest island considered to be part of North Africa, is in the Gulf of Gabes just off the Cap Bon Peninsula. No one should leave Tunisia without experiencing this legendary place. Djerba was almost certainly Homer’s inspiration for the isle that provided refuge to Odysseus from the sirens on his voyage across the Mediterranean. Djerba is indeed a paradise, blooming with flowers, orange groves, and olive trees, dotted with the unique square whitewashed houses known as menzels. Djerba has magnificent beaches, beguiling historical ruins, and the teeming Houmt Souk market, but surely its biggest draw for Americans is the little village of Ajim, where the exterior scenes of the first Star Wars film were shot.
Djerba has had several different names in the last two thousand years. It was called Meninx until about 300 AD, home to three major towns, one of which was a major producer of the famous murex dye for clothing, made from sea snails. The island was more densely populated in Roman times than it is now. During the Middle Ages, Christians from neighboring Sicily and Aragon in Spain fought over it and a number of military forts from this period still stand, along with dozens of small mosques.
Homer recounts how Odysseus, fleeing the sirens, came across a beautiful island where delicate fruit grew in abundance, home to the lotus-eaters. All his sailors partook of this delicious fruit (which many believe to have been sweet dates — be sure to try some Djerba dates while you are here) and having eaten the fruit lost all memory of their homeland and their families. Djerba is home to dozens of historic mosques which provide fine examples of Mediterranean Islamic architecture along with the impregnable stronghold of El Kebir dating from the thirteenth century, which down through the ages has served to garrison Arab, Spanish, French, and Turkish troops.
Surely the focal point of the entire island is the beautiful, whitewashed city of Houmt Souk, where buildings look like they have been bleached snow white by a magic, cleansing rain. About five miles from the capital is the palm-fringed village of Guellala, world-renown for its bright ceramics, blazing with primary colors.
Djerba is also home to the ancient El Ghriba Synagogue, also known as the Djerba Synagogue, located in the village of Hara Seghira a couple miles southwest of Houmt Souk, which is the central urban area of the entire island. The synagogue is a holy destination for many Tunisian Jews during an annual pilgrimage that takes place in observance of Lag Ba-Omer, a holiday set 33 days after Passover. The interior, with its rich lattice of stained glass and tiles, is a haven of peace where the faithful pray in the cool shade. Though it is today primarily an Islamic nation, Tunisia has a rich Jewish heritage stretching continuously back in time for 25 centuries. Some of the names with the deepest historic roots in Tunisia are Jewish families.
The exquisite storybook village of Ajim, in Tataouine, was personally chosen by George Lucas to be the location for shooting memorable scenes of Star Wars. The dream-like landscapes here, so reminiscent of the paintings of Dali (who often came to Djerba) continue to astonish all who come here to experience the site in person. Entrance is free, but I always make it a point to tip the watchmen.
In terms of dining and overnighting, El Farida in Sidi Mahrez, is the most classically beautiful and luxurious hostelry on the island, with a kitchen that serves excellent traditional cuisine and absolutely fresh seafood, locally caught. For fine dining in Houmt Souk, the Horoun restaurant specializes in fish, while the Guestile, in Midoun, is perfect for a relaxed meal of fish and couscous. Don’t leave the island without visiting the Cafe Les Arcades where you will find the locals playing backgammon and smoking their hookahs.