The original Berber villages in the area around Tataouine were hill top settlements built around a stone fort called a kala’a. Chenini is on all the tourist itineraries. Douriret is only a few miles away but receives far fewer visitors.
A new village was built on the plain in the 1960s with running water and electricity. It is an attractive village with white houses with domed roofs. Most families moved down here. The road to the old town climbs up past the cemetery with white washed tombs and a small marabout.
Ahead on the hill is a big white mosque with restaurant below the remains of the fortress. We could see lots of cars parked. Most visitors only get as far as here, spending a few minutes to admire the view and take photographs.
Our driver ignored to the road to this and drove us round to the opposite side of the hill. There was not a tourist in sight. The road ran along the side of the mountain giving access to the ghars (dwelling caves)carved out of hillside with round topped storage sheds in front. Many still have palm trunk doors. We could see the old mosque with well in front of it and remains of the school next to it. One house is still lived in by a young Berber who operates the oil press and uses a donkey for transport.
We parked in front of the mosque and went to explored, peeping inside one of the old houses. In front was a small living area with stone stove in one corner which was used for cooking and heat in winter. An oil lamp in a small alcove provided the only light. Behind was the sleeping area. The toilet was in separate shed in front of the house and drained into a pit.
We went to ask to be shown the 300 year old olive press. Olives are grown on the opposite side of the hill and are ground up in a large stone press worked by a camel. The pulp is put into grass baskets which are stacked and then pressed using a palm trunk and the oil collected. The olives being picked at the moment and will be ready to press in a week’s time.
We went into Mosque. A doorway leads into the courtyard with a large fig tree growing in it. There is a separate square minaret. A well in the courtyard provides water for washing. This is put into a small hollow at the washing station. Before visiting the mosque the men sit on a stone slab to wash hands and arms three times, then face and finally feet. There is a small stone to rest the feet on to stop them getting wet. Inside the mosque which is carved out of the cliff face are separate doors and areas for men and women. Stone pillars were left to support roof. The Mihrab is in a small alcove with a niche for Holy Books beside it. On other side are steps to the Minibar where the Iman sat when preaching. There is a small niche for an oil lamp and more niches by the door for shoes.
It is thought the Mosque is 13thC and may be older. Donatist Christians under Roman and Byzantine rule used to gather in underground churches to pray and this may have been one of them.
It was a well worthwhile visit.