Ksour – the fortified granaries

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The Ksour (singular Ksar) are just found in the south east of Tunisia in the area between Matmata and Tataouine. They are usually built on top of a hill and are surrounded by a defensive stone wall with a single door. Inside is a courtyard lined with separate cells called ghorfas, Some were used for living, but the majority were used for storage by the Berber tribes.

Some of these were used as film sets in the different Star Wars movies (see separate review).

We spent a morning visiting the Ksour to the south of Tataouine. This is hilly countryside and every hilltop seemed to have a Ksar on top of it which look like small fortresses. We took the road to Ksar Ouled Soltane past Beni Barka with the remains of a hill top village. The area is built up with small villages running into each other and each with their own Ksar. These are typical small Tunisia villages with a few small shops selling mainly dry goods. The houses all have barrel roofs which help keep them cool in summer. Many have a wall round them enclosing a courtyard where the sheep and goats are kept at night. The area is very dry and stone or earth banks are built to hold back water which allows wheat to be grown along with a few palm and olive trees. The ksours are no longer used for storage and there are small stone storage buildings dotted around the countryside.

Our first stop was Ksar Maztouria which is built above the village. It has a tall outer stone wall with a massive gateway with a wooden door faced with metal. Entry is through a smaller doorway cut in one of the big doors. It leads into a porch with stone benches for sitting. The central courtyard is lined with one or two levels of ghorfas. Upper ghorfas are reached by steep stone steps and there are stones set in the wall to reach doorways with no step access. Some still have their palm wood doors. Inside the ghorfa the storage area had different bays for storing different foods. Some cells were used for living and are long and narrow with a stone slab separating the sleeping area at the far end. A small circular window cut in the outer wall of the Ksar was the only source of light.

There is a traditional stone well in the village which is still used for irrigation. A series of troughs provides water for the animals and an irrigation channel takes water to the crops which are grown in tiny fields surrounded by low earth walls to retain water. Carrots, onions and garlic are grown.

The next village Daghara is only a short drive. The ksar is above the village which has a new white painted Berber house next to it (owners unfriendly). Below are the remains of a brick making kiln and workshop where bricks were cleaned. This is a rather more complex structure with 2-3 levels of ghorfas. Side passageways in the corners of the ksar have arches which help support the walls. We could see the remains of decorative carvings on the walls inside one of the houses. It seems the village had run out of storage space as there is a single small ghorfa in the centre of the courtyard.

Even though I had kept saying ‘No Star Wars” our driver was determined to take us to Ksar Ouled Soltane which was used as the film set for the slave quarters in The Phantom Menace. This is set in stoney desert with little vegetation and few houses. The Ksar is built on low ridge next to big Mosque. It was a Friday and all the men were sitting waiting to go to the Mosque. To our surprise we were the only tourists around. The Ksar is an impressive four storey building which has two courtyards. Traditionally the ghorfas were covered with plaster. When Ksar Ouled Soltane was restored concrete was used which was painted to resemble plaster. Unfortunately it is beginning to show its age. There are a lot of big staircases leading to the upper ghorfas. These are built as an arch to make them less steep. Stones set in the wall help reach doorways without a staircase. There are alleyways in corners.

There are two small art galleries in the inner courtyard and we were approached by the owners trying to sell us water colour paintings. One was very pushy and we didn’t like his pictures. He then tried to sell us a painting on a stone but we told him it would exceed our baggage allowance. The second person was less pushy and we liked his pictures and he had the sense to let us look and choose at our leisure.

We took the back road to Tataouine across the dry, arid plain. It was a disperse settlement pattern with individual houses or else family settlements with long series of houses side by side. There was a little agricultural in areas where water is held back by stone or earth banks. water has been dammed. We saw little sign of animals.

Ksar Ezzahra is built in the centre of the main settlement on this road. There are a number of small shops set into the outside walls. There were a large number of men sitting around outside the Ksar and w felt they were not used to seeing tourists. It did feel a bit uncomfortable and we were advised not to take photos outside the ksar.

Like Ksar Ouled Soltane it is made up of two courtyards. The outer courtyard had 2-3 levels of ghorfas. One is still used as a small shop and there is a cafe beside it. It was market day and there were several stalls selling fruit and vegetables. We could see the remains of some writings from the Koran and feet and hands in the archway between the courtyards. Kitchen and sleeping areas often on different levels.

The inner courtyard is bigger with four levels of ghorfas with interconnecting staircases, stone steps in the walls and walkways between them. It looks as if some of the ghorfas are still used for storage as the have new metal doors. Some of the disused living areas have remains of Koran writing on walls and more hands and feet. This was a well worth while visit. Recommended.

Following the road back to Tataouine we made a brief stop at Beni Behal to look at the Ksar, again built above town with a well preserved outer wall and two or three levels of ghorfas inside. This is less well maintained and cared for.

Mhira is a long spread out settlement of dispersed houses a short distance from Beni Behal and has two Ksars close to each other, each with 2-3 rows of Ghorfas.

The first had a small domed water cistern in the centre surrounded by large round area to collect rain water which drained into cistern, which still had water in it. There was a square hole in the roof to draw water.

The second ksar had a larger square cistern in the centre of the courtyard. Some of the living areas were quite big and divided by pillars into separate alcoves for adults and children to sleep. A curtain was used to screen separate ares. Light was provided by oil lamps in niches in the walls.

The final Ksar we visited was Ksar el Ferech which is north of Tataouine. This is unusual as it is quite a distance from the town and is built on the plain. It is an impressive structure surrounded by a stone wall with a single wooden gateway into a huge courtyard. There are one or two levels of ghorfas round the outside wall. Storage space must have been at a premium as a second smaller square of ghorfas had been built in the centre of the Ksar. Although it seems to be no longer in use, most of the ghorfas look in good condition. There is a very basic toilet and local cafe on the site.

Apart from Ksar Ouled Soltane and possibly Ksar Ezzahra, none of the others feature in the guide books or internet. All are worth exploring if you have the chance.

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