The traditional houses on Djerba were the fortified farmsteads called Menzels. Constant fear of attack from the 12thC meant that buildings were designed for defence.
From the outside these looked like small fortresses with blank white walls with a tower at each corner, often topped with a dome. These areas were used as summer bedrooms. They are the only parts with external windows, placed high so they cannot be reached. Living rooms surround the central courtyard.
Stricly speaking, the word menzel refers to the parcel of land and the house is a houch. The design of the menzels reflects a preoccupation with water conservation and temperature control. The rooftops and courtyards are designed to channel rainwater into underground tanks (impluviums) which provided a water supply for the house and to irrigate crops. They also helped keep the foundations cool. Thick rendered walls of mud and stone provided further insulation. White paint helps reflect the heat.
A single doorway leads into a central courtyard. Animals could be kept in here. The large rooms surrounding it would be used by different sections of the extended family. A large stone stove provided heat and was used for cooking. There were smaller storage rooms. The top storeys of the towers were reached by stone steps and were used as summer bedrooms. Slated floors provided down draught cooling whole house.
Near the menzel would be a traditional well flanked by 2 upright supports for a system of pulleys operated by a camel or mule. The boundaries of their land were marked by low earth banks.
Most of the menzels are now in ruins as the owners have moved into newer more modern houses. A few have been loving restored. There are quite a few scruffy menzels on the outskirts of Ajim on the Guellal road.
We had told our driver we wanted to see Menzels. We spent an hour on the first afternoon driving round Djerba trying to find some without success. Next morning the driver had done his homework and took us to find a group of deserted old menzels off the road between Sedghiane and Fadloune Mosque.
There had been quite a dense settlement of about four houses reached down a rough dirt track surrounded by palm trees and olive groves. There were other menzels close by. We began to understand why the new houses are built so close together. The wooden door on one of them was open so we went in for a look. Old water and olive oil jars were lying around.
The traditional way of life is disappearing fast on Djerba as there is more money from tourism than farming. To find the remains of the traditional way of life it is necessary to get off the roads and along the rough tracks.