Located in the Gulf of Gabès off the coast of Tunisia, the island of Jerba is a simle place with palm-fringed beaches, olives groves, date plantations and white-washed buildings, but it is said to have an enchanting history. Jerbans claim that the Land of the Lotus Eaters Homer described in The Odyssey is theirs. The local legend goes that after Odysseus’ ship had been blown off course around Greece, he and his men found themselves in a strange land in the south of the Mediterranean where the islanders ate the honeyed fruit of the lotus flower. Odysseus and his crew stayed here enjoying the soothingly narcotic fruits as they recovered from battle.
Today the beautiful island is noted as a centre for the Islamic sect al-Ibadhiyah, and also for its Jewish population which has lived on the island since 586 BC, just after the destruction of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Populations have declined in recent years due to emigration to Israel and France, but the present synagogue, El Ghriba, is a place of pilgrimage for Jewish people worldwide and tourists of all religions. This is thought to be the oldest synagogue in Africa and one of the oldest in the world, built by Jewish priests who came to Jerba after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The present building dates from the 19th century, and inside is a rich mix of blue tiles and coloured glass windows.
One of the nicest ways to explore Jerba is by bicycle. The island is characterized by pretty, but busy, beaches lined with palms, and a gentle rural interior. Here farmers grow olives and dates in the brilliant sunshine. The architecture is clean and simple, with white-washed fortified mosques which are unusual in Tunisia. Fishing is a major industry here but it is still done by traditional methods. See the terracotta pots stacked on the dockside at Houmt Souk which are used to catch octopus, a method perfected by the Phoenicians 3.000 years ago.
If you get the chance, stay in one of the funduqs in Houmt Souk. Usually set around a leafy courtyard with a trickling fountain and colourful tiles, these evocative buildings have been receiving guests for hundreds of years. The accommodation is sometimes basic, but the atmosphere is fantastic. The souk on Jerba is a great place to buy souvenirs including rugs, tiles, lamps, leatherwork, hands of Fatima, sculptures made of crystallized desert gypsum and carved pipes. Just be sure to haggle.
Population: 116.300 (2004)
When to go: April to June.
How to get there: Mellita International Airport has daily services from Tunis and western Europe.
Highlights: Boukha – the locally brewed fermented drink made from figs or dates is said to mimic the fabled response to imbibing lotus juice.
El Ghriba synagogue – in the village of Er Riadh, this is said to be the oldest synagogue in Africa and has biblical significance.
Er Riadh – a charming village steeped in history, with its winding cobbled streets and courtyards full of bougainvillea and cacti.
Guellala – this village is renowned for its pottery. Many white-washed shops line the streets selling local, handmade wares.
You should know: Book accommodation well in advance in the summer months as the island can be very busy.