An Afternoon at El Djem الجمّ

35° 18′ N   10° 43′  E

Who was “J. Monti”, I wondered, as I came up to the words and years carved into the ancient stone.   There were two; one in 1914 and another in 1958, the second partially obscured by a subsequent patch of mortar.   Of all of the carvings, why had I noticed these? What mysterious force had caused me to pause here?

I’ve always been fascinated by the North African coastline.  So much history, so many ruins from across the ages.   And with the magic of the Internet, it’s just a matter of making these journeys a priority.   What’s more satisfying and lasting, that fine BMW in your garage, or a series of well illustrated and narrated journals of your travels?

Sitting at the café across from the colosseum that afternoon, my thoughts wandered to an earlier time, 1,800 years ago.   With just a bit of effort, I could begin to imagine the glorious structure restored, with colorful fabrics shading her people, sounds of long horns calling the games to action.   And the carvings…


J. Monti…   Who was she?   A nurse attached to some British expeditionary force in 1914? How old was she when she returned?   68?   I imagined a young Lucy in a Room With a View, perhaps she’d received word that her Tunisian lover had died…   Maybe they’d stolen away to this place under a moonless night, if only for a moment. He’d likely carved the first, and she the ones after, with her more delicate and older hands, though the numbers “one” and “nine” look identical.

But the constant flow of mopeds robbed me of this lovely daydream, rudely shaking me into the present moment.

“Monsieur, your lamb kebob.”

“Merci!   Très bien.   Parfait.”, I was desperate for lamb, having spent three of my teenage years living in Ankara, acquiring a taste for this.

With the recent unrest in Tunisia, western tourism had simply vanished leaving  the entire place almost to myself.   A couple of young, Asian tourists asking questions of the menu inside, but I was all alone under the umbrella outside.   Perfectly delightful.

I should have insisted that my driver join me, but I could sense that this would have made him uncomfortable, so I demurred.   Looking around at the contrast between old and new, a feeling of sadness came over me as I thought about man’s inability to simply enjoy this marvelous planet.   Why must there always be conflict among us?

If only we could expunge the Seven Deadly Sins, perhaps then we may finally learn to get along.

Well, I’d enjoy this moment, this chance to simply soak into my day’s setting.  “So long J. Monti, whoever you are.”   Jasmine?   Yes, she had to be a Jasmine.

Wandering Among the Ruins

36°25’21.53″  N   9°1’06.49″  E   –   Elevation:  1,857′


As males, we can feel threatened with our wife’s success… or if we wise up, we can simply yield to the greater power.   Best if a man knows his relative limitations!  As a rising professional at the World Bank, Caroline would often offer to stuff me in her luggage to accompany her to some exotic location.   And so it was…

I have always been fascinated with Roman ruins, having grown up in Europe and travelled extensively with my parents.  My dad loved history and he would take us to places that had historical significance and tell us a little about them.   When we’d travel up some remote mountain pass over the Pyrenees, for example, he would point out a route taken by the Carthaginians as they made their way to Rome.   These seeds lay dormant for years until I took a course in Roman history and then they began to sprout.

Years later, while renovating homes in the Annapolis (MD) area, I delved into the obscure craft of making mosaics; just couldn’t bear to throw away the pretty marble remnants.   From a textbook on ancient Greek and Roman mosaics I found at a university bookstore, I set to cutting and grouping thousands of stones (tesserae) to construct a ceiling mosaic in our master bathroom.   The gooey mess was phenomenal, but the end results were worth the efforts!  Driven by my silly sense of humor, one design featured a large, black octopus multitasking (naturally, with eight arms), simultaneously combing his hair, holding a mirror, a wine glass, while pouring some Chateaux Margaux 1945…

So when Caroline asked if I’d like to accompany her to Tunisia, I said yes, of course.   The country had just come out of difficult, political times that spring of 2012, but I came along anyway hoping that lighting would not strike twice in the same place (Very sadly, it had just a couple of years later).  I can still see the interesting architecture draped over the surrounding hills of Tunis as our flight neared its destination.    Mostly squarish and whitewashed buildings, tightly woven together and evolving over the centuries, I tried to visualize how it had expanded over time.

We were booked in an opulent hotel by the sea, regrettably, alcohol-free.   Oh, the injustice!

“Dear, I’m heading into the office now.”, she said, as she got up from the table the following morning, the gentle breezes flowing through the leaning palm trees.   “Stay out of trouble and have fun.”

On the way out of Tunis

Settling up the bill, I walked out to the front of the hotel and found my driver and his tiny car.    The transition from a lush and green Tunis out onto the dusty, arid roads was sudden.   Anticipation grew with each passing kilometer as I reviewed the literature on the ancient city of Dougga.   The day’s adventure was definitely on and I could not wait to get there.

It took just under two hours (112km) to arrive at the base of the UNESCO site.   Typical, north african landscapes with ancient olive trees, wandering goats, and mud-bricked homes lined the two lane road.   As we pulled into the parking area, I could not believe my eyes; there were only two other cars.  No tour busses!  Yay.   With some continued luck, I could go about my wanderings alone and in peace.

I wonder what this building looked like in its heyday?

But something told me that there was more to my driver than met the eye.   In his early 30s, smart looking guy and observant, I wondered what his real background was; Tunisian Intelligence? Ah, whatever.   Growing up in behind the Iron Curtain in the 60s and 70s, I was used to the ever present “eyes”.    After dropping me off, he also explored the ruins and gave me my space.

Many of the materials had been removed after the fall of the Roman Empire to be used to construct other structures.

So much to savor, so little time on this wonderful day.  I could have easily camped there for a week, sketching and photographing the many, intriguing elements.   Perhaps I’ll return someday for a more leisurely tour.  Thankful, however, for this chance.

Some of the mosaics were on floors exposed to the elements.   This one, however, rested inside of Tunis’ Bardo Museum of antiquities.

Sitting on one of the ancient stones, I gazed over the undulating hillsides trying to transport myself back to when this was a thriving community.   What was it like?   How did the people dress?   What sounds came from the markets?   How was the food prepared? What did the surrounding fields look like?

“How is it?  Interesting”, asked my driver as he made his way up the temple stones, ever discreet.

“Wonderful.   Yes, very interesting!”

“Ah, I am happy for that.”, he said leaving again to continue his own investigation of the old structures.

What a sweet chance to visit this ancient place on such a beautiful day.   There were only a few others doing the same and we all respected each others’ privacy and space.  I can only hope that whatever strife continues to plague this region, that they spare these precious historical sites…