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Sahara

Day 90: El Haddej to Sousse

El Jem, Tunisia 
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The Roman amphitheatre at El Jem was the third biggest they ever built; I walk the underground chambers where both the gladiators and the lions were kept before a fight. They still have a deeply unsettling atmosphere.
Michael Palin - SaharaUnless, of course, they're in the tourist business, which is not looking too bright at the moment. The shadow of September 11th means horses and carts go by unoccupied and there are plenty of spare tables to be had. Guides saunter about, but no-one looks desperate, or in any way resentful of our being here. One man in a striped robe, skullcap and dark glasses spies us and breaks into a broad grin.

'Allô, allô, my friend, 'ow are you? We are the Taliban. Only joking.'

Tunisia is the smallest and most compact of all the Saharan countries, and as we've been used to driving two or three hours between trees, let alone towns, our surroundings seem to be changing with indecent haste. Within half a day we've been from troglodytes to amphitheatres, and an hour later we're at the gates of one of the largest and best-preserved Arab fortresses in North Africa, the Ribat of Harthouma in Monastir. Its towers, turrets and battlements stand proudly beside the sea, rich cream against azure blue. It may lack the majesty of El Jem, but it has a more subtle appeal, the quiet dignity of a fortress that has survived 1200 years of conflict. How, then, were we ever allowed to shoot Life Of Brian here? A party of schoolchildren is listening dutifully to an account of the history of this venerable building. I find myself longing to take them on an alternative history tour, to show them where John Cleese had a boulder dropped on top of him, where Brian leapt from a tower only to be rescued by a flying saucer, and where 500 Tunisian extras laughed at Biggus Dickus.

The truth is that the Ribat is now so squeaky clean that it's lost a bit of character. Lew Grade's Jesus of Nazareth set, which once loomed up beside it, has long gone, replaced by ornamental gardens, and where we lounged around between takes, being rude about each other's beards, is now paved and swept clean as a whistle.

Our art department and the current restorers were both in the same game, trying to bring an ancient, partly ruined fortress to life, and to be honest I think we did a better job. The Ribat is still a good place to visit, with high walls and battlements completely, indeed recklessly accessible, but I preferred it with the market stalls, ex-lepers and writing on the wall.

We spend the night in nearby Sousse at another big, comfortable holiday factory by the sea. Though business is down by 50 per cent since September 11th, it's still as busy as a railway station, and what it must be like at full capacity is terrible to contemplate.
El Jem, Tunisia 
click to enlarge 
file size
The Roman amphitheatre at El Jem was the third biggest they ever built; I walk the underground chambers where both the gladiators and the lions were kept before a fight. They still have a deeply unsettling atmosphere.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 90
  • Country/sea: Tunisia
  • Place: Monastir
  • Book page no: 236

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