The drive across Southern Tunisia is incredible. At times, you are driving through the perfectly flat, aptly named salt flats, and other times the mountains rise from the sand and rock, holding small villages in their clefts.
Chenini is one of those villages. It is a Berber village carved into the rocks, wrapping itself around the valley. And so, at the hottest part of the day, on the hottest day I had ever experienced, we followed our guide up into the village. He was a middle-aged Berber man who still spoke Berber in his home instead of Tounsi, the Arabic dialect used in Tunisia. Throughout our tour he shared the Berber side of Tunisian culture. First, he brought us to his house where a miracle happened. Once you stepped inside the house, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees (about 42 degrees if you are operating in Fahrenheit). Perfect temperature inside the houses! Year round the houses sit at the same temperature, allowing the residents to live comfortably inside their homes.
We made our way around the village, looking in some rooms carved out of the rock which were used for storage. Storage jars were set almost flush into the floor to hold the olive oil. I was amazed that they were able to grow anything in the dessert, but they did. These rooms had not been kept up or renovated, so there were still carvings on the ceilings of geometric shapes, hands, and feet.
We continued to wind around the village, learning its history from our guide. A big white mosque sits at the top of the hill in the center of the village. The residents no longer live in homes on the mountain, but have abandoned them, choosing instead to live in homes at the mountain’s base. After roasting on my climb up, I can see the reasoning behind this. In addition, the lack of modern-day bandits also likely contributed to this decision.
We eventually made our way around the whole village of about 600 people, then returned to the car. I thanked our guide for such a great cultural experience, a place that left me excited to learn even more about Tunisian culture.