Deep in the oasis lies Old Kebili which has been abandoned since 1980. Approaching Kebili from the south you'll see a sign for L'ancienne Kebili. Follow this road for about a kilometre and you'll see a large arch from where a narrow, winding road leads to the old town. There is a mosque, a couple of marabout and a large number of abandoned houses.
Mosque in Kebili
As the new town has only been built in recent years there aren't too many distinctive buildings. The white mosque was the most impressive building we saw although there wasn't much to distinguish from the other white mosques we had seen in Jerba and in Southern Tunisia. We didn't try to visit the inside as I'm pretty sure it's closed to non-muslims.
Old Kebili is completely deserted. We could see some builders in the distance working on a site but other than that we had the place to ourselves. We decided to wander throught the ruins to try and find a place for a picnic. The mosque in the old town has a loudspeaker attached but I'm not sure who observes the call to prayer here. Perhaps it's the builders.
There's a real feeling of desolation as you wander through the abandoned houses in Old Kebili. The path ended after a while so we had to clamber over walls in what was, probably, once someone's bedroom or kitchen.
Old Kebili used to be just plain Kebili until relatively recently. In the 1980s, the old centre was deemed uninhabitable, and the locals were "encouraged" to move to the modern town 3 kilometres away. I'm told this was supposedly optional, but by making basic commodities like electricity and water more difficult to obtain, there probably wasn't much choice for the local inhabitants.
In the last two decades, the traditional mud and stone houses have crumbled and deteriorated at such an alarming rate, it feels as if Old Kebili has been empty for centuries. Only the mosque and four small zaouias (small mosques containing a tomb of a holy man) remain , and these are still visited by locals, especially on Fridays.
It's quite eerie walking among the ruins. Some houses are little more than rubble, while in others you can still see stairs and doorways. As I was walking around, I kept hearing voices, children shouting and women chatting, and it felt a bit like a haunted village. But these were just families having picnics among the ruins, perhaps on the site of their old home?
In the centre of the ruins is a large square, which is where slaves where brought from south of the Sahara and sold.
Old Kebili Mosque
The mosque's minaret stands tall above the ruins and is quite a sad sight. Apart from the small whitewashed zaouias, it is the only real surviving structure of Old Kebili. The mosque building itself doesn't look as old as the minaret, but is still in use, as you will hear five times a day...the muezzin still calls the faithful to prayer, even though there's hardly anybody around to hear him.
Walk to Old Kebili
If modern Kebili doesn't do it for you, don't just hop on the next louage out of there...stock up on water, and head out of town, under an impressive archway and down a 3 kilometre road through palm trees...After half an hour or so, the ruins and zaouias of Old Kebili will appear.
The road is quiet, although there were a few cars and scooters heading to the ruins. One car stopped so that the driver could ask me what I was doing. I assumed he was just being friendly, but the conversation changed quite quickly as he asked to see my documents. I dn't just hand over my documents to any old bod, so I refused. He got quite angry and demanded I hand over my passport. "Restricted area" he said. Funny that....the local government has erected a huge archway at the start of the road welcoming visitors to visit the ruins, so that didn't wash with me. I started to walk on, but he drove up next to me again, and said "where are you going?". I told him I was walking to Old Kebili. "Forbidden!". Why? "Too far. Get in!" he shouted, opening the car door. You really think I'm going to get in?! I stayed polite but firm, and carried on walking. He began to trail me very slowly, and it was all very unnerving.
To my rescue came three guys on scooters. They slowed to see what was going on, which upset the driver even more, who started shouting at them. They realised what was going on, and stopped, which upset the driver even more, who sped off to my huge relief. I chatted with the guys on scooters for a few minutes, and they told me anyone can visit Old Kebili, no restrictions, and the driver was up to no good. They offered me a lift, but told me the ruins were just around the corner, so I carried on walking.
It seems a safe place, but the walk is quite isolated along a road with infrequent traffic. Walking alone is maybe not the best idea, especially for women.
Zaouia spotting in old Kebili
Four or five zaouias (also known as marabouts...think of them as mini mosques) still stand in Kebili, and a couple of them are used regularly. I met members of the Aissawiya Sufi sect who invited me to their Mawlid an-Nebi (Prophet's Birthday) celebrations in one of the zaouias. A group of old men in ragged clothing sat on a raised platform, one with a drum in his hand, another playing a reedy pipe of some sort, the rest chanting religious "songs" faster and faster as the beat became more and more frenzied. Occasionally, someone would stand up and start to sway, maybe dance a bit, an enormous grin on his face. One man got so carried away with emotion and stuck a skewer right through his cheek...little droplets of blood made funny patterns in the sand, and I can't imagine the pain, but he didn't flinch once and the big grin never faded.
On the far side of the courtyard, women hidden behind masses of cloth, all brightly coloured a la Sudan-style, sat with the kids, for the most part silent, although one woman did start to wail and convulse at one point.
Usually, celebrations of this sort are kept well away from the prying eyes of tourists...most mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims. But here, everyone was so incredibly friendly and pleased to see me taking an interest, so I never felt uncomfortable or that I shouldn't really be there.
Afterwards, some of the older members complained that young Tunisians are not so interested in keeping these traditions alive, and that within a few years there would not be anyone left, so "new blood" was being actively sought after. They want to keep the traditions alive, but without letting them become some sort of cultural zoo, aimed at tourists, events scheduled to suit the tour buses and not the other way round.
No photos, I'm afraid. Had I dared to get my camera out, I would have come home with some of the best photos I've ever taken I'm sure, but somehow it just didn't seem right...
Old Kebili Museum
Old Kebili is not huge, and with so many families heading to the site to maintain old houses or worship at the zaouias, there are lots of kids running amok among the ruins. Sooner or later, you'll be spotted, and word will get round to the director of the Save Old Kebili organization, who also runs a small but fascinating museum in the best restored building in town. He's very keen to welcome independent travellers and will happily take you on a tour around the ruins, explaining why the town is deserted and what he is trying to do to restore it.
In the 1980's, money was spent on improving new Kebili, while those who chose to stay surrounded by palms in Old Kebili felt a bit neglected. Running water was not provided, the school was moved to the modern town, electricity was never connected, and no money was available to maintain the upkeep of these old houses. One by one, the families moved out to the new town, and walls began to disintegrate, roofs fell in...in less than two decades, Old Kebili is now something of a ghost town, under threat from mass tourism. Plans have been made to turn Old Kebili into a major tourist attraction...buildings will no doubt be restored, but probably not using traditional methods...tourists will bring money, but will swamp the place and change Old Kebili forever. The museum director wants to stop this, and is trying to rebuild houses, and eventually arrange water and electricity, so one day old Kebili might be inhabited once again.
It was very refreshing to hear someone speak against mass tourism in Tunisia...and I really hope the Save Old Kebili organisation succeeds.
The museum shows the history of Old Kebili with lots of photos from before it was deserted, ongoing restoration projects, and exhibits about local culture. There is also a cafe, and the chance to become a "member" of the Save Old Kebili organisation for a small fee (there is no entrance fee, so this is not a scam). But what makes the museum special is chatting to the director and his friends, all very keen to talk to anyone who is genuinely interested.
The most impressive feature of Kebili is its oasis which completely surrounds the abandoned, old town and also surrounds much of the new town.