Ancient ruins, whitewashed villages, mosques, churches and synagogues: the heritage of the tourist island of Djerba in southern Tunisia was included on UNESCO's world list on Monday, the organization announced. “The committee of UNESCO member states meeting in Riyadh has just approved the inclusion of the heritage of the island of Djerba on the world heritage list,” rejoiced Éric Falt, regional director of UNESCO at Maghreb.
Djerba, which covers 514 km2, is the largest island in North Africa. Its landscape is a combination of desert areas bordering the sea and fields cultivated with palm and olive trees. Considered the mythological island where in Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses and his navigators encounter the Lotophages (lotus eaters), Djerba also served as the backdrop for certain scenes on the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars saga.
The Tunisian Ministry of Cultural Affairs also welcomed the “final acceptance” of Djerba, believing that it “does justice to the joint efforts” of the authorities and civil society. Referring to a “long and tortuous path” which led to this inscription, the regional director of UNESCO specified that it concerns “seven areas of the island and 24 monuments”.
Djerba is indeed home to Carthaginian and Roman ruins but also traditional houses (“houch”) organized around an interior courtyard and equipped with ingenious systems to collect rainwater. The island, renowned for its religious diversity, has churches, synagogues including the Ghriba - the oldest in Africa - and fortified Ibadi mosques (a separate branch of Islam), some of which are underground.
Djerba represents “an exceptional testimony to a unique settlement pattern and a remarkable human adaptation, over the centuries, to the constraints of an environment marked by water scarcity and numerous threats from the sea,” estimated Éric Falt from UNESCO Maghreb. He recalled that the last inscription of a Tunisian world heritage site dated from 1997 with the archaeological site of Dougga.
Tunisia now has 9 UNESCO World Heritage sites including the medinas (old towns) of Tunis and Sousse, the town of Kairouan, the Punic-Roman site of Carthage and the amphitheater of El Jem. This summer, Djerba received thousands of tourists despite an attack during the Ghriba Jewish pilgrimage that left five people dead in May.