It’s half an hour before dawn in Kairouan and the hypnotic call to prayer from the Great Mosque has just broken a solid slumber that was induced by the busy day before.
The soothing chant of the muezzin will broadcast from the minarets for a while longer, before shafts of light pierce the louvre window shutters and sketch lines on whitewashed walls, in a final reminder it is time to get up.
A busy day awaits, not least visiting the source of the aural scriptures. The building is Africa’s most important Islamic location and sits only behind Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem in the faith’s pecking order of holiest sites.
From Kairouan, I head south-east to El Djem, along miles of straight road, flanked by palm trees and olive groves, with seemingly-endless scrubland beyond.
Destination is the town’s wondrous Roman amphitheatre, built on the low plains between Sousse and Sfax.
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” the Pythons once asked ironically. Well, there was this for a start, for it vies for the title of largest colosseum outside Italy’s capital. Left alone with your imagination, you begin to contemplate what match days were like, when 30,000 home spectators bayed for blood over gladiatorial combat.
The opposition didn’t bring many dissenting voices in those days and most fixtures ended with a home win for Caesar’s lot. No doubt the regulars still departed for a swift half and grumbles about what might have been, before reading a detailed transcript of their afternoon in an ancient-world equivalent of the Green Un. El Djem’s magnificence sort of typifies Tunisia, a little-talked-of treasure of great significance, in a country that perhaps hasn’t fully grasped selling itself. The result is slight tourism naivety, which also means many sites are pleasantly spacious.
The Romans did Tunisia big time and it is their influence that remains strongest. The Unesco World Heritage site at Dougga is one of the continent’s most impressive relics, its theatre and temples stunning examples of the empire’s opulent capabilities. There are many other Roman ruins; the temples of Sufetula, the huge aqueduct near Uthina, the mighty capitole at Thuburbo Majus, the underground mosaics at Bulla Regia.
It’s impossible not to contemplate the rise and fall of the mighty empire, the legacy of which is probably felt more than any other. For as well as the obvious, there’s the little things. The typeface of the words you are reading is a direct descendant of one carved in stone by the Romans before Christ was a lad.
Maybe the most significant Roman history lesson comes in Carthage. Now a trendy suburb of the capital Tunis, in the sixth century BC it was a Phoenician trading centre that dominated the Mediterranean. Three Punic wars followed and Carthage was finally rebranded a Roman city by Julius Caesar in 44BC.
Bizarrely, the two sides only called it quits in 1985, when the mayors of Carthage and Rome finally signed a symbolic peace treaty, almost two millenia after fighting ceased. Tunisia’s past can be a complex journey through the Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Berbers, Abbasids, Umayyads, Fatimids, Zirids, Almohads, Andalusians and the Ottomans. Phew! Then there was French rule, the battlefields of World War II and independence in 1956. The result of all this conflict, invasion and dictatorship is that Tunisia remains a cultural mix of finely-blended inheritance. Add in the religious cocktail of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and the result is even more fascinating.