During my many years of living and travelling in Tunisia, I was always struck by the great wealth of archaeological sites throughout the country. While most visitors are lured by the sun and sea packages, the intrepid traveller has often been drawn by the wealth of history, both Phoenician and Roman, that are found throughout central and northern Tunisia.
While it has yet to be made known to most of Tunisia’s visitors, the Roman site of Oudhna, or Uthina, is in the backyard of Tunis and Hammamet, waiting to be discovered. Less than 45 minutes from the heart of Tunis, Oudhna is not a site promoted by Tunisia’s tourism authorities, presumably due to renovation taking place.
The site is all the more interesting because of that, however, particularly for the viewer who is learning to appreciate archaeology and how sites are uncovered.
Like many of Tunisia’s archaeological sites, perhaps with the exception of Carthage, it is rare to see lines of buses and hordes of tourists wandering through the site, as is often the case in other parts of the Mediterranean. In this regard, Tunisia is a gem but a relatively unknown one.
I asked Aicha Boukari, an experienced tour guide who frequently helps American clients of travel companies, why she likes taking tourists to Oudhna.
“At first view, before reaching the ancient Roman city, I can already admire the beautiful location with the hills, the farm lands, the homes and the fertility of the soil,” she said. “En route to the site, one passes the amazing aqueduct that, during Roman times, carried water from the springs of Zaghouan all the way to Carthage.
All this a mere 45 minutes from Tunis and we have not yet even arrived to the actual site.”
Walking through the site Boukari points out the amphitheatre, which is stunningly beautiful and well preserved. “It could probably seat 20,000 spectators, with architecture that reflects both Greek and Roman styles,” she said.
As we continue through the site, whose unpaved and often unlevel ground does require one watching his step, Boukari pointed to the capitol. Though it is missing some columns, she noted the underground floors and the mosaics.
It is clear that anyone who visits the sites with knowledgeable guides is in for a treat.
“Sadly, the Tunisian government does very little to promote our sites,” Boukari said. “One would think that after all our tourism industry has gone through since the January 2011 revolution… — the dramatic loss of tourism, compounded by the attacks in 2015 at the Bardo Museum and Sousse beach — that we would be trying new ways to make our country known. I really think Tunisia has so much to offer travellers, if they only knew.”
My own multiple visits to Oudhna concur with her sentiments, both regarding how special the site is and how easy it can be visited from Tunis. I also agree that Tunisian tourism authorities have yet to try anything new in promoting their tourism assets.
“One day, we hope soon, visitors will return in numbers again and see that our country is safe, beautiful and ready to welcome all who come,” Boukari said.
Jerry Sorkin is founder and president of Iconic Journeys Worldwide and of TunisUSA. He is a frequent contributor to The Arab Weekly.