The mountain of Djebel Serj, in Siliana governorate about 130km from Tunis, offers a thrilling journey into mesmerising nature and is a unique experience in eco-tourism.
The mountain’s name — “Serj’’ translates as “saddle” — came about because of its resemblance to a saddle due to the gap between the tops of the mountain. The mountain, which rises 1,357 metres above sea level, is renowned for attracting speleologists to the longest cave in Tunisia, Ain Dhahab.
It “attracts many visitors from all over the world each year. It is one of the most fascinating sceneries in Africa, if not in the world,” said Narjess Ben Amor, from the Association of Adventurers of Siliana.
What makes Ain Dhahab unique among caves in Tunisia is its active underground river. It is known for its long paths reaching 3,000 metres and for the longest “soda straw” speleothems in Africa. Formed over millions of years, they are 4.6-5 metres long. Cave explorers marvel at the fascinating rock formations.
Over the past year, the mountain has become an attraction for another reason: eco-domes constructed at the foot of the mountain. White-adorned domes are scattered around the mountain. The domes’ rooms are decorated with traditional carpets made by the women of Siliana that create a colourful and lively mood.
“The region of Siliana and particularly of Djebel Serj is famous for having beautiful landscapes and it has many international attractions that welcome visitors from all over the world. This prompted us to create a housing system that contributes to promoting the region as an eco-tourism attraction,” Ben Amor said.
“One of the ways to preserve the natural wealth of the mountain and the region was to create these ecological housing structures, which help to protect the environment.”
The mountain offers mesmerising landscapes and rich hiking paths but visitors faced a lack of housing because the region does not have hotels. For the organisers of the eco-dome project, the structures promoted eco-tourism because they realised its natural wealth can be protected if locals and visitors were aware of the importance of adopting an ecological approach to tourism.
“It is an original housing system that helps establish a unique identity for the region. We want Siliana and especially Djebel Serj mountain to become known for being an eco-tourist destination,” Ben Amor said.
“The mountain is a natural treasure to be protected and that cannot be done without promoting awareness of the necessity of protecting the environment. We are working on having more domes around the mountains. So when the visitors come, they enjoy spending the night at the dome and become aware of the importance of eco-tourism in protecting the environment.’’
The building of the eco-domes helped the local economy by creating job opportunities.
“When we began the project, we worked on teaching and training people on the technique of the construction of ecological domes,” Ben Amor said. “It does not require a lot of money but it is an opportunity to create job opportunities for people in the region instead of leaving their villages to find work elsewhere.”
“The idea was to use their skills as they know the mountain the best. The domes serve as a hostel and people come specially to see and discover this. Every weekend people come to enjoy the life in the domes and this also helped the people in the villages of Siliana surrounding the mountain earn a living. It brought new dynamics to the region and people are going specifically to visit the domes and more people are working on opening ecological projects to promote.”
The domes provide economic opportunities and ecological balance and offer a glimpse into the town’s cultural heritage because the rooms are decorated to imitate the traditional houses of Siliana, using locally made carpets and other artisanal elements. The eco-domes serve meals that reflect the culinary heritage of the region.
“We have been working with women in the villages mainly to encourage and motivate them to work on their carpets,” Ben Amor said. “They have unique patterns and use special material to make those carpets and in pottery. It is also part of the project to have their work exhibited in the eco-domes. They also prepare traditional meals to serve to the people who stay at the domes.”
Away from the hustle of the city, Djebel Serj in Siliana offers an opportunity to enjoy spectacular scenery, fresh air and a memorable stay in ecological domes that promote the preservation of the environment and the cultural heritage of the region.
Roua Khlifi a regular Travel and Culture contributor in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.