A startling patch of green in a sea of sand, Nefta Oasis is a luxuriant garden of palm trees, mimosa, vines and succulent fruit. White-domed mosques and shrines are studded across the emerald landscape, for Nefta is also one of Tunisia’s major religious centres.
According to Arabic legend, the first spring of fresh water to issue from the earth once the Great Flood had abated was discovered at Nefta by Kostel, one of Noah’s grandsons. From that spring developed a fertile oasis which today is encircled by the barren, rolling hills of south-west Tunisia.
While the blazing desert sun bakes the surrounding land, water wells up from beneath Nefta’s soil. Here a combination of natural forces and human ingenuity has created Nefta Oasis and La Corbeille – a verdant, palm-embroidered hollow lying immediately to the north of the oasis. At Nefta, water that has accumulated in the permeable rock layer below ground is forced upwards along more than 150 fault lines in the underlying rock strata. (Since the 1960s, engineers have sunk artesian wells in the rock strata to tap into this natural resource.) At La Corbeille, cracks and fissures in the sides of the crater itself send water bubbling to the surface.
Thousands of date palms flourish in the wide depression known as La Corbeille (French for ‘the basket’). In 1912, the British travel writer Norman Douglas described it as ‘a circular vale of immoderate plant luxuriance, a never-ending delight to the eye’. Water seeping out of the ground here is directed south along a tree-lined channel to the main oasis at Nefta. At the northern end of La Corbeille, a public bathing pool has been built beside a hot spring.
An intricate network of irrigation ditches distributes spring water to Nefta’s fertile gardens, where orderly rows of date palms – 300,000 of them in all – are planted in square plots. The date palm, one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants, takes 15 years to mature, after which it yields up to 200lb (90kg) of fruit a year. Around one-third of the trees are of the Deglet Noor variety, said to be the finest in the world.
The delicious, energy-rich fruits (which have been likened to ‘fingers of light and honey’) are not the only product of the palms. Their leaves are cut into strips and dried, then woven into baskets and other containers, the date stones are ground and fed to animals, and the tree sap is used to make a wine known as Lagmi. And once the tree itself has become unproductive (which may only be after 200 years) it is harvested for timber. In addition, date palms play an important part in protecting other, more vulnerable, species. Their mature height of 100ft (30m) provides a screen against the strong desert winds, and their large, spreading leaves moderate temperatures that can exceed 115°F (46°C) in the shade. In this sheltered environment, farmers grow vegetables and fruits such as pomegranates, figs, peaches, apricots, oranges and lemons.
To the south, on the edge of the town of Nefta, lies a vast and treacherous seasonal salt lake known as the Chott el Djerid. During summer, the sun bakes the surface of the dried-up lake to a hard crust, and at its centre salt deposits gleam like snow. When the water table below Nefta’s oasis rises in autumn, however, the Chott is flooded. In spring, as the water level falls again, the area is transformed into a colossal swamp of salty mud. In the 1980s, a highway was built to transport people and vehicles across the Chott. Until the construction of the road travelers could cross only by keeping to a narrow path marked by palm trunks (the Chott was once known as ‘the Lake of Marks’). Those who ventured off this trail did so at their peril. In the 12th century, an Arabic writer recorded the loss of a caravan of a thousand camels which was completely engulfed by mud when one of the leading animals strayed from the path.
As well as being a sanctuary and a source of succulent produce, Nefta has also been for around 900 years the centre of the mystical Islamic sect known as the Sufis. The association between Nefta and Sufism (the word comes from the Arabic for ‘mystic’) started shortly after the Muslims conquered he region in AD 670. Ibrahim ibn Adham, the sect’s founder, went there in search of solitude – to study the Koran and contemplate the will of Allah. Tunisian Sufis established zaouias, or ‘fraternities’, in many rural areas. There, local people were offered shelter and education, and sometimes justice.
At Nefta, the Zaouia of Sidi Ibrahim, overlooking La Corbeille, consists of a series of tombs (including those of the saint and his son), courtyards and reading rooms. As the holy reputation of the oasis grew, so other men of religion were attracted to Nefta, further enhancing its spiritual stature. As a result, the old quarter of Nefta today harbours 100 marabouts, or shrines, and more than 24 mosques, whose white cupolas shimmer in the brilliant desert sunlight. It remains a pilgrimage centre with pilgrims visiting around the year.