The Berber cave homes of Tunisia.



Matmâta and other desert settlements in Tunisia have wonderful underground homes built to avoid the intense heat and strong desert winds. The homes are made by digging a large pit some 7m (23ft) deep and 10m (33ft) wide and then, around the sides of the pit, tunnelling in a few meters before cutting artificial caves. Matmâta, and a handful of similar towns across Tunisia, is situated on a shelf of sandstone that is soft enough to excavate with hand tools, but sturdy enough to provide homes for centuries.



The homes are grouped around a central courtyard and connected to other courtyards with more rooms forming an underground labyrinth.

The picture far left is a room in the hotel Marhala, in Matmâta. Holes are cut into the wall and a chain hangs down so you can climb the wall to the room. It's easier than building a stairway, needs no timber, but it is probably only for the agile and sober. The hotel's bar is just next door to the room.

The picture near left is a Berber woman milling grains with a stone, called an azerg or raha, in a cool alcove just off the central courtyard. Traditionally wheat is ground into a fine flour to make tabouna. Tabouna is a bread made throughout Tunisia in terracotta ovens (below) of the same name.

  Tunisian woman baking with a Tabouna  

Just above the woman, at the back of the alcove you will see the Berber symbols of the fish and hand. The fingers of the hand represent the five pillars of Islam, called khomsa, the same as the Arabic word for five. The fish is a good luck charm. Both symbols are used to protect the home.


The interior of the cave homes (left) are painted with lime wash to capture as much bright desert light from the courtyard as possible.