Chikleh: Rich Roman’s holiday home, Hafsid Sultan’s camping ground, Spanish fortress, leper colony, quarantine quarters, restored historic monument. Chikleh: You name it, Chikleh has been there, done it, got the T shirt … and survives.
This was my first real cycle ride in Tunisia – after hiring a good bike from Dominique at Tuneasybikes. Looking for adventure. Since I live out near near Lac de Tunis, then the the first idea is to do a circuit. Probably about 40km. OK, it’s 3pm so maybe not. But if not round, then maybe across? I have seen this causeway, which starts in La Goulette, and reaches out into the lake, beyond the spikey wooden fence.
So maybe the two can be connected. Literally and historically. Time to find out….. Easier than you might expect, although not exactly an appealing entry point. As usual, across the waste land, through a rubbish tip, negotiate the dogs and the ‘no entry’ signs, over the bridge, and then start to cycle.
It’s a surprisingly long ride: probably about 4 km, over crunchy chipping track, with good mud / puddles / small lakes on the route. All along the track, the fishermen’s shacks. There are good stocks, not least since the fish farm was abandoned, and the fishes given freedom: winners of the Arab Spring. Plus the fishermen. The track seems to go on forever. There’s one guy knee-deep in the shallows, pulling up mounds of mud and weeds. Presumably he is after eels. Can’t imagine what else could be lurking. Unless he’s a ‘treasure seeker’ .. of which there are many here (and a future post?). But then by the time we are three km from the entry to the causeway, even the fisherfolk have petered out: it’s an empty winding track ahead. At times, it’s hard to imagine there IS a final destination to this journey, but at last, Chekla Island comes into view. With the fortress.
I am alone: the solo cyclist. I am ready for adventure… but I am not stupid. So I don’t enter. Outside, I imagine what goes on inside. That evening, back home in Salambo, I read up the ‘who / what / why / where / when / how? on google and wikipedia. First: location, out on the Lac de Tunis:
Next, the name of the Island: Chikly / Chekla / depending on which derivation you prefer: Some say it’s Chekla based on the Arabic Chekila, which means coquette. Others, including Marcel Gondolpho who’s written a short story of the island prefers to imagine that it’s Italian, and is a distorted version of Sicily. (haha. Sicily: a tiny island. Home to cosa nostra, where mafia corruption runs riot! Chikleh a distorted version? Are we talking worse?).
One of first textual references is by El-Bakri to the eleventh century who described the island. “To the east of the city of Tunis, there is a large lake which has twenty-four mile circuit in the middle is an island called Chekla, which produces fennel and contains the remains of an old castle.” And then Abu Fadl Allah Al-Omari (1337-1338) described it as “a picturesque place and one can admire the surroundings of the lake and surrounding gardens.” Apparently, Hafsid sultans visited the island to fish, settled in tents and stayed there for several days, engaging in leisure activities and entertainment. Frankly, if you’ve visited Chikleh, this idea of ‘several days’ sounds far-fetched. Given that most contemporary documents also refer to the Lac de Tunis as a stinking, brackish stagnant bog, maybe the idea of a summer camp is less than attractive. (Unless you are a Brit brought up on Butlins maybe?)
When I first heard about this place from Europeans, it was referred to as ‘the Spanish Fortress’ elsewhere, in wiki, it’s also referred to as St Jaques fortress. Maybe it’s also important to distinguish between the island itself (eternally and totally Tunisian) and the edifice-upon-it, which, like most infrastructure here, reveals traces of centuries of to-ing and fro-ing of various forces. The mosaics and remains of a villa attest to Romans. The must have swum there in a straight line – because the causeway is far too dog-legged for marching centurions. The next important change of use was under the bey Hammouda Pacha
He established a leper / Lazarus colony there, probably towards end 1700s. But by the mid 1800s the fort was abandoned, to be reactivated in the 1900s as a quarantine for travellers arriving by ship in Tunis Port, having travelled through the Suez Canal.
So, enough history. Back to the present. By now, I am totally alone in the wilds with the wildlife, which, given the isolated location, abounds. Especially birds of which there are, allegedly, 57 varieties. (And thus inspired a Heinz slogan) .Plus there are interesting habitats: this looks like some sort of earthship.
Apparently, the egret is most common. The other visible birds, bigger and noisier, are the constant stream of aircraft landing at Carthage International. From Chikleh you have an amazing view of the undercarriage. And indeed, as informed by my ‘Pilot Family’ friends, it’s a reference point for landing. Lying on my back, in the sand, I watch it fly over: belly on display, strangely vulnerable. If I were writing a modern spy novel, this is where the ‘good guy’ would hole up, to emerge at the last-minute armed with a shoulder-held RPG, and blast a 747 out of the sky, killing the ‘bad guy’ and thus averting world war III. Who the ‘good guy’ and ‘who the bad guy? Like the naming of Chikleh, it all depends on your point of view. So, write your own narrative; To get in the ambience, come on over.
Together we can explore the fortress in all its glory. Built between 1535 and 1540 on the orders of Charles V, who quickly realized the potential role of the island as a forward defense in the protection of the city of Tunis. It’s Spanish style, built on the ruins of a castle that fell into disrepair towards the end of the era of Aghlabites. So spanish-style becomes ‘Spanish Fortress’.
A convenient choice of history on which to focus, since the Spanish then worked with the Tunisian government on a program of restoration and development of the island, which started with this:
Rumour has it that the Trabelsi family were planning to open a night club there.(so maybe the ‘distorted’ version of Sicily was appropriate). I can just imagine drunken revellers from elite social classes stumbling back along the 4km route at three am, wind whistling, waves crashing. As if.
If you read Wikipedia, it will inform you that: Tthrough this project, the fortress has regained its previous form. To the chagrin of Tunisians, this island can not be visited. Well clearly that’s changed. That is NOT me on the roof (not my style of shorts) .. so others have been here.
In fact.. that photo is of / or by Fabore Oo (regularly active on VelorutionTunisienne)
Bring your passport just in case