Berbers are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. They are strong and proud people, and they show great respect for the natural environment. Berbers call themselves some variant of the word i-Mazigh-en, possibly meaning ‘free people’ or ‘noble men’. In Central Tunisia, they built their villages on mountainous areas using stones and other materials in such way that the houses blended into the surrounding landscape. The Berber villages located on separate mountains would communicate with each other through sending smoke signals from the top of the mountains.
Traditionally Berbers were either Christian, Jewish or Animist – religious belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence -, and a number of Berber theologians were important figures in the development of western Christianity. When Islam swept through North Africa in the 7th century, many Berbers tried to resist the conquest. They kept their Christian heritage in secret and outwardly submitted to Islamic rule. They built white mosques at the top of the mountains noticeable from great distance to deceive Muslim invaders. As they passed, seeing the mosque, they would assume the village had already converted and continue on their way.
In 1957, Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba’s goal was to unify the country and cultivate a ‘Tunisian Arab’ identity. He built villages down in the plains to draw the Berbers out of their strong mountain fortifications. They have lost many of their Berber traditions due to the forced integration with the Arab majority.
Takrouna and Zriba el Alia are villages of stone houses that still stand high on top of rocky peaks as a testimonial of the Berber culture. Only few families still live up in these mountain villages. They have no electricity and water. Most of the houses are ruinous and barely hanging to the cliffs. However, they live proudly away from the city and in harmony with their surroundings. Takrouna has a two-room museum in a traditional house displaying artifacts of local Berber heritage. The collection is curated by a local woman, Aida Gmach Bellagha, who left the capital Tunis to return to her family’s roots. In Zriba el Alia, it is worth climbing one of the rocks that overlook the village for a splendid overall view. In both villages, the panorama of the roving hills covered with orchards and the towering shadows of the Atlas Mountains in the background are an unforgettable sight.