Gabès as a city is famous for its souqs. Souqs (or sometimes written as souks) are open-air marketplaces in the Middle East or North Africa. The word is thought to be of French origin and that it was used in the French occupied nations of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. They are equivalent to bazaars and are often found in the commercial area of a city. Historically, souqs were held in places in the cities where caravans would arrive and merchants could stop and set up their wares and goods they had for sale. During those years, the time frame between caravans could be long and souqs were held infrequently. However, when they did, they became more than just a marketplace to buy and sell goods and they transformed into a general festival with a variety of activities. As cities continued to grow however, souqs became more permanent and shifted locations from the outskirts of town to the center. The souq in Gabès is large and famous with a variety of local items for sale. There are a number of local Tunisian spices for sale at the spice market portion of the souq. Henna dye is also available for sale at the souqs as it is an important part of Tunisian culture used to decorate women’s bodies. The markets are found in the Jara neighborhood of Gabès. Saturday is market day in Jara and is the busiest day.
Matmata is a town in the Gabès Governorate, the same province as the city of Gabès. Matmata is located 67 km (41 mi) to the southeast of Gabès. Matmata is famous for being a Berber speaking town where the residents live in typical underground structures. The population of the village is roughly 2,116 people and they live in buildings known as “troglodyte” structures. These buildings are made by first digging out a very big pit in the ground. Then, around the outside of the pit, caves are dug into the ground which are then used as rooms. Some of the larger houses have multiple caves which are connected by passageways. It is not known for certain when the pit and the houses were first built. The best estimates guess that it was built during the Roman Empire, by local people as a means of protection from invading forces. After the Punic Wars, the Romans expelled two tribes from Egypt to go live in the Matmata region but gave them permission to kill all people they came in contact with. It is possible that the local people, to protect themselves, dug caves in the ground in which to hide and from them they could emerge at night to attack the invaders. Once the site was abandoned, it remained undiscovered until 1967 due to its hostile location. Today, people live in the structures once again and the settlement runs off of tourism. The Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata was used as the home of Luke Skywalker for the Star Wars movies.
Jara is one of the historical areas of the city of Gabès. Jara is best known for its market which offers a wide variety of products and foods and is busiest on Saturdays, market day. Jara used to have a rich Jewish heritage but in the years since World War II, many of the buildings have been destroyed and much of Tunisia’s Jewish population has emigrated. Some of the attractions that can still be seen today in Jara include The Great Mosque (Avenue Bourguiba), which is a new building. One of the older, more historic buildings is the Zaouia of Sidi Hamed (44 Rue Sadok Lassoued) which has a beautiful koubba dome as well as pink stone doorways made of a local stone. A third mosque in the area, the Sidi Driss Mosque, was built in the 11th century. Much of the mosque, as like other buildings in the area, was built using stone leftover from previous Roman constructions.
The Gabe’s cuisine
A major coastal city, Gabes will offer you fish and seafood prepared in all sorts of ways: grilled red mullet, stuffed squid, dogfish stewed with salted vegetables, or the little ouzef fish in a bell pepper salad. The lamb of the nomadic herders also has a treasured place in southern cuisine. Try it roasted or in couscous. If you stay in Gabes over autumn, take advantage of the season to try the oasis pomegranates. Restaurants aimed at tourists are rare in the Gabes region, but hotels can have their own restaurants. Otherwise, go for the little local restaurants that serve a simple fare typical to the region, although generally no alcohol.
Gabes is the only coastal oasis in the Mediterranean, surrounded by fine sand beaches. Its vast palm grove is truly enchanting, and its old city is distinguished by its authentic atmosphere. But Gabes is above all the entrance to the Sahara; the start of a journey between ridges and arid hills, Bedouin tents and old Berber villages. Here you’ll find still-living traditions and an ancestral way of life, such as the stunning underground village of mount Matmata.