French visitors to Jerba, the largest island off the coast of Tunisia, call this oasis of date palms and olive trees "Jerba la Douce" —gentle Jerba. The secret is in the wind. From March to October the parched Sahara gasps in lungfuls of humid Mediterranean air, drawing sea breezes across the island from the east and northeast. These winds ripple through the flat white sands day and night, rendering the air over Jerba, in French writer Gustave Flaubert's hyperbole," so soft that it hinders death."
These glimmering, whitewashed structures dominate the landscape, their colors shift with the changing light, and their flights of architectural fantasy seem to come in an infinite variety.
In 1881, Tunisia became a French protectorate, and artists and writers camp to Jerba to bask in glow of ancient civilizations, or at least in the brilliance of an island sun. But when the country gained its independence in 1956, the island was free to fall back on its own customs.
Thus, despite the flourishing of tourism and the building of almost 50 resort hotels along its northeastern coastline, Jerba remains a sanctuary for the old ways, a changes taking place in many North African cities.
Perhaps the most striking example is the preservation of Jerba's almost 300 mosques, an extraordinary number for an island that measures only 514 square kilometers (185 square miles) and is home to some 120,000 people. These glimmering, whitewashed structures dominate the landscape, their colors shift with the changing light, and their flights of architectural fantasy seem to come in an infinite variety. In Houmt-Souk ("market square"), Jerba's capital, the most famous are the Mosque of the Strangers, covered with cupolas, and the Mosque of the Turks, with its massive minaret. The village of El May boasts an imposing example of a fortress-mosque, with narrow gun slits and thick walls, and the tiny post of Adjim impresses us with sheer numbers—16 mosques in all.
But despite his diversity, two basic forms can be discerned on the island, corresponding to the two principal schools of Islamic thought here—the Malakis and the Hanbalis. The minaret of he Malaki mosque is all and slender, while its Hanbali counterpart is a lower, squared tower topped with a lantern-shaped skylight. Most of the mosques, however, have the same basic interior plan; a large prayer hall, one or more rooms for washing before prayers, and several room for housing pious visitors, all surrounding a central courtyard built over a cistern.
As for the names of the mosques, they are often derived from the teachers who are said to have founded them, or from the legends which surround their origins. A typical example is the Jamaa Ellile, as it is pronounced locally; the Mosque of the Night, just outside the village of Guellala. The story goes that when the workmen came to build it, they got everything ready—the bricks, sand and lime—and then went to sleep, intending to start early the next morning. But when they awoke, they found the mosque standing before hem, already miraculously built.
Walking around Jerba in the soft dawn light, one can believe that they themselves are wonder enough.
Michael Balter, an American free-lance journalist, writes for the International Herald Tribune and Bon Appétit and serves as the principal Paris correspondent for the journal Science.