Underground Homes in Tunisia

The remains of Roman-era underground homes in modern-day Tunisia provide more evidence there "ain't nothin' new under the sun."

| November/December 1980

Moles have holes, and humans have houses. At least, that's what a good number of today's folks seem to believe. However, some pragmatic home designers and builders (many of whom have been featured in this magazine) are setting out to prove that we should change our thinking. Concerns about petroleum prices and pollution have caused a number of homeowners — though in greater comfort and style than any other burrowing creatures — to move underground. But even those people who are up-to-date on the latest earth-sheltered home designs might be surprised to learn that subsurface living is actually a very old idea.

Several ancient cultures experimented with the use of underground homes, but no country's history provides more evidence of the practicality — and beauty — of a belowground lifestyle than does that of the tiny North African republic of Tunisia. Travelers to this thumb-shaped nation on the northernmost point of Africa can see how residents here — past and present — have used earth-sheltering to cope efficiently with their environment.

Roman Cleverness

The remains of Bulla Regia, which was a rich Roman town during the early years of the Christian era, can be found in the green Tell (coastal) region close to the Algerian border. Back in the days of Rome's "bread and circuses," this African province supplied much of the wheat used to make the storied Latin loaves. In fact, Roman colonists (usually they were military veterans) who settled in the fertile Medjerda River basin often grew rich in the grain trade, and the exquisite underground villas that their wealth allowed them to construct are now unique tourist attractions.

The transplanted Romans, who loved beauty and comfort — but not African summers — faced a dilemma: The same sun that ripened their grain caused them great discomfort. They remembered, however, that country houses in the hotter sections of Italy had long incorporated earth-covered "summer bedrooms," and the colonists simply carried the homeland idea a step further by designing entire warm-weather houses underneath their aboveground winter dwellings.

By placing their summer quarters below the earth's surface, the ancient innovators were able to take advantage of the insulation provided by the surrounding soil. And, by directing air through vents in the cooling earth, they made the homes more comfortable still. (The combination resulted in a natural air conditioning system with no mechanical parts to break down and no power bills!)

But mere shelter from the heat wasn't enough to satisfy members of such a highly civilized culture, so the Romans added aesthetic touches: columns, pools, fountains, arches, wall paintings, and mosaics. In short, the softly lighted underground homes became showplaces in which provincial wheat farmers spent the hot seasons in comfort, surrounded by beauty.

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