Boeuf had planned a most interesting itinerary throughout Tunisia, including all the main agricultural areas. He even showed an interest in accompanying me, the more so since this was the very best season: the harvest had only just begun in the mountain areas and the wheat had not yet been cut. It was evident that we could expect to make a very good and interesting collection.The equipment necessary for the expedition was assembled: an aneroid barometer, wrappings and bags, and early the following morning we departed for the interior of Tunisia and the spurs of the Atlas mountains.
The modem city of Tunis is situated near the famous Carthaginian ruins, which are still preserved. In the past, at the time of the Romans, Tunisia was the granary which to a great extent supplied the Roman Empire with wheat. On the border of Tunisia towards the Sahara an ancient frontier post of the Roman Empire was situated. It was the same here as in Trans-Jordania and Palestine: an arena with an amphitheatre,  a beautifully preserved pipe system, a temple with colonnades, streets and a market with stalls.  As can be seen, the influence of Rome reached to the very borders of the great deserts of Asia and Africa.
The city today,  part of which is European, is not very large. The major portion is represented by an Arabian city with the usual buildings with flat roofs and by large grain markets, clearly reflecting the composition of the Mediterranean crops: there were large-grained wheat and barley and large-seeded linseed, beans, lentils and peas. Around the ruins of Carthago one can see the typical irrigation by means of waterwheels and special wells, from which water is drawn with receptacles made of skins (the waterskins are lowered into the wells and pulled up by horses ‘over the wheel’).
Extensive areas of the foothills of Tunisia and its highlands are devoted to hard wheat. So far almost exclusively local and ancient kinds are cultivated here. They represent a heterogeneous blend of many varieties, consisting of a mixture of white-spiked, red-spiked and black-spiked forms. Competition between hard and soft wheat has already taken effect here in full force. The city people and the French colonists prefer bread made of soft wheat. The Arabian population holds stubbornly on to the hard wheat. There are rather weighty reasons for this, of which I became convinced when travelling around in Tunisia. After threshing the wheat and setting aside a part of it for seeding, the rest is usually preserved in piles. Water is poured over the hard wheat and kept there for one-and-a-half to two days. The grains swell and a fermentation process takes place within the grains, a conversion of starch into sugar. Then the grain is spread out and dried and finally used for making a kind of gruel. Such fermented wheat is sold at every market in Tunisia and Algeria under the name of ‘cous-cous’. This is a very primitive use of grain, a relic of the past, which apparently has some connection to southeastern Asia,  where the population mainly nourishes itself on boiled rice. Cous-cous is a kind of ‘wheaten rice.’
- Photo by Luigi Guarino, used with permission. [↩]
- Vavilov’s mention of an amphitheatre strongly suggests that the place in question was El Djem, Roman Thysdrus. On the other hand … more later [↩]
- El Djem, or Tunis? Hard to be sure, but the later mention of Carthage’s irrigation suggests Tunis. [↩]
- Here we go again … [↩]