JERBA, an island off the coast of North Africa in the Gulf of Gabes, forming part of the regency of Tunisia. It is separated from the mainland by two narrow straits, and save for these channels blocks the entrance to a large bight identified with the Lake Triton of the Romans. The western strait, opening into the Gulf of Gabes, is a mile and a half broad; the eastern strait is wider, but at low water it is possible to cross to the mainland by the Tarik-el-Jemil (road of the camel). The island is irregular in outline, its greatest length and breadth being some 20 m., and its area 425 sq. m. It contains neither rivers nor springs, but is supplied with water by wells and cisterns. It is flat and well wooded with date palms and olive trees. Pop. 35,000 to 40,000, the bulk of the inhabitants being Berbers. Though many of them have adopted Arabic a Berber idiom is commonly spoken. An affinity exists between the Berbers of Jerba and the Beni Mzab. About 3000 Jews live apart in villages of their own, and some 400 Europeans, chiefly Maltese and Greeks, are settled in the island. Jerba has a considerable reputation for the manufacture of the woollen tissues interwoven with silk which are known as burnous stuffs; a market for the sale of sponges is held from November till March; and there is a considerable export trade in olives, dates, figs and other fruits. The capital, trading centre and usual landing-place are at Haumt-es-Suk (market quarter) on the north side of the island (pop. 2500). Here are a medieval fort, built by the Spaniards in 1284, and a modern fort, garrisoned by the French. Gallala, to the south, is noted for the manufacture of a kind of white pottery, much prized. At El Kantara (the bridge) on the eastern strait, and formerly connected with the mainland by a causeway, are extensive ruins of a Roman city—probably those of Meninx, once a flourishing seaport.
Jerba is the Lotophagitis or Lotus-eaters’ Island of the Greek and Roman geographers, and is also identified with the Brachion of Scylax. The modern name appears as early as the 4th century in Sextus Aurelius Victor. In the middle ages the possession of Jerba was contested by the Normans of Sicily, the Spaniards and the Turks, the Turks proving victorious. In 1560 after the destruction of the Spanish fleet off the coast of the island by Piali Pasha and the corsair Dragut the Spanish garrison at Haumt-es-Suk was exterminated, and a pyramid, 10 ft. broad at the base and 20 ft. high, was built of their skulls and other bones. In 1848 this pyramid was pulled down at the instance of the Christian community, and the bones were buried in the Catholic cemetery. In general, from the Arab invasion in the 7th century Jerba shared the fortunes of Tunisia.
See H. Barth, Wanderungen durch die Küstenl. des Mittelmeeres (Berlin, 1849); and H. von Maltzan, Reise in Tunis und Tripolis (Leipzig, 1870).