Ancient Tunisia

By about 8,000 BCE human beings lived in what is now Tunisia by hunting and gathering. After about 5,000 BC they began farming although they still used stone tools. Then from about 1100 BCE the Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon settled and traded in the area.

About 480 BCE the Phoenicians founded Carthage. Slowly this city became stronger. In time the Carthaginians built an empire in the Mediterranean. However they came into conflict with Rome. The first Punic War between Carthage and Rome began in 263 BCE and lasted until 241 BCE. It ended in Carthaginian defeat. A second war followed in 218 BCE. This time Hannibal led an army across the Alps into Italy but he failed to capture Rome. Finally in 202 BCE the Carthaginians were crushed by the Romans at the battle of Zama. A third was fought between 149 and 146 BCE. This time Carthage was destroyed. However the Romans later rebuilt Carthage as a Roman city.

Under Roman rule Tunisia prospered and it exported grain and olive oil to other parts of the empire. Furthermore many Romans settled in the area and trade flourished.

However by the 5th century the Roman Empire was crumbling. A people called the Vandals had conquered Spain. In 429 CE, almost 80,000 Vandals led by Genseric crossed to North Africa. In 439 CE they captured Carthage and created a new kingdom. Meanwhile the Roman Empire had split into 2 halves, East and West. The Eastern half became known as the Byzantine Empire. In 533 CE Byzantine Emperor Justinian sent an army under his general Belisarius, which crushed the Vandals and took Carthage. Byzantine rule in Tunisia lasted till 698. In that year the Arabs took Carthage. At first Arab Tunisia was ruled by the Caliphs but in 800 Ibrahim ibn al Aghlab was made hereditary ruler of the country. Under the Aghlabid dynasty Tunisia prospered and trade flourished.

Tunisia in The Middle Ages

Nevertheless in 909 CE a strict sect called the Ismailis led a rebellion and ousted the Aghlabids. The leader of the Ismailis took over Tunisia. He claimed to be descended from Muhammad's daughter Fatima so his dynasty was called Fatimids. In 921 CE the Fatimids founded Mahida, which became the capital. Then in 969 the Fatimids captured Egypt and shortly afterwards they made Cairo their new capital. From then on Tunisia was ruled by a semi-independent dynasty of governors called the Zirids. However the Zirids broke away from the Fatimids and became completely independent in 1049. For revenge the Fatimids persuaded two Bedouin tribes, the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym to attack the Zirids.

Furthermore in the 12th century the Normans (who ruled Sicily) captured most of the Tunisian ports. They captured Jerba in 1135 and Mahdia in 1148. However the Almohads who came from Morocco drove them out. The Almohads captured Tunis in 1159. However in 1229 the governor in Tunisia broke away and formed a new dynasty. The Hafsids succeeded in restoring order to Tunisia. During the thirteenth century Tunisia prospered and trade flourished.

Modern Tunisia

In 1574 Tunisia was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries many Tunisians were pirates. They were called Barbary pirates. (The word Barbary is derived from Berber). From time to time European powers took action against the Barbary pirates. For example, in 1655 the English Admiral Blake bombarded Porto Farina. The Europeans also extorted various treaties none of which ended the piracy.

Turkish rule in Tunisia ended in 1705 when Hussain Ibn Ali began the Hussainid dynasty. Then during the 19th century European, especially Italian influence increased in Tunisia. When Tunisia went bankrupt in 1869 Britain, France and Italy took control of Tunisian finances. Then in 1881 French troops entered from Algeria and forced the Tunisian bey to accept a French protectorate.

Tunisian nationalism soon grew and in the early 20th century an independence movement was formed. Then in 1940 when Germany conquered France Tunisia came under the French Vichy government. The Germans occupied Tunisia in November 1942 but their troops surrendered to the allies in May 1943.

After the Second World War Tunisians continued to agitate for freedom. Finally on 20 March 1956 France agreed to Tunisian independence. The first election was held on 25 March 1956. At first Tunisia was a constitutional monarchy but in 1957 it became a republic.

Habib Bourguiba became the first president. In 1975 he was made president for life but in 1987 he was removed from power and was replaced by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Meanwhile oil was discovered in Tunisia in 1964 while in international affairs Tunisia adopted a non-aligned stance. However in 2011 there was unrest in Tunisia in 2011 and Ben Ali was forced to flee.

A new chapter in the history of Tunisia began. Elections were held in Tunisia in October 2011. a new constitution was adopted in 2014. Today the Tunisian economy is growing and poverty is declining. Tourism is an important industry. Today the population of Tunisia is 11 million.

Tunisia's capital is one of North Africa's most easygoing cities, yet still full of exotic appeal. It is this laid back approach that makes Tunis the perfect introduction to the region. Most of the main sightseeing is in the medina (old town), which is a tourist attraction in itself. Here, the alleyways wind in disorganized avenues. Once amid the high walls, you are bound to get lost. Outside of this charming labyrinth, though, there are still plenty of things to do.

The European style of the ville nouvelle (new town) is where French café culture sets the speed of the day, and sumptuous Belle Epoque architecture lines the ordered streets. Outside of the center are the city's two most important points of interest: The fabulous mosaic collection of the world-famous Bardo Museum and the remnants of once glorious Carthage are must visits on every tourist's travel agenda.

The city center is old, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, but it is surrounded by the infrastructure of a modern Arab city, so you will see its two faces. Tunis is a good choice for cultural holidays, with two World Heritage sites and hundreds of historical monuments. Due to possible political unrest, as was the case in the summer of 2011, travelers to Tunisia should regularly check the site France Diplomatie ( diplomatie.gouv.fr).

1. Carthage

The remains of ancient Carthage, rich and legendary maritime city of the Phoenicians, are scattered along the Gulf of Tunis. The ruined columns and piles of marble rubble are lined by a panorama of the Mediterranean Sea, which was so fundamental to the prosperity of the city. Entirely destroyed during the Third Punic War in 146 BCE, the remaining ruins are nothing compared to some of the other ancient sites of North Africa, but that does not mean you should not visit them. With a beautiful setting on the seafront, the remains have an incomparable air, as lost in time. Various sites streak along the bay and are easily accessible on foot or by the use of the light rail of Tunis. Do not miss the view from the top of Byrsa Hill .

The ancient city of Carthage

2. The Medina

You will find a labyrinth of dilapidated buildings criss-crossing a parade of narrow streets. The district of the medina (old town) is the historical heart of Tunis and is full of sites to visit. The main gateway, marking the end of the new city and the beginning of the medina is known as Bab el Bahr, “Gate of the sea”. Built in 1848, it was known as the “Porte de France” during the colonial period. The old city walls of the Hafsid period may have disappeared, in part, for a long time, but once inside the mosques, madrassas (schools) and mausoleums, you can admire the sumptuous works of tiling. Including the splendid lines of Fatimid and Ottoman architecture in the winding streets. Getting lost in the meanders and falling on a fabulous monumental vestige is only part of your pleasure. Visitors interested in markets will be heading to the Souk des Chéchias, where traditional Tunisian woolen hat makers have had their workshops for centuries. The area between Djemma ez Zaitouna Street and Kasbah Street is where most of the souvenir shops are gathered.

The Medina

3. Sidi Bou Said

The beautiful Andalusian-style coastal district of Sidi Bou Said owes its fame to three young painters. While traveling here in 1914, Paul Klee, August Macke and Louis Moilliet captured the beauty of whitewashed buildings and blue doors on canvas. Since then, the district of Sidi Bou Said has something artistic and bohemian, and it is a place of privileged escape for the locals on the weekends. Very touristy, but is part of its charm, you will be seduced by the perfectly white and blue streets, cafes leaning against the cliffs, including the famous Café des Délices and the views of the coast.

Sidi Bou Said

4. The Bardo National Museum

One of the most beautiful and largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world lies in a sumptuous palace of Tunis. The Bardo is the second museum on the African continent after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Inside, room after room are presented examples of rich and intricate art mosaics that have been discovered in sites throughout all of Tunisia. The Sousse, Ulysses and Dougga Halls have particularly impressive displays of this art form, but the entire collection is a treasure and is well worth an afternoon to devote to it or even a day. The ground floor of the building includes interesting non-mosaic exhibits with exhibits from the neo-Punic, Christian, and Islamic eras.

The Bardo National Museum

5. Zitouna mosque, or mosque of the olive tree

The Grand Mosque of the Medina district is home to some of the finest examples of religious architecture in the country. Undertaken during the Umayyad Dynasty in the year 732 CE, it was modified and refined by the conquering empires in the centuries that followed. Although non-Muslims can not enter the prayer room, visitors are free to walk around the opulent and tranquil outdoor courtyard, but also to go to the rooftop where dazzling mosaics are on display. The roof is also one of the best places in the Medina to take panoramic pictures of the surroundings.

Zitouna mosque

6. La Goulette (Port of Tunis)

La Goulette is the port suburb of the Tunisian capital and has been a place of strategic importance, controlling the entrance to the port. Under the reign of Emperor Charles V, it was the most important Spanish possession in the Eastern Maghreb. From 1574, the Ottoman rulers enlarged and strengthened the fortress built by Spain.

La Goulette became a port only during the French colonial period, when the lake of Tunis settled down and could no longer take any ship, whatever their size. La Goulette has Spanish and Ottoman forts to explore and the gate of the Old Arsenal, on the road to Tunis. If you only want to soak up the sea air, the coastal road, avenue Franklin Roosevelt, is a nice place to walk in La Goulette. Beyond the modern port, the long sandy beach is one of the best places in the city to spend an evening and relax on weekends.

La Goulette

7. St. Vincent de Paul Cathedral

In the New City of Tunis is this imposing cathedral, the largest surviving building of the French colonial period in Tunisia. Its voluminous Moorish, Gothic and Neo-Byzantine style facade majestically presides over the northern end of Independence Square . It was, at the time of its construction in 1893, a monument that recalled the domination of France over the country. Inside the cathedral is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

St. Vincent de Paul Cathedral

8. The New City of Tunis

Very far from the tangle of alleys of the Medina, the New Town of Tunis was developed in the French colonial era. Its main core is Habib Bourguiba Avenue , a magnificent and large avenue lined with palm and eucalyptus trees. Perfect straight line, the avenue goes east, just outside the medina on Independence Square towards the port. Architecture enthusiasts will appreciate the marvelous mix of colonial and post-colonial buildings along Habib Bourguiba Avenue, from the modernist inverted pyramid at Hotel du Lac to the most distinguished European style government buildings. At the intersection with Avenue Mohammed V, the Place d’Afrique presents a Clock Tower symbolizing the modern era of Tunisia.

Habib Bourguiba Avenue