Farming methods reached the Nile Valley from the Fertile Crescent region around 5000 BC and spread to the Maghreb by around 4000 BC. The farming communities of the humid coastal plains of Central Tunisia represent the ancestors of the present-day Berber tribes.
In ancient times, it is believed that Africa was originally settled by the Gethulans and Libyans, both of whom were nomadic peoples. According to the Roman historian Sallust, the demigod Hercules died in Spain and his multi-ethnic eastern armies were left to colonize and some migrated to Africa. Persians went west and mixed with the Gaetulians and became the Numidians. The Medes settled and became known as the Mauri, later Moors.
The Numidians and Moors belonged to the race from which the Berbers descended. The translated meaning of Numidian is nomadic and indeed the people were semi-nomadic until the reign of Masinissa of the Massyli tribe.
Tunisia was inhabited by Berber tribes at the beginning of its recorded history. The coastal areas were already settled by the Phoenicians in the 12th century BC (Bizerte, Utica). In the 9th century BC, the city of Carthage was established by the Phoenicians. Legend has it that Dido from Tyre, now in modern Lebanon, founded the city in 814 BC, as reported by the Greek writer Timaeus of Tauromenium. Carthaginian settlers had brought their culture as well as their religion with them from the Phoenicians.
After a series of wars with the Greek city-states of Sicily in the 5th century BC, Carthage rose to power and eventually became the dominant civilisation in the western Mediterranean. The people of Carthage worshipped a pantheon of Near Eastern gods, including Baal and Tanit. Tanit’s symbol, a simple female figure with outstretched arms and long dress, is a popular symbol found at ancient sites. The founders of Carthage also erected a Tophet, which was modified in Roman times.
A Carthaginian invasion of Italy led by Hannibal during the Second Punic War, a series of wars with Rome, almost crippled the rise of Roman power. After the end of the Second Punic War in 202 BC, Carthage functioned as a client state of the Roman Republic for another 50 years.
After the Battle of Carthage in 149 BC, Carthage was conquered by Rome. After the Roman conquest, the region became one of Rome’s most important granaries and was completely Latinised.
During the Roman period, the area that is now Tunisia experienced enormous development. The economy, especially during the Empire, boomed: the prosperity of the area depended on agriculture. Called the granary of the empire, the area of present-day Tunisia and coastal Tripolitania produced, according to one estimate, one million tons of grain per year, a quarter of which was exported to the empire. In addition, beans, figs, grapes and other fruits were cultivated.
In the 2nd century, olive oil competed with grain as an export commodity. In addition to cultivation and the capture and transport of exotic wild animals from the western mountains, the most important production and export goods included textiles, marble, wine, wood, livestock, pottery such as African red sand and wool.
In the central area of El Jem (where the second largest amphitheatre of the Roman Empire was located), there was even a large production of mosaics and pottery, mainly for export to Italy.
The Berber bishop Donatus Magnus was the founder of a Christian group known as the Donatists. During the 5th and 6th centuries (from 430 to 533 AD), the Germanic Vandals invaded and ruled over a kingdom in North Africa that included present-day Tripoli. The region was easily reconquered by the Eastern Romans under General Belisarius in the years 533-534 AD, during the reign of Emperor Justinian I.
Sometime between the second half of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th century, the Arab-Muslim conquest of the region occurred. They founded the first Islamic city of Kairouan in North Africa. In 670 A.D., the UHBA Mosque (Grand Mosque of Kairouan) was built. This mosque is the oldest and most prestigious holy site for Muslims in the West, with the oldest minaret in the world, and is considered a masterpiece of Islamic art and architecture.
The Arab rulers of Tunisia established the Ahlabi dynasty, which ruled Tunisia, Tripolitania and eastern Algeria between 800 and 909.Tunisia prospered under Arab rule when extensive systems were built to supply cities with water for domestic use and irrigation, which encouraged agriculture (especially olive production). This prosperity allowed for a luxurious court life and was marked by the construction of new palace cities such as al-Abassiya (809) and Raqadda (877).
Following the Cairo conquest, the Fatimids had left parts of Tunisia and eastern Algeria to the local Zirids (972-1148). Zirid Tunisia was prosperous at many fields. For example, agriculture, trade, industry, religion and secular learning. However, the management of the later Zirid emirs was lax, and political instability was associated with the decline of Tunisian trade and agriculture.
The invasion of Tunisia by the Banu Hilal, a warlike Arab Bedouin tribe encouraged by the Fatimids in Egypt to conquer North Africa, further decayed the urban and economic life of the region. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote that the land devastated by the Banu Hilal invaders had become a completely parched desert.
The coasts were briefly held by the Normans of Sicily in the 12th century, but after the Almohads conquered Tunisia in 1159-1160, the last Christians in Tunisia disappeared. The Almohads initially ruled Tunisia through a governor, usually a close relative of the caliph. Despite the prestige of the new masters, the country was still troubled, with constant revolts and fighting between the urban population and roving Arabs and Turks, the latter being subjects of the Muslim Armenian adventurer Karakush. Tunisia was also occupied by the Ayyubids between 1182 and 1183 and again between 1184 and 1187.
One of the biggest threats to Almohad’s rule in Tunisia was Banu Ghaniya, who was a relative of the Almoravids that was based in Mallorca and attempted to restore Almohad’s rule in the Maghreb. Around 1200 he succeeded in extending his rule throughout Tunisia until he was defeated by the Almohads in 1207. After this success, the Almohads installed Walid Abu Hafs as governor of Tunisia. Tunisia remained part of the Almohad state until 1230, when Abu Hafs’ son declared himself independent. During the reign of Hafsid dynasty, fruitful trade relations were established with the Christian Mediterranean countries, and by the end of the 16th century the coast had become a stronghold for pirates.
In the last years of the Hafsids, Spain conquered many of the coastal cities, but they were reconquered by the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottomans first conquered Tunisia in 1534 under the command of Barbarossa Hayrettin Pasha, brother of Uruk Reach, who had served as Kaptain Pasha of the Ottoman fleet during the reign of King Suleiman. However, it was not until the Ottomans recaptured Tunisia from the Spanish in 1574 under the command of Kapudan Pasha Uluk Ali Rais that the Ottomans finally captured the former Hafsid Tunisia, which they maintained until the French conquest of Tunisia in 1881.
After initially being under Turkish rule in Algiers, the Ottoman Porte quickly named a direct governor for Tunisia named Pasha, who had the support of the Janissaries. However, Tunisia soon became, in effect, an autonomous province under the local bey. Under its Turkish governors, the Beys, Tunisia gained virtual independence. The Hussein dynasty of the Beys, founded in 1705, lasted until 1957. This status development was unsuccessfully challenged from time to time by Algiers. During this period, the ruling councils that controlled Tunisia were largely composed of a foreign elite that continued to conduct state affairs in Turkish.
Pirate attacks on European shipping were launched mainly from Algiers, but also from Tunis and Tripoli, but after a long period of declining attacks, the growing strength of European countries finally forced them to end their attacks. Tunisia’s borders shrank under Ottoman rule; as it lost territory to the west (Constantine) and to the east (Tripoli).
Major epidemics ravaged Tunisia in 1784-1785, 1796-1797 and 1818-1820.
In the 19th century, the rulers of Tunisia became aware of ongoing efforts at political and social reform in the Ottoman capital. The Bey of Tunis then sought to implement modernising institutional and economic reform as he saw fit, but informed by the Turkish example. Tunisia’s foreign debt became unmanageable. This was the reason or pretext for the French to establish a protectorate in 1881.
French Tunisia (1881-1956)
In 1869, Tunisia was declared bankrupt and an international financial committee gained control of their economy. In 1881, under the pretext of a Tunisian invasion of Algeria, the French invaded with an army of about 36,000 men and forced the Bey to agree to the terms of the 1881 Treaty of Bardo (Al Qasr as Sa’id). This treaty officially made Tunisia a French protectorate, over the objections of Italy. Under French colonisation, European settlement of the country was actively promoted; the number of French colonists grew from 34,000 in 1906 to 144,000 in 1945. In 1910, there were 105,000 Italians in Tunisia.
During the Second World War, French Tunisia was ruled by the pro-Nazi Vichy government, which was located in metropolitan France. The anti-Semitic Jewish statute issued by the Vichy government was also implemented in Vichy North Africa and in the French overseas territories. Thus, the persecution and murder of Jews was part of the Shoah in France from 1940 to 1943.
From November 1942 to May 1943, Vichy Tunisia was occupied by Nazi Germany. Walter Rauff from SS has continued to enforce the Final Solution there. Nazi collaborator In 1942-1943, Tunisia was the scene of the Tunisian campaign, a series of battles between the Axis powers and the Allies. The battle began with initial successes by German and Italian forces, but massive supplies and Allied numerical superiority led to the surrender of the Axis powers on 13 May 1943.
Post- independence (1956-2011)
Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956 with Habib Bourguiba as Prime Minister. A year later, Tunisia was declared a republic, with Bourguiba as its first president. From independence in 1956 until the revolution in 2011, the government and the Constitutional Democratic Assembly (RCD), formerly Neo Destour and the Socialist Destourian Party, were effectively one. According to a report by Amnesty International, The Guardian called Tunisia “one of the most modern but repressive countries in the Arab world.”
In November 1987, doctors declared Bourguiba unfit to govern and in a bloodless coup d’état, Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed the presidency under Article 57 of the Tunisian Constitution. The anniversary of Ben Ali’s succession, 7 November, was observed as a bank holiday. He was re-elected every five years with enormous majorities (well over 80 per cent of the vote), most recently on 25 October 2009, until he fled the country in popular unrest in January 2011.
Ben Ali and his family were accused of corruption and looting the country’s money. Corrupt members of the Trabelsi family, especially Imed Trabelsi and Belhassen Trabelsi, controlled much of the economic sector in the country. First Lady Leila Ben Ali was described as an “unabashed shopaholic” who used the state plane for frequent unofficial trips to Europe’s fashion capitals. Tunisia rejected a French request to extradite two of the president’s nephews, accused by French prosecutors of stealing two mega-yachts from a French marina. It has been rumoured that Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher El Materi is on the verge of taking power in the country.
A lack of respect for fundamental and political rights have been documented by a number of independent human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Freedom House and Defence International. The regime obstructed the work of local human rights organisations in every possible way. In 2008, Tunisia ranked 143rd out of 173 in terms of freedom of the press.
Post Revolution (2011- )
The Tunisian revolution was an intense campaign of civil resistance triggered by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of free speech and other political freedoms, and poor living conditions. Trade unions were said to have been an integral part of the protests. The protests inspired the Arab Spring, a wave of similar actions across the Arab world.
The death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 to protest against the confiscation of his goods and the humiliation of a municipal official, sparked mass demonstrations. After Bouazizi’s death on 4 January 2011, anger and violence increased, eventually leading long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign and leave the country on 14 January 2011 after 23 years in power.
Protests continued for a ban on the ruling party and the expulsion of all its members from the interim government formed by Mohammed Ghannouchi. In the end, however, the new government succumbed to these demands. A court in Tunis banned the former ruling party RCD and confiscated all its funds. A decree by the Minister of the Interior banned the “political police”, a special unit used to intimidate and persecute political activists.
On 3 March 2011, the president announced that elections for a constituent assembly would be held on 23 October 2011. Both international and domestic observers announced that the voting has been free and fair. The Ennahda movement, formerly banned under the Ben Ali regime, won a majority of 90 out of a total of 217 seats. Moncef Marzouki, a former dissident and veteran Human Rights activist, became President on 12 December 2011.
In March 2012, Ennahda declared that it would not support making Sharia the main source of legislation in the new constitution and maintaining the secular character of the state. Ennahda’s stance on this issue was criticised by hardline Islamists who wanted strict Sharia law, but was welcomed by secular parties. On 6 February 2013, Chokri Belaid, the leader of the left opposition and a prominent critic of Ennahda, was assassinated. Tunisia was hit by two terrorist attacks on foreign tourists in 2015, first killing 22 people at the Bardo National Museum and later 38 people on the Sousse seafront.