may be the smallest country in North Africa, but its strategic
position has ensured it an eventful history. The Phoenicians,
Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans
and French have all picked at the region at one point. The
earliest humans to set foot here were probably a group of Homo
erectus who stumbled onto the place a few hundred thousand years ago
as they joined north-west across the Sahara from East Africa.
It's believed that in those days what is now arid desert was covered in
forest, scrub and savanna grasses, much like the plains of Kenya
and Tanzania today. The earliest hard evidence of human
inhabitation was unearthed near the southern oasis town of Kebili
and dates back about 200,000 years.
Phoenicians first set up shop in Tunisia at Utica in
1100 BC, using it as a staging post along the route from their home port
of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon) to Spain. They went
on to establish a chain of ports along the North African coast,
the most important of which included Hadrumètum (Sousse)
and Hippo Diarrhytus (Bizerte). But the port that looms
largest in history books is Carthage, arch enemy of Rome.
It became the leader of the western Phoenician world in the 7th
century and the main power in the Western Mediterranean in the early 5th
century. The city's regional dominance lasted until the Punic Wars
between Rome and Carthage, which began in 263 BC and ended
in 146 BC with Carthage utterly razed and its people sold into
Tunisian territory became Roman property after the war. The
emperor Augustus refounded Carthage as a Roman city
in 44 BC, naming it the capital of Africa Proconsularis, Rome's African holdings. Agriculture became all-important,
and by the 1st century AD, the wheat-growing plains of Tunisia
were supplying over 60% of the empire's requirements. The Romans
went on to found cities and colonies across Tunisia's plains and
coastline; today, they're Tunisia's principal tourist
beginning of the 5th century, with Rome's power in terminal
decline, the Vandals decided the area was ripe for plucking.
Within 10 years, they'd taken Carthage as their capital and began
to, well, vandalize. Their exploitative policies alienated them from the
native Berber population, who in turn formed small kingdoms and
began raiding the Vandal settlements. The Byzantines of
Constantinople, who pulled the territory from the Vandals in
533 and kept it for the next 150 years, fared no better.
burst onto the scene in the 7th century, when the Arab armies
swept out of Arabia, quickly conquering Egypt. The
Arabs had taken all of North Africa by the start of the 8th
century, and, with Kairouan as its capital, the region became a
province of the fast-expanding Islamic empire controlled by the caliphs
Berbers adopted Islamic religious teachings readily enough, but they
riled under their harsh treatment by the Arabs. Their uprisings
continued until 909, when a group of Berber Shiites, the
Fatimids, glommed together disaffected Berber tribes and took North Africa back from the Arabs.
capital was raised on the coast at Mahdia, but the unity was to
be short-lived. When some of the tribes returned to the Sunni
mainstream, the tribes began to fight one another and North Africa
was slowly reduced to ruins.
arose again when North Africa was caught in the middle of the
rivalry between Spain and the Ottoman Empire in the middle
of the 16th century. Tunis changed hands half a dozen times in
some 50 years, before the Turks took it in 1574 and it became an Ottoman territory. Ottoman power lasted through to the
19th century, when France became the new power in the Western
Mediterranean and Tunis came under increasing pressure to
conform to their European ways.
1881, the French sent 30,000 troops into Tunisia under the
pretext of countering border raids into French-occupied Algeria.
They quickly occupied Tunis and forced the ruling Bey to
sign over his power to the French. Soon after, they had
discretely nabbed the best of Tunisian land. The fall of
France in WWII opened the door for Tunisian
nationalists to step up their independence campaign, and one man in
particular, Habib Bourguiba, set about bringing Tunisia's
position into the international spotlight.
the early 1950s, the French were ready to make concessions.
was formally granted independence on 20 March 1956, with Bourguiba
as prime minister. The following year, the country was declared a
republic and Bourguiba became its first president, instituting
sweeping political and social changes. Regarding Islam as a force
that was holding the country back, Bourguiba set about reducing
its role in society by removing religious leaders from their traditional
areas of influence, such as education and the law. The
(Qur'anic law) courts were also abolished, and lands that had financed mosques and religious institutions were confiscated.
presidency lasted through 1987, when after years of working to squelch
the Islamic party pretenders to his throne, his own minister for the
interior, Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, took advantage of the Islamic
citizenry's unrest to have Bourguiba declared mentally unfit to
rule and 'retired' to a palace outside Monastir.
quickly moved to appease the Islamic opposition, making a pilgrimage to Mecca and ordering that the Ramadan fast be observed.
Since taking power his party's stranglehold on the government has held
fast. Today the main opposition parties remain disenfranchised and media
censorship is commonplace. In elections held in October 1999, Ben Ali
won by a whopping 99.44%! Bourguiba's death in April 2000
inspired widespread and open dissent against Ben Ali's regime,
and signs of unrest are becoming more and more prominent.