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History of Tunisia

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Title: History of Tunisia  
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History of Tunisia

Modern Tunisia.

The History of Tunisia is subdivided into the following articles:


  • Names 1
  • History Outline 2
  • Climate change 3
  • Geography 4
  • Population 5
  • See also 6
  • Reference notes 7
  • Further reading 8


Tunisia, al-Jumhuriyyah at-Tunisiyyah, is a sovereign republic. Yet the country's proper name has changed radically more than once over the course of millennia. Hence, such a term as "ancient Tunisia" is frankly anachronistic. Nonetheless, "Tunisia" is used throughout this history for continuity.

Undoubtedly, the most ancient Berbers had various names for their land and settlements here, one early Punic-era Berber name being Massyli.[1][2] After the Phoenicians arrived, their city of Carthage evolved to assume a dominant position over much of the western Mediterranean; this city-state gave its name to the region.[3] Following the Punic Wars, the Romans established here their Province of Africa, taking the then not-widely-known name of Africa from a Berber word for 'the people'.[4][5] After the Arab and Muslim conquest, this name continued in use, as the region was called in Arabic Ifriqiya. Its capital was relocated to the newly built city of Kairouan.[6]

In the twelfth century the Berber Almohads [Almohad or Al Muwahhidun] conquered the country and began to rule it from Tounes [Tunis], an ancient but until-then unimportant city, which thus rose to become the capital.[7][8] The whole country then came to be called Tounes after this city (near the ruins of ancient Carthage). Tunis continued as the capital under Turkish rule, and remains so today. Only in the last years of the nineteenth century, under the French protectorate, did the current name Tunisie [in French] from Tounes [in Arabic], (Tunisia [in English]), come into wide use.[9][10]

During these millennia of history the different civilizations and regimes flourished, and the country has been called by various names. These include: Massyli, Carthage, Africa, Ifriqiya, Tounes, Tunisia.

History Outline

Its long history may be very briefly outlined or summarized.[11] Here a reverse chronological order is employed.

  • |8| A popular revolution of 2010–11 instituted democratic reforms and substantial civil liberties. The prior regimes, headed in succession by two authoritarian presidents, administered the country's economic development during first the bipolar then the post–Cold War world. Since independence Tunisia has retained close ties both to Arab countries and to the West.
  • |7| Earlier the French had incorporated Tunisia into their sphere (1881–1956), preceded by many Italian settlers, merchants and farmers. Modernization of methods, e.g., in business and education, was achieved.
  • |6| Before that, Tunisia was nominally under the Ottoman Turks who had seized control in 1574 after a brief Spanish occupation. Ottoman control loosened, and the Beys of Tunisia ruled directly, through the Muradid and Husaynid dynasties. The Ottoman Empire used the Turkish language; with it arrived a multi-ethnic influx.
  • |5| Prior to the Ottoman and Beylical era, the long medieval period had seen a cultural renaissance under the rule of native Berbers, already Arabized. At first the Zirids (973-1160) had ruled as vassals of the Fatimids after their relocation to the Nile; later the Zirids established an independent Ifriqiya, by breaking with the Fatimids. Next the Almohad movement succeeded in uniting the entire Maghrib, including Ifriqiya. Then the local hafsids dynasty (1227–1574) of Tunis followed, ruling for many centuries during times both prosperous and lean, contested and peaceful. Their lands stretched form Constantine to Tarabulus.
  • |4| The Islamic era had opened with the arrival of the Arabs (late seventh century). The Arabs brought their language and the religion of Islam, and its new calendar.[12] The Arabs also renewed the region's cultural ties with the Semitic east. Later the Fatimids, a Shi'a state, arose in Ifriqiya, circa 909; the Fatimds eventually conquered and ruled Egypt.
  • |3| During the last pre-Islamic centuries the Byzantines ruled, along with Berbrer vassals, and before them the Vandals (439-533). Over two thousand years ago the Romans had arrived, initially allied with Berber kingdoms; their cosmopolitan Empire long governed this Africa region as part of an integrated Mediterranean world.
  • |2| Before the Romans, came the Phoenicians, by sea from the eastern Mediterranean about three thousand years ago. The Phoenicians founded here the celebrated city of Carthage. Punic culture interacted continuously with the native Berbers, but the two did not then merge.
  • |1| Earlier came migrations from surrounding territories including the north, the east, and the Sahel region of Africa. Perhaps eight millennia ago, already there were peoples established here, among whom the proto-Berbers (coming overland generally from the east) mingled and mixed, and from whom the Berbers would spring, during an era of their ethnogenesis.[13][14]

Climate change

Earlier in an era of prehistory the Sahara region to the south was not an arid desert, but rather in places grasslands grew with seasonal lakes, and corresponding flora and fauna. Prior to 6000 years ago, evidently the vast Sahara region to the south was better watered, more a savanna which could support herds; yet then a desiccation process set in, leaving a more parched desert as it is today.[15][16]

The wettest time of the Sahara appears the more archaic, which may correspond to a certain glacial period in Europe (the Würm, which ended c. 9000 BC). Subsequently, during neolithic pre-history in North Africa (c. 6000 to 2500) and continuing to modern times, "damp pluvial" phases appear to alternate with "dry inter-pluvial" phases. The general 'post-Würm' climate (the repeated succession of long periods of more rainy weather followed by arid) remains problematic with respect to fixing dates in history, e.g., apparent contradictions may arise simply due to divergent micro-climates.[17]

During its recorded history the physical features and environment of the land now called Tunisia have remained fairly constant; however, there were differences, e.g., [18] A study by Prof. Shaw has criticized a century of scholarly literature which theorizes a long decline in agricultural conditions since ancient times due to destructive invasions and significant climate change; Shaw writes that such theories may be based on "false assumptions about the past, dubious literary evidence, and misunderstood archaeological data." Deforestation since ancient times probably dates to the late 19th and 20th centuries, with its general increase in the "intensity of agricultural exploitation of the countryside." The lack of a modern grain surplus for export may be chiefly due to an increase in local population.[19]


Topography of Tunisia.

Weather in the far north is temperate, enjoying a Mediterranean climate, with mild rainy winters and hot dry summers. The natural terrain is fertile, the fields often broken by woodlands, e.g., with cork, oak, and pine. Bizerta on the north coast has a large, developed harbor. Nearby lies the large lake of Ichkeul, a favored stop used by hundreds of thousands of migrating birds.[20] The fertile river valley of the Medjerda (Wadi Majardah) (anciently called the Bagradas) flows eastward and empties into the sea north of Tunis. The Medjerda and vicinity have been very productive throughout history and today remain valuable farmland. Grain is grown in the upper Medjerda, while on the lower Medjerda and in spots surrounding Tunis, vinyards and vegetables.[21]

Along the eastern sea coast the sahel enjoys a moderate climate, less rainfall but with heavy dew; these coastlands currently support orchards (predominately olive, also various fruit trees), and livestock grazing. The port cities of Hammamet, Sousse, Monastir, Mahdia are here; further south are Sfax [Safaqis], Gabès [Qabis], and also the island of Djerba. In and around Djerba lie lands continuing the Sahel. Mineral wealth is extracted from various sites, e.g., phosphates (near Gafsa) and hydrocarbons (in the desert south). Near the mountainous Algerian border in the west rises Tunisia's highest point, Jebel ech Chambi at 1544 meters. From this area the high tell descends northeastward to the coast, continuing through Cape Bon, east of Tunis. Called the Dorsale, Tunisia's mountain range is interrupted by several passes, including the Kasserine.[22]

Between the coastal sahel and the high mountains lies the bled, seasonally parched plains that are more sparsely populated, but where the sacred city of Kairouan is situated. In the near south, cutting east-west across the low-lying country, are the Tunisian salt lakes (called chotts or shatts), which continue westward far into Algeria. This region forms the Djerid; quality dates are cultivated here in substantial quantities, due to use of subsurface aquifers. Further south lies the Sahara desert; here Tunisia touches the north-eastern edge of vast sand dunes comprising the Grand Erg Oriental.[23][24][25]

Until the arrival of the Ottomans, Tunisia included additional lands to the west, and to the east. The region surrounding Constantine, Algeria (anciently, western Numidia) was formerly ruled primarily from Tunis. The coastlands by Tripoli, Libya [also called Tarabulus] also had been, before the Turks, in long political association with Tunis.[26]

The Coat of Arms of the Republic of Tunisia

Today Tunisia has 163,610 square kilometers (63,170 square miles). It fronts the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east, Libya extends to the southeast, and Algeria is west. The capital Tunis is located near the coast, roughly between the mouth of the Medjerda river to the north and Cap Bon (Watan el-Kibli). With a population now of about 800,000, Tunis has been the principal city in the region for over eight centuries. The second largest city is Sfax which is noted for industry, with about 350,000 people.[25]


The present day Republic of Tunisia includes about ten million inhabitants, chiefly of Arab-Berber descent. Yet also a broad ethnic mix constitutes a substantial minority, coming from throughout the Mediterranean region, both east and west, many dating to the Phoenician, Roman, or Ottoman eras. Included are Sicilians and Greeks, Corsicans and French, Spanish and Germans, Egyptians and Jews, Circassians, Iranians, and Turks; also in this mix are Tunisians whose ancestry traces southward across the deserts to Black Africa. Arabic became the primary language following the 7th-century Muslim conquest, with French also widely spoken, following the French protectorate. 99% of the Tunisian population is said to be Sunni Muslim and the rest Jewish or Christians,[27][28] although there were never official polls, questionnaires or studies on that matter.

See also

Reference notes

  1. ^ Massyli is mentioned early as a Berber Kingdom immediately west of Carthage. After the Second Punic War, Massyli and Masaesyli (its western neighbor) were combined to form Numidia. Brett & Fentress, The Berbers (1996) at 25-26. Possibly Massyli is related to the word Imazighen by which many modern Berbers refer to themselves. Cf., Brett and Fentress (1996) at 5-6. During the medieval period all the lands of old "Numidia" were considered under Tunis; later the Ottomans detached "Masaesyli" lands near Constantine, which now lie in Algeria.
  2. ^ Stéphane Gsell, Histoire ancienne de L'Afrique du Nord (Paris: Librairie Hachette 1927) at tome V: 95-96. About Masaesyles and Massyles, Gsell states, "Cet deux noms sont certainement indigènes." [These two names are certainly indigenous].
  3. ^ The original Phoenician name was Qart Hadasht, literally "town new". Accordingly the Greeks called it Karkhedon, and later to the Romans it was Carthago. Serge Lancel, Carthage (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard 1992), translated as Carthage. A history (Oxford: Blackwell 1995) at 21-22, 429.
  4. ^ J. A. Ilevbare, Carthage, Rome and the Berbers (University of Ibadan 1981) at 177. The name Africa, of course, in time came to refer to the entire continent.
  5. ^ In the Roman era, note the name of the 2nd-century Latin playwright of Berber heritage, Publius Terentius Afer (English: Terence). Afer is derived from his ancestral loyalties. H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Latin Literature (London: Methuen 1936, 3d ed. 1954; reprint Dutton 1960) at 52.
  6. ^ The Fatimids later moved the capital of Ifriqiya to Mahdia, a city they founded, but then the Zirids returned it to Kairouan. Kenneth L. Perkins, Tunisia. Crossroads of the Islamic and European Worlds (Boulder, Colorado: Westview 1986) at 27 (Ifriqiya & Kairouan), 35 (Fatimids: Mahdia), 39-44 (Zurids: Kairouan), 44-46 (Almohads: Tunis).
  7. ^ Known since the 4th century B.C., when it was called Thunès or Tynes. Abdelaziz Daoulatli, Tunis. Capitale de hafseds (Tunis: Alif - les Éditions de la Méditerranée 2009) at 10.
  8. ^ The Tunes of the Phoenicians, the Tunesium of the Romans, is the Tunis of today. Graham Petrie, Tunis, Kairouan & Carthage (London: Wm. Heinemann 1908; reprint 2003) at 15.
  9. ^ Lisa Anderson, State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya (Princeton University 1987) at 13.
  10. ^ However, also in the Spanish language, Túnez has remained the name for both the city and for the republic. Pequeno Larousse illustrado (Paris: Larousse 1972) at 1615.
  11. ^ Cf., M. Masmoudi (editor), Histoire Général de la Tunisie (Tunis: Sud Editions 2008–2010), 4 volumes; Jacob Abadi, Tunisia since the Arab conquest. The saga of a westernized muslim state (Reading: Ithaca Prss 2013); Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib (Cambridge University 1971); Lisa Anderson, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830–1980 (Princeton Univ. 1986); Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers (Oxford: Blackwell 1996); L. Carl Broown, The Tunisia of Ahmad Bey 1837–1855 (Princeton University 1974); Arnold H. Green, The Tunisian Ulama 1873–1915. Social structure and response to ideological currents (Leiden: E. J. Brill 1987); Elbaki Hermassi, Leadership and National Development in North Africa. A comparative study (University of California 1972); Charles-André Julien, Histoire de L'Afrique du Nord (Paris: Payot 1931, 1961) translated as History of North Africa. From the Arab Conquest to 1830 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1970); Abdallah Laroui, L'Histoire du Magreb: Un essai de synthèse (Paris: Librairies François Maspero 1970), translated as The History of the Maghrib. An Interpretive Essay (Princeton University 1977); Robert Montagne, La Vie Sociale et la Vie Politique des Berbers (la Société de l'Afrique Française 1931) translated as The Berbers. Their social and political organisation (London: Frank Cass 1973); Clement Henry Moore, Tunisia since Independence (University of California 1965); Harold D. Nelson, editor, Tunisia. A country study (Washington: American Univ., 3d ed. 1988); Kenneth J. Perkins, A History of Modern Tunisia (Cambridge University 2004); Kenneth J. Perkins, Historical Dictionary of Tunisia (Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press 1989); Howard C. Reese, et al., Area Handbook for the Republic of Tunisia (Washington: American Univ. 1970); Norma Salem [Babakian], Habib Bourguiba, Islam and the Creation of Tunisia (London: Croom Helm 1984); Soren, Khader, Slim, Carthage (New York: Simon and Schuster 1990); B. H. Warmington, Carthage (London: Robert Hale 1960, 2d ed. 1969); Nicola A. Ziadeh, Origins of Nationalism in Tunisia (American University of Beirut 1962).
  12. ^ The Islamic calendar starts on July 16, 622 A.D., a day estimated for Muhammad's flight (Hijra) from Mecca to Medina. Years in this calendar are designated A.H. for Anno Hegirae, the Hijri year. Since the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar, it runs about eleven and one-quarter days shorter than a solar year; hence calculation of dates between this lunar calendar and a solar calendar are complicated. The calendar used in this article is a solar calendar, the traditional western or the Gregorian calendar, with the years dating from an approximate birth date of Jesus ['Isa in Islam], designated either B.C. for Before Christ, or thereafter A.D. for Anno Domini. Alternatively the western calendar can be renamed to sanction a secular modernism, a nominal neutrality, or otherwise, the years B.C. and A.D. being called B.C.E. and C.E., for Common Era. For prehistory, the kya (thousands of years ago) notation is occasionally employed.
  13. ^ Gabriel Camps, Les Berbères (Aix-en-Provence: Edisud 1996) at 11-14.
  14. ^ Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers (Oxford: Blackwell 1996) at 14-15.
  15. ^ Robert Rinehart, "Historical Setting" at 1-70, 4, in Nelson (editor), Tunisia. A Country Study (Washington, D.C., 3rd ed. 1988).
  16. ^ Emile F. Gautier, Le Sahara (Paris: Payot, 2nd ed. 1928), expanded edition translated by Dorothy Ford Mayhew as Sahara. The Great Desert (Columbia Univ. 1935) at 56-61.
  17. ^ Brent D. Shaw, "Climate, environment and prehistory in the Sahara" in World Archaeology (London 1976), vol. 8: 133-148 at 134 (pluvial phases), at 137-138 (micro-climates), at 144-145 (Würm, neolithic), reprinted in Shaw, Environment and Society in Roman North Africa (Aldershot UK: Variorum 1995), article II. North African pre-history circa 6000 to 2500 "witnessed the shift from an economy based on hunting and gathering to a Neolithic way of life based on the exploitation of large herds of domestic cattle, sheep, and goats." Shaw (1976) at 133.
  18. ^ A brief overview of vegetation in modern Tunisia is provided by LaVerle Berry and Robert Rinehart, "The Society and Its Environment" 71-143, at 79, in Nelson (editor), Tunisia. A Country Study (Washington, D.C., 3rd ed. 1987).
  19. ^ Brent D. Shaw, "Climate, environment and history: the case of Roman North Africa" in Climate and History, edited by Wigley, Ingram, & Farmer (Cambridge University 1981) 379-403, at 379 (study), 391-393 (deforestation), 390-391 (grain exports), reprinted in Shaw, Environment and Society in Roman North Africa (Aldershot UK: Variorum 1995), article III. Shaw notes that earlier writings (classical and medieval) may contain "fanciful accounts", yet he cites one observation by Pliny with approval. Shaw (1981) at 392.
  20. ^ Dorothy Stannard, editor, Tunisia (Singapore: Apa 1991) at 175-176.
  21. ^ Fadia Elia Estefan, "The Economy" 145-203, at 163-183, 177-178, map at 149, in Tunisia. A country study (1987).
  22. ^ LaVerle Berry and Robert Rinehart, "The Society and Its Environment" at 71-143, 74-79, map at 75, in Nelson, editor, Tunisia. A country study (Washington, D.C.: American Univ., 3d ed. 1988).
  23. ^ Kenneth J. Perkins, Tunisia. Crossroads of the Islamic and European Worlds (Boulder, Colorado: Westview 1986) at 1-5.
  24. ^ Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib (Cambridge Univ. 1971) at 1-6.
  25. ^ a b on "Tunisia"The World Factbook.
  26. ^ Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib (Cambridge Univ. 1971) at 160 (map).
  27. ^ Cf., Jean Hureau, Tunisia Today (Paris: éditions j.a. 1977) at 8-9.
  28. ^ Encyclopedic World Atlas (Oxford University 1994) at 138.

Further reading

  • Perkins, Kenneth. A History of Modern Tunisia (2nd edition, 2014)
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