Compared with the other countries along North Africa’s Mediterranean coastline, Tunisia is quite small. Named after its modern capital Tunis, which in turn is derived from Tunit a Phoenician Goddess. It is the northernmost point on the African continent, being only 80 miles south of Europe, and its central position between the Pillars of Hercules and the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean made it historically an ideal stopping off place, harbour and base for all the major naval powers over the centuries.
Historically the people of North Africa have been nomadic, some even to this day. Tribesmen herding sheep and goats across the coastal plain were gradually introduced to farming methods which spread from Mesopotamia and Egypt during the 5th millennium BCE. The aboriginal people of North Africa are the Berbers, “free men,” from the Nubians in the east to the Moroccans of the west. The name Berber struck fear giving rise to the terms “Barbarian,” and the “Barbary Pirates.” Although most pure Berbers have now been bred out, some do remain who speak the Berber language.
Phoenicians, the “Sea People” or “Purple Traders,” started arriving in Tunisia around 1000 BCE, and within a hundred years Carthage was founded by Queen Elissa “The Wanderer,” establishing the religion and culture of the Canaanites, including the worship of Ba’al (the Lord) and the Lunar Goddess Tanit. Carthage fought wars with the Greeks for naval supremacy, and by the 5th century BCE was the major power in the Western Mediterranean.
The three Punic (Phoenician) Wars between Carthage and Rome lasted for over a hundred years. They began when the Roman army attacked the city state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily, and Carthage supported the Siracusans, only to be betrayed by them later. The final outcome in 149 BCE was their conquest and subsequent rule by Rome for over 500 years during which they were Xtianized, only briefly broken during the 5th century when the Vandals conquered and ruled the area, before it returned to Roman rule.
Under the Romans the country was exploited for its agricultural products. Vast quantities of grain, olive oil, beans, figs and fruit were shipped out as tribute to Rome, so much so that the area became known as the "Granary of the Empire." Rome also extracted wine, textiles and timber, along with pottery, mosaics and marble, as well as livestock, including exotic animals for display and confrontation in the amphitheatres. Indeed the second biggest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire is built at El Jem in eastern Tunisia.
Towards the end of the 7th century things were to change, when Arab Muslims stormed across North Africa conquering all before them. Founding the city of Kairouan, where they built the Great Mosque in 670, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, establishing it as the 3rd most religious city to the Muslims after Mecca and Medina, and the main Islamic city in all Africa.
Agriculture flourished under the Arabs who were experts in irrigation of the arid areas, and apart from uprisings by the native Berbers from time to time, and a short incursion by the Normans during the 12th century of part of the coastal plain everything ran smoothly. Arab dynasties came and went for over a millennium
In 1574 a wave of Ottoman Turks came across North Africa and took Tunisia, holding it until 1956, although in 1881 Tunisia became a French colony, dominated by the “Foreign Legion,” but finally obtained its independence in 1956 as the “Kingdom of Tunisia.”
Sidi Bou Said
Olive Groves near the Atlas Mountains
The Oasis at Nefta
The Medina Tozeur