** Tunisia Tunisian history

Tunisian History

Figure 1.--Here Prince Philip (Felipe) preceeds his father Emperor Charles V. They are reviewing the troops at Barcelona that arepreparing to depart on the Tunis expedition (1535). This is a Flemish tapestry by William dePannemaker based on cartoons by Jan Vermay. It now hangs in El Escorial. Prince Philip became King Philip II of Spain, famous for dispatching the Great Armade to conquer England. Put your cursor on the image to see Prince Pelipe's father following him in the precession.

Tunisian history is a succession of invasions by a colorful series of rulers. Tunisian history begins with settlement of coastal areas by Phoenician traders (10th century BC). Carthage was the principal Phoenician colony and began to emerge as a major Mediterranean power, in part because of its strategic location (6th century BC). The Punic Wars (264 BC-146 BC) between Carthage and Rome were one of the epic struggles of history. Rome destroyed Carthage and Tunisia was absorbed by the Romans (2nd century BC). The area of modern Tunisia along with the rest of North Africa became the principal Roman granaries. After the fall of Rome, the Vandals seized Tunisia (5th century AD). The Byzantines gained control (6th century). The Arabs conquered Tunisia and founded Al Qayrawan (7th century). The area was called Ifriqiya. The Arabs converted the Berber population to Islam. Successive Muslim dynasties ruled Ifriqiya, but they were confronted with periodic Berber rebellions. The reigns of the Aghlabids (9th century was followed by the Zirids (972- ). Berber followers of the Fatimids achieved considerable prosperity. The Zirids angered the Fatimids in Cairo (1050) resulting in punishing attacks. Tunisia was affected by the Viking expansion. The Normans who seized Sicily also seized the neigboring coast of Tunisia (12th century). The Almohad caliphs of Morocco seized Tunisia (1159). Next came the Berber Hafsids under whom Tunisia prospered (about 1230–1574), under whom Tunisia prospered. Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire, but was largely autnomous. Tunis became a major port of the Barbary Pirates. Then the French made it a protectorate (1881). Nationalist sentiment geww under French rule. Tunisia was a major World War II battlefield. The Tunisians obtained independence (1955-56). Tunisian leaders influenced by socialist idelogy created aone-party state and attempted to control the econonomy and wasted resource in state comanies and collectivized agriculture resulting in economic failure. Suibsequently the country has turned to free market reforms and become one of the most successful ecomies in Africa and the Middle Wast. Less propgress has been made in moving toward political democracy. This may have changed with the Arab Spring, providing Tunisdians with the opportunity of democracy. (2011)

Phoenician traders (10th century BC)

Tunisian history is a succession of invasions by a colorful series of rulers. Tunisian history begins with settlement of coastal areas by Phoenician traders (10th century BC).

Carthage (6th-2nd century BC)

Carthage was the principal Phoenician colony and began to emerge as a major Mediterranean power, in part because of its strategic location (6th century BC). The Carthiginians were a Phoenicians people. The Phoenicians were a seafaring trading people centered in what is now Lebanon. The Phoenicians established trading colonies throughout the Mediterrean. The two major Phoenicians cities became Tyre and Carthage. Tyre was conquered byb Nebuchadnezzer. Carthage was one of the key trading cities of the Mediterrean world. The city was located near modern Tunis on the Bay of Tunis. It was a Phoenician city, by tradition founded by Dido, a priestess expelled from Tyre. (9th century BC). Its strategic location and poweful fleet helped it to dominate Mediterrean trade. Carthiginian traders were legendary, Some Cartheginian vessels ranged as far as the Gulf of Guina to the south and Ireland to the north. The city's wealth grew from the fact that the major Mediterrean cities were in the east and imprtant resoures such as metals were located in the west (especially Spain). Carthage by its location and powerful fleet dominated the narrow passage between North Africa and Sicily that controlled trade between east and west. The Punic Wars (264 BC-146 BC) between Carthage and Rome were one of the epic struggles of history.

Roman Empire (2nd century BC-5th century AD)

The Carthaginian/Punic) Empire was finally defeated by the Romans in the Third Punic War (149–146). Rome totally destroyed Carthage and what is now Tunisia was absorbed into the Roman Empire. The area of modern Tunisia along with the rest of North Africa became the principal Roman granaries. A period began with an accomodation of Berber kings. A first they were allied with Rome, but eventually the kingdoms were annexed and reorganised. The city of Carthage was rebuilt and principally because of geograpjy became the capital of the province and the third city of the Empire. Under Roman rule, a long period of prosperity was enjoyed based on large agricultural exports. A cosmopolitan culture developed. Christianity became important as the Empire developed it as the state religion. Three Roman Popes, as well as Augustine of Hippo, ane from what is now Tunisia.

The Vandals (5th century)

The Vandals were one of the tribes which established a Germanic kingdom in an area of the former Roman Empire. Reports suggest that Gaiseric was invited to help defend North Africa by the Roman govenrnor fearing he was to be removed. Gaiseric ferried his people across the Strait of Gibraltar in boats they had built. He then led them east along the African coast. North Africa had the time was better watered than is the case today nd was a fich agrivultural province still untouched by barbarian assault. Gaiseric's Vandals pne by one seized the prosperous and largely undefended Roman cities along the coast. The graneries were full, easily feeding the Vandal army. They easily moved east and seized the rich city--Carthage (439). The Western Empire at the time was very weak. Seizing North Africa was essentially the end of the Western Empire as North Africa was the grain basket and richest area still under Roman control. The one city to resist was Hippo Regius (Hippone), now known as Annaba in Algeria. It was one of the richest cities and fully Romanized. The Bishop of Hippo, the famed but then elderly Augustine, organized the defense of the city. Augustine died during the 14-month Vandal siege. Hippo with no rescuers at hand also eventually fell to the Vandals. The Vandal conquest of Roman North Africa took nearly a decade to complete. The loss of North Africa ith its rich grain fields dealt the final blow to the Western Empire. The Vandals seized large rural estates, ruling the local Romanized popultion. They left administrative duties to the educated Roman bureaucrats. One of the ongoing problems disrupting the new Vabdal kingdom wwas relgion. The Arian Vandals terrirized the Catholic churchmen and their congregations. Gaiseric managed to limit the violence. His successors were less restrained. The Vandals openly persecuted the Roman Catholic majority. They martyred Catholic clerics providing medieval hagiographers with stirring accounts for the bravery and sanctity of the saints. The last phase of that conquest were still underway when Gaiseric turned to his next undertaking. He expanded his fleet with new faster ships which were perfect for piracy attacking Mediterranean merchant shipping. The wealth of his North African conquests and the loot from piracy enabled Gaiseric to build a sizeable fleet. Not satisfied with piracy, he began raiding Roman cities throught the Mediteranean. Emperor Valentinian III with death of Atilla was able to focus on the Vandals. He attempted to deal with them diplomatically, offering his sister in marriage to Gaiseric son. When Valentinian was assasinated, Gaiseric invaded and sacked Rome (455). Pope Leo the Great could not prevent Gaiseric from entering Rome, but did limit the bloodshead.

Byzantines (6th centutry)

The Vandal raids attracted the hostility of the Eastern Empire as did the Vandals Arian faith and persucution of Catholics. The first major Byzantine offensive failed. Gaiseric died (477) and Vandal power declined under the leaders who followed. The Vandal military power, however, was on the decline. Gaiseric’s fierce warriors were gradually replaced by a new generation who grewup aminst lurury and privlige. Also without Gaiseric’s leadership, the Vandals begame less focused and organized. Coruption was rife. The rise of Justinian brought plans to reconquer lost Roman territory and restore the former glories of the Empire. The Vandalsho continued to raid Italy and Mediterranean shiping became arime target. A second Byzanine campaign led by Justnian's great general Belisarius succeeded, with only a small force in a campaign completed in 4 months. [Jacobsen] Belisarius seized Carthage (533). This ended the existence of the Vandals as a nation. They had ruled North Africa as only a small ruling elite in a largely Romanized population and passed from history leaving little trace except their role in inally destroying the Western Empire.

The Arab Caliphate (7th-16th century)

The Byzantines did not hold Tunisia and the rest of North Africa reqonquered from the Vandals very long. The Arab armies of the Caliphate conquered Tunisia and founded Al Qayrawan (7th century). The area was called Ifriqiya. While toiday Tunisia is a bacjwater, during the Caliphate it was an important province. The Byzantines proved not to be a major challenge, the Berbers were. The Caliphate had to confront with huge Berber armies. Kairouan (Al Qayrawān or Kairwan) is a city in northern Tunisia’s inland desert. It became a powerful trading hub and center of Islamic scholarship. It became the capital of the Kairouan Governorate. The city is today a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was founded by the Umayyads (around 670). This was during the reign of Caliph Mu'awiya (r 661–80). The Great Berber Revolt in the Maghreb, the Ifriqiyan army and a Syrian force dispatched by the caliph, was destroyed by the Berbers at the Battle of Bagdoura (741). Abd al-Wahid's amassed a gigantic army, some say 300,000 men-- the largest Berber army ever seen. The Arabs managed to defeat the Berbers and as a result, eventually converted the Berber population to Islam. Kairouan became a major center for Sunni Islamic scholarship and Koranic learning. Muslims from throughout the Caliphate, only eclipsed by Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Great Mosque of Uqba was builty in the city and became an important pilgimage site. . Successive Muslim dynasties ruled Ifriqiya, but they were confronted with periodic Berber rebellions. The reigns of the Aghlabids (9th century was followed by the Zirids (972- ). Berber followers of the Fatimids achieved considerable prosperity. The Zirids angered the Fatimids in Cairo (1050) resulting in punishing attacks. Tunisia was affected by the Viking expansion. The Normans who seized Sicily also seized the neigboring coast of Tunisia (12th century). The Almohad caliphs of Morocco seized Tunisia (1159). Next came the Berber Hafsids (about 1230–1574), under whom Tunisia prospered.

Spanish-Portuguese Incursion (1535-74)

Spain in the later era of Hafsid rule began seizing coastal cities. This appears to have been part of larger effort by Spain and Potugal to size ports along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of North Africa. The Portuguese were involved in operations in Morocco and along the Atlantic coast. The Spanish were involved in operations all along the Mediterranean coast. The Portuguese had took Ceuta (1415) and Tangiers, 1471. The Spanish exanded their naval operations after the fall of Grenada and Columbus' discoveries (1492). The Spanish took Melila (1497), Mers el-Kebir (1505), Oran (1509); Bejaia and Tripoli (1510). The Spanish threatened Algiers (in 1515) and later moved on Tunisia (1535). Western historians tend to stress the depredations of the Barbary Pirates for these Spanish incursions. This was obviously a factor, but commerce and naval stategies were also involved. Muslim historians describe a kind of papal plot and dismiss the pirates attacks as of little real importance and only used to justify Spanish military operations. It is surely true that the pirate attacks do not by themselves fully explain the Spanish incursions in North Africa. It is simply not true, however, that they were not an important factor. Muslims historians who make that claim are often simply propagandists rather than historians with scholarly standards. Accounts of the brutality of the Spanish are often closer to the truth. Barbary cruelty was also pronounced. Turkish pirates, headed by Hayraddin (Barbarossa) with the approval of Bey Mulay Muhammad set up operations in Tunis (1510). Other pirates operation from North African ports. These pirates are known today as the Barbary Pirates. The staged attacks on Christian shipping and coastal comminities. Christians taken were ransomed or sold into slavery. Barbarossa managed to oust Mulay Muhammad's successor, Mulay Hassan, and styled himself Bey of Tunis (1534). This shows just how important piracy became in the North African ports. Mulay Hassan, hoping to regain his position, asked for aid from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles agreed to equip an expedition against Tunis. Charles sought to both restore Mulay Hassan, but also to strike against the piracy. The Operation was launched from Spain. (Charles was also King of Spain.) The Spanish expedition consisted of 62 galleys and 150 other vessels. The vessels were mostly Spanish, but the Portuguese also participated. They departed from Barcelona (March 29, 1535). The Imperial and Spanish troops were commanded by Genoese Admiral Andrea Doria, supported by the Maltese Knights. They landed near Carthago and took Tunis and Goletta. Tunis was taken (July 21). Mulay Hassan was restored. They liberated an estimated 20,000 christian slaves. The Spanish garrisoned both Tunis and Goletta. Mulay Hassan was replaced on the throne and ruled Tunis as a Spanish vassall. He agree to end christian slavery and to introduce religious toleration. The expedition also seized Bone and Biserta which were also garrisoned by the Spanish. Bone with its small garrison was the first Tunisian city to be lost by the Spanish (1540). The reloigious policies that the Spanish forced Mulay Hassan to adopt made him unpopular. Thus he had little local support and was defepedant on the Spanish garrison. He was overthrown by his son, Mulay Ahmad (1543). The Ottoman Empire with its expanding naval forces took Tunis (1570). After Lepanto, Don Juan d'Austria took Tunis back (1573). King Philip II recalled him. The Ottoman troops retook Tunis, encountered virtually no resistance (1574). The Spanish incursions in North Africa (except for Ceuta, Melilla, Oran) proved transitory. The military effort involved with Spains global involvement, could not be justified. Thus not only was Barbary piracy not arrested, it expanded after the Spanish withdrawl.

Ottoman Empire

The Hapsburgs (Austria and Spain) in the 16th century were a military superpower financed by huge quantities of bullion flowing in from the Americas. They were, however, confronted with a range of military challenges. The Protestant Reformation in Germany and the Low Countries (Spanish Netherlands) as well as English privateers provided a major challenge. Their ability to respond to this challenge was limited in part because of the The Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans both mounted land assults on Vienna as well as naval challenges in the Mediterranean. The Ottomans managed to expel the Spanish from much of North Africa before the Battle of Lepanto marked the beginning of Ottoman decline (1571). Tunisia like the other Ottoman North African provinces were located at considerable distances from Constaninople. The Ottoman governors (beys) were this able to establish essentially independent states.

Barbary Pirates

Tunisia ports became pirate strongholds--the Babary States (late 16th century). The Hussein dynasty of beys seized power (1705), establisheda dynastty that lasted until independene (1957). There is a long history of predatory maritime attacks by the coastal population of northern Africa on the maritime commerce in the Mediterranean and the coastal populations of southern Europe. At time the North Afroican-based pirates even conducted attacks into the Atlantic. These attacks increased in intensity as the as the native Berber dynasties declined (14th century). The town of Bougie1 (Béjaïa in Algeria west of Tunisia) was then the most notorious pirate centers. The Barbary Pirates became a recognized phenomenon (16th century and achieved their greatest power (17th century), ahd declined in the 18th century. They were finally eliminated after the Napoleonic Wars with the French conquest of Algeria (1830). The origins of the Barbary Pirates lay with the end of the Reconquista in Spain and the fall of Granada (1492). The Spanish monarchs (Isabella and Ferdinand) expelled both the Moors and Jews from their now uninted realm. Some of the expelled Moors, coveting revenge, initiated piratical attacks on the Spanish coast and Spanish shipping. Many were from the They received assistance from Moslem adventurers. Many were from the Levant. The most famous were Arouj and his brother Khair-ed Din. Christians called them both Barbarossa or "Redbeard." Spain responded to these attacks by expeditions against the major port cities in North Africa (Oran, Algiers and Tunis). The Barbary drepeditations were not the only reason for the Spanish incursions in North Africa, but they were a significant factor. Arouj was killed by the Spanish (1518). His brother Khair-ed‑Din asked for the support of Sultan Selim in Constantinople. The Sultan dispatched Ottoman troops. They seized at fort at Algiers from the Spanish (1529). Algiers became the principal power base of the the Turkish beylerbeys of northern Africa who ruled over Tripoli (Libya), Tunisia, and Algeria (1518-87). The Battle of Lepanto was one of the decisive naval battles of history (October 7, 1571). The destruction of the Ottomon fleet seriously impaired the Sultan's ability to administer North Africa and ended the attemp of the Ottomans to dominate the Mediterranean. The Sultan appointed a Turkish Pasha to rule the area (1587). They governed for terms of 3 years. A military rebellion in Algeria, however, eventually reduced the Turush Pashas to figureheads. The major North African ports eventually achieved virtual independence from the Ottomons (by 1659). They came anarchical military states under local rulers with economies based largely on plunder. Initially the beylerbeys were admirals in the Ottoman Navy. They commanded impressive fleets and conducting naval operations against the Spanish, Venetians, and other Christian naval forces (1518-87). After Lepanto and the decline of Ottomon naval power, plunder and slave taking became their primary goal. Barbary piracy was conducted by captains called reises. They formed formed a class or a kind of corporation to finance their operations. They achieved legitimacy by paying 10 per cent of their prizes was to the pasha (Agha or Dey or Bey). Bougie was the major shipbuilding center. The Barbary pirates at first used galleys (propelled by slabes). Gradually the pirates shidted to sail power some time in the early 17th century. Renegde Europeans played a major role in modernizing the Barbary ships. Here a Flemish renegade, Simon Danser, played a major role. The most formidable Barbary port was Algiers, but Tripoli and Tunis were also important as well as some Moroccan ports, especially Salé. European countries at times negotiated with the Barbary Pirates and at other times launched military expeditions. British admiral, Robert Blake, comanded an expedition against Tunis (1655). There were quite a number of these expeditions launched by the British, Dutch, French and others. After the American Revolution, the Americans also participated, 1801-05 and 1815. These expeditions were naval in character and the Europeans declined to land large armies to actually seize the area. Here the calculation was largely financial. A major military campaign would have been more expensive than the commerce to be protected. It was more cost-effective to buy them off. Another factor was European wars. These provided opportunities to prey upon commerce.

French Protectorate

The beys borrowed heavily from European bankers (19th century). When the beys proved unable to repay the loans, European countries (France, Great Britain, and Italy) took over control of Tunisian finances (1869). A series of incidents including raids on French Algeria resulted in France seizing control of Tunisia. The French forced the bey to sign the treaties of Bardo (1881) and Mersa (1883) wgich estblished a French protectorate. The French appointed a French resident general. The French protectorate angered the Italians who were hopeful of colonixzing Tunisia. The Italians had subsantial economic interests and nationals in Tunisia. The French action was a major cause of Italy joining what would become the Central Powers. A Tunisian nationalist movement developed in Tunisia.

World War I

Inter-War Era

The Destour (Constitutional) party was organized after Wrld War I (1920). Habib Bourguiba organized the Neo-Destour Party with a more confrontational approach to the French (1934). With the rise of Mussolini in Italy, the French fortify the Libyan-Tunisian border.

World War II (1939-45)

As in the other French colonies, the fall of France shocked Tunisian nationalists (June 1940). One of the reasons Italy entered the War was to gain Tunisia. Hitler refused, however, to countenance the transfer. The Franco-German Armistice recognized continued French control of its colonies. Vichy thus controlled Tunisia. The Allies invaded Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Torch under the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower (November 8, 1942). Landings in Tunisia were impossible because of Axis airfieds in Sardinia and Sicily. The plan was to dash east and seize the Tunisian ports, thus trapping the retreating Afrika Korps. Hitler immediately decided to resist the Allied offensive and ordered substantial forces rushed to Tunisia, even as the Soviets surround the 6th Arny at Stalingrad. German troops begun to arrive in Tunisia (November 9, 1942). This was possible because Vichy authorities in Tunisia cooperated with them. The initially small German force was heavily reinforced by air. Hitler poured planes, men, and tanks into Tunisia. Rommel's retreating Afrika Korps occupied the Mareth Line (French fortifications near Libyan-Tunisian border. Rommel attacked U.S. forces moving east through the Tunisian dorsals (February 14, 1943). It was a baptism under fire for the fledling U.S. Army. The U.S. II Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall. Rommel planned to drive through the Kasserine Pass, then move northwest seizing an Allied supply base at Tébessa and then drive to the coast and trap the Allied units in Tunisia. Poor coordination between Von Arnem in the north and Rommel in the south weakened the Axis position and Rommel's force was inadequate to exploit his victory at Kasserine. Eisenhower gave George S. Patton, who had commanded the landings in Morocco, command of II Corps. The Americans had a great deal to learn about modern war, but after Kasserine the learning curve was steep. Hitler's decession to contest the Tunisia delayed the Allied victory, but it also meant that he deployed substantial forces that he could not supply because of overwealming Allied naval and air supperority. Thus the final surrender was very costly. With the German surrender, over 275,000 prisoners of war were taken (May 13 1943).

Post-War Era

Nationalist agitation after the War expanded. The French granted the Tunisans limited autonomy (1950). French settlers resisted further concessions to the nationalists. The French arrested Bourguiba who had become the principal nationalist spokesman (1952). An outbreak of violence followed his arrest.


France granted complete internal self-government (1955) and full independence (1956). Habib Bourguiba became Tunisia's first prime minister. Bourguiba oversaw the deposing of the bey, Sidi Lamine (1957). The constituent assembly made Tunisia a republic and Bourguiba president. Bourguiba helped set up a one-party socialist state. Like many third world leaders, he failed to understand the value of democracy and free market economics. Of course another factor is a one-party regime ensured his control of the country. Bourguiba persued a basically pro-Western foreign policy, but relations with France were complicated. Tunisia supported Algerian independence. Tunisia also demanded ghat France withdeaw all French troops. The French wanted to retain naval installations at Bizerte. This became the site of violent demonstrations (1961). France finally agreed to evacuate Bizerte (1963). Tunisia had supported Algerian independence, but relations between the two countries soured over border disputes once Algeria achieved independence (1962). The border was not finally setlled for several years (1970). Bourguiba's relatively moder position toward Israel and support for a negotiated settlement caused problems with other Arab countries. Bourguiba persued a domestic program involving socialist central planning which was seen as modrnization. He also insituted a socialist agrarian reform plan based on cooperatives (1962). The agrain reform proved a failure because of both harsh measures forcing the fomation of cooperatives and corruption (1969). Gradually a split devdloped within the ruling Destour party between liberal and conservative elements. There was also growing public distatisfaction with the Government, largely the result of economic failure.


Pesident Bourguiba began to move toward democratic reforms. He authorized the legal establishment of opposition political parties (1981). The country first democraic elections were held (1981). Six opposition parties had achieved legal status (1986). The country's economic problems continued to cause popular unrest as well as labor problems. Gen. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali overthrough President Bourguiba (1987). Ben Ali moved to restore diplomatic relations with Libya. He also igned a treaty of economic cooperation with other North African countries ( Libya, Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco). Ben Ali initially continued the liberal reforms that Bourguiba had blatedly began. This changed whem Islamicists did well in the next elections (1989). He instituted repressive measures designed to prevent them from seizing power. The Ben Ali Government in the next election arrested political dissidents and barred the Islamic party Al Nahda from participating (1994). This meat that not only did Ben Ali run unopposed, but he was also endorsed by all the legal opposition parties. Ben Ali got nerly nearly 100 percent of the vote. Ben Ali was again reelected with nearly 100 percent of the vote (1999). The Constitution restricted the presidebt to two terms. The Constutution was amended and Ben Ali won 95 percent of the vote (2004). Iternational observers note vote rigging and voter intimidation.

Arab Spring (2011)


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Created: 4:21 AM 10/8/2007
Last updated: 6:23 PM 1/4/2015