Introduction to History of Tunisia

The ancient Phoenicians, seafarers who usually put ashore each night, established stopover points along the Tunisian coast perhaps as early as 1200 B.C. Some of these grew into trading posts and colonies—for example, Utica, Hippo Zarytus (Bizerte), and Hadrumite (Sousse). Carthage, founded about 800 B.C., became the strongest of the Punic (Phoenician) settlements and capital of a North African empire. The native Berbers remained largely independent.

In time, Carthage dominated all the western Mediterranean and came into conflict with Rome. The Punic Wars, fought against Rome (246–146 B.C.), ended in defeat and the destruction of Carthage.

Roman and Christian Era

The territory of Carthage became the Roman province of Africa, administered from Utica. The province was enlarged when Julius Caesar defeated the Numidians at the seaport of Thapsus in 46 B.C. and annexed their country. Carthage was rebuilt and colonized with Romans, and it became again the capital. Carthage was an early center of the Christian faith. Tunisia produced two fathers of the church—Tertullian and Saint Augustine—as well as Saints Perpetua, Felicitas, and Cyprian.

The Vandals, Germanic barbarians who were Arian Christians, conquered Tunisia in 431–39. During the next century the old ways of life were disrupted by constant attacks of nomadic Berbers and persecution by the Vandals of Catholic Christians. In 533 the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) forces of Emperor Justinian the Great defeated the Vandals. The Byzantines ruled for about 150 years, but controlled only the coastal areas.

The Arab Conquest

The Arabs, who conquered Egypt for the Muslim empire in 642, reached Tunisia in 647, but on the payment of tribute withdrew. However, about 670 the Arabs founded Kairouan as a military base and undertook the conquest of all North Africa. Carthage fell to them in 698 and was replaced as the major northern seaport by Tunis. The Tunisian region was made the province of Ifriqiya (Arabic for “Africa”) in the Muslim empire, with Kairouan, which had become the sacred city of Islam in North Africa, as capital.

Far removed from the center of Muslim power, Tunisia came under the rule of various factions. A local dynasty, the Aghlabids, came to power in 800. The Fatimid dynasty overthrew them in 909 and made Mahdia their capital. In 969 the Fatimids completed the conquest of Egypt and founded Cairo as their capital. The governor whom they left in Tunisia founded a new autonomous dynasty, the Zirids. In 1049 the Zirids broke away from Shiite Islam, the religion of the Fatimids, and recognized the authority of the caliph at Baghdad. The Fatimids then encouraged large numbers of Bedouins to migrate from Egypt to Tunisia. The Bedouins pillaged the country, causing such devastation that Tunisia was impoverished for generations afterward.

In the next century Normans from Sicily seized several coastal cities of Tunisia, but were expelled by the Almohads, who came from Morocco. In the 13th century an Almo-had governor of Tunisia proclaimed his independence and founded the Hafsid dynasty, which ruled for more than 300 years. The Eighth Christian Crusade (1270–72) was launched against Tunisia, but the death of (Saint) Louis IX of France there ended the campaign.

Turkish Rule

By the late 15th century the Tunisian coast was being attacked by both Spaniards and Turks. Ultimately the Turks gained control, and in 1574 Tunisia became one of the Barbary States, governed by corsairs who were nominally subject to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The Husainids, a local dynasty of beys (regents), came to power in Tunisia in 1705 and gradually acquired the status of monarchs.

The French Protectorate

In the 19th century the beys' attempts to modernize Tunisia brought the country to financial ruin. France, one of the creditor nations, established a protectorate over Tunisia in 1881. Although the bey remained the head of state, the French resident-general headed the government. Large numbers of French settled in Tunisia, taking over most of the businesses, most of the best land, and most positions of authority.

Native resentment led to an independence movement headed first by the Destour party, founded in the early 1920's, and later by the Neo Destour party, founded in 1934. Revolts in 1938 were suppressed, and the Neo Destour leader, Habib Bourguiba, was imprisoned in France.

In World War II, after the fall of France in 1940, Bourguiba was released from prison by the German occupation forces, but when the Allied North African offensive took place in 1942–43, he called on the Tunisians to support the Allies.


After the war, agitation for independence resumed, and Bourguiba was again imprisoned by the French. In 1955, however, he was released, and the next year Tunisia was granted independence. A republic was proclaimed in 1957, and Bourguiba became the first president.

In 1964 the government confiscated all French-owned farmland and distributed it to Tunisian peasants. In 1967 the government began organizing all farms into cooperatives, but it abandoned the attempt in 1969 following fierce resistance by the peasants. Also during the 1960's, Bourguiba outlawed all political parties but his own.

Bourguiba's rule became increasingly authoritarian during the 1970's, and in 1975 the National Assembly voted him president for life. In the late 1970's, the country was beset with labor conflict and frequent strikes. In 1978 a general strike was put down by the army.

Difficult economic conditions caused much unrest in the mid-1980's, when the country experienced strikes and, because of high food prices, riots. In 1987, after Bourguiba became senile and his rule erratic, he was deposed. Another member of Bourguiba's party named Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba as president. Ben Ali has won presidential elections in 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2009 against little or no opposition.