Tunisia islamic architecture
001 Great Mosque, Mihrab 002 Kairouan 003
Tunisia (Arabic: تونس Tūnis, officially the Tunisian Republic (الجمهورية التونسية‎), is a country situated on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. It is bordered by Algeria to the west and Libya to the southeast. It is the northernmost African country and the smallest of the nations situated along the Atlas mountain range. Around forty percent of the country is composed of the Sahara desert, with much of the remainder consisting of particularly fertile soil, and a 1300 km coastline. Both played a prominent role in ancient times, first with the famous Phoenician city of Carthage, and later, as the Africa Province, which became known as the bread basket of the Roman Empire.


At the beginning of recorded history, Tunisia was inhabited by Berber tribes. Its coast was settled by Phoenicians starting as early as the 10th century BC. The city of Carthage was founded in the 8th century B.C. by settlers from Tyre, now in modern day Lebanon. Legend says that Queen Dido founded the city, as retold in the Roman Epic Aeneid. The settlers of Carthage brought their culture and religion from the Phoenicians and Canaanites.

After a series of wars with the Greek city-states of Sicily in the 5th century BC, Carthage rose to power and eventually became the dominant civilization in the Western Mediterranean. The people of Carthage worshipped a pantheon of Middle Eastern gods including Baal and Tanit. Tanit's symbol, a simple female figure with extended arms and long dress, is a popular icon found in ancient sites. The founders of Carthage also established a Tophet which was altered in Roman times.

Though the Romans referred to the new empire growing in the city of Carthage as Punic or Phoenician the empire built around Carthage was an independent political entity from the other Phoenician settlements in the Western Mediterranean.

Minaret of the Zitouna Mosque, Tunis

A Carthaginian invasion of Italy led by Hannibal during the Second Punic War, one of a series of wars with Rome, nearly crippled the rise of the Roman Empire. Carthage was eventually conquered by Rome in the 2nd century BC, a turning point which led to ancient Mediterranean civilization having been influenced mainly by European instead of African cultures. After the Roman conquest, the region became one of the granaries of Rome. It was conquered by the Vandals in the 5th century AD and reconquered by the commander Belisarius in the 6th century during the rule of Byzantine emperor Justinian.

In the 7th century the region was conquered by Arab Muslims, who founded the city of Kairouan. Successive Muslim dynasties ruled, interrupted by Berber rebellions. The reigns of the Aghlabids (9th century) and of the Zirids (from 972), Berber followers of the Fatimids, were especially prosperous. When the Zirids angered the Fatimids in Cairo (1050), the latter sent in the Banu Hilal tribe to ravage Tunisia.

The coasts were held briefly by the Normans of Sicily in the 12th century. In 1159, Tunisia was conquered by the Almohad caliphs. They were succeeded by the Berber Hafsids (c.1230 – 1574), under whom Tunisia prospered. In the late 16th century the coast became a pirate stronghold (see: Barbary States). In the last years of the Hafsids, Spain seized many of the coastal cities, but these were recovered by the Ottoman Empire. Under its Turkish governors, the Beys, Tunisia attained virtual independence. The Hussein dynasty of Beys, established in 1705, lasted until 1957.

French imperialism

Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul, Tunis

In the mid-1800s, Tunisia's government under the rule of the Bey severely compromised its legitimacy by making several controversial financial decisions that led to its downfall. France began plans to take control of Tunisia when the Bey first borrowed large sums of money in an attempt to Westernize. This failing state facilitated the Algerian raids that occurred thereafter. The weakened Bey was powerless against these raids and unable to resist European colonization.

In 1878, a secret deal was made between the United Kingdom and France that decided the fate of the North African country. Provided that the French accepted British control of Cyprus, recently given to the United Kingdom, the British would in turn accept French control of Tunisia. This satisfied the French and led to their assumption of control in 1880. Tunisia was formally made a French protectorate on May 12, 1881.

World War II

In 1942 – 1943 Tunisia was the scene of the first major operations by the Allied Forces (the British Commonwealth and the United States) against the Nazi-led Axis Powers, during World War II. The main body of the British army, advancing from their victory in Battle of el-Alamein under the command of British Field Marshal Montgomery, pushed into Tunisia from the south. The US and other allies, following their invasions of Algeria and Morocco in Operation Torch, invaded from the west.

General Rommel, commander of the Axis forces in North Africa, had hoped to inflict a similar defeat on the allies in Tunisia as German forces had in the Battle of France in 1940. Before the battle for Tunisia, the inexperienced allied forces had generally been unable to withstand German blitzkriegs and properly coordinate their operations. As such the battle for Tunisia was a major test for the allies. They figured out that in order to defeat Germany they would have to coordinate their actions and quickly recover from the inevitable setbacks the experienced German forces would inflict.

On February 19, 1943, General Rommel launched an attack on the American forces in the Kasserine Pass region of Western Tunisia, hoping to inflict the kind of demoralizing and alliance-shattering defeat the Germans had dealt to Poland and France. The initial results were a disaster for the United States; the area around the Kasserine Pass is the site of many US war graves from that time.

However, the American forces were ultimately able to reverse their retreat. Having learned a critical lesson in tank warfare, the Allies broke through the German Mareth line on March 20, 1943. The allies subsequently linked up on April 8, 1943. Thus, the United States, United Kingdom, Free French, and Polish (as well as other forces) were able to win a major battle as an allied army.

The battle, though often overshadowed by Stalingrad, represented a major allied victory of World War II largely because it forged the Alliance which would one day liberate Western Europe.
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