Situated on a large Mediterranean Sea gulf (the Gulf of Tunis), behind the Lake of Tunis and the port of La Goulette (Halq al Wadi), the city extends along the coastal plain and the hills that surround it. At the centre of more modern development (from the colonial era and later) lies the old medina. Beyond this district lie the suburbs of Carthage, La Marsa, and Sidi Bou Said.
The medina is found at the centre of the city: a dense agglomeration of alleys and covered passages, full of intense scents and colours, boisterous and active trade, and a surfeit of goods on offer ranging from leather to plastic, tin to the finest filigree, tourist souvenirs to the works of tiny crafts shops.
Just through the Sea Gate (also known as the Bab el Bahr and the Porte de France) begins the modern city, or Ville Nouvelle, transversed by the grand Avenue Habib Bourguiba (often referred to by popular press and travel guides as "the Tunisian Champs-Élysées"), where the colonial-era buildings provide a clear contrast to smaller, older structures. As the capital city of the country, Tunis is the focus of Tunisian political and administrative life; it is also the centre of the country's commercial activity. The expansion of the Tunisian economy in recent decades is reflected in the booming development of the outer city where one can see clearly the social challenges brought about by rapid modernization in Tunisia.
The historical study of Carthage is problematic. Because its culture and records were destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Third Punic War, very few Carthaginian primary historical sources survive. While there are a few ancient translations of Punic texts into Greek and Latin, as well as inscriptions on monuments and buildings discovered in North Africa, the main sources are Greek and Roman historians, including Livy, Polybius, Appian, Cornelius Nepos, Silius Italicus, Plutarch, Dio Cassius, and Herodotus. These writers belonged to peoples in competition, and often in conflict, with Carthage. Greek cities contended with Carthage over Sicily, and the Romans fought three wars against Carthage. Not surprisingly, their accounts of Carthage are extremely hostile; while there are a few Greek authors who took a favourable view, these works have been lost.
Recent excavation has brought much more primary material to light. Some of these finds contradict aspects of the traditional picture of Carthage, and much of the material is still ambiguous.
The existence of the town is attested by sources dating from the 4th century BC. In the 2nd millennium BC a town, originally named Tunes, was founded by Berbers and also over time occupied by Numidians. In 146 BC, the Romans destroyed Tunis (along with Carthage). However, the city was subsequently rebuilt under the rule of Augustus and became an important town under Roman control and the center of a booming agricultural industry. Situated on a hill, Tunis served as an excellent point from which the comings and goings of naval and caravan traffic to and from Carthage could be observed. Tunis was one of the first towns in the region to fall under Carthaginian control, and in the centuries that followed Tunis was mentioned in the military histories associated with Carthage. Thus, during Agathocles' expedition, which landed at Cape Bon in 310 BC, Tunis changed hands on various occasions.
When Agathocles died in 288 BC, a large company of Italian mercenaries who had previously been held in his service found themselves suddenly without employment. Rather than leave Sicily, they seized the city of Messana. Naming themselves Mamertines (or "sons of Mars"), they became a law unto themselves, terrorizing the surrounding countryside.
The Mamertines became a growing threat to Carthage and Syracuse alike. In 265 BC, Hiero II, former general of Pyrrhus and the new tyrant of Syracuse, took action against them. Faced with a vastly superior force, the Mamertines divided into two factions, one advocating surrender to Carthage, the other preferring to seek aid from Rome. As a result, embassies were sent to both cities.
While the Roman Senate debated the best course of action, the Carthaginians eagerly agreed to send a garrison to Messana. A Carthaginian garrison was admitted to the city, and a Carthaginian fleet sailed into the Messanan harbor. However, soon afterwards they began negotiating with Hiero. Alarmed, the Mamertines sent another embassy to Rome asking them to expel the Carthaginians.
Hiero's intervention had placed Carthage's military forces directly across the narrow channel of water that separated Sicily from Italy. Moreover, the presence of the Carthaginian fleet gave them effective control over this channel, the Strait of Messina, and demonstrated a clear and present danger to nearby Rome and her interests. The Roman Senate was unable to decide on a course of action and referred the matter to the people, who voted to intervene.
Shortly after the First Punic War, Carthage faced a major mercenary revolt which changed the internal political landscape of Carthage (bringing the Barcid family to prominence), and affected Carthage's international standing, as Rome used the events of the war to base a claim by which it seized Sardinia and Corsica.
During the Mercenary War, it is possible that Tunis served as a center for the native population of the area, and that its population was mainly composed of peasants, fishermen, and craftsmen. Compared to the ancient ruins of Carthage, the ruins of ancient Tunis are not as large. According to Strabo, it was destroyed by the Romans during the Third Punic War. Both Tunis and Carthage were destroyed; Tunis, however, was rebuilt first. The city is mentioned in the Tabula Peutingeriana as Thuni. In the system of Roman roads for the Roman province of Africa, Tunis had the title of mutatio ("way station, resting place"). Tunis, increasingly Romanized, was also eventually Christianized and became the seat of a bishop. However, Tunis remained modestly sized compared to Carthage during this time.
Following the final destruction of Carthage, it was not until the 7th century that Tunis achieved its own importance, under the control of Arab Muslims. The medina of Tunis, the oldest section of the city, dates from this period, during which the region was conquered by Arab troops led by the Ghassanid general Hassan Ibn Numan. The city had the natural advantage of coastal access, via the Mediterranean, to the major ports of southern Europe. Early on, Tunis played a military role; the Arabs recognized the strategic importance of its proximity to the Strait of Sicily. From the beginning of the 8th century Tunis was the chef-lieu of the area: it became the Arabs' naval base in the western Mediterranean Sea, and took on considerable military importance. Under the Aghlabids, the people of Tunis revolted numerous times, but the city profited from economic improvements and quickly became the second most important in the kingdom. It was briefly the national capital, from the end of the reign of Ibrahim II in 902, until 909 when the Shi'ite Berbers took over Ifriqiya and founded the Fatimid Caliphate.
Local opposition to the authorities began to intensify in September 945, when the Kharijite insurgents occupied Tunis, resulting in general pillaging. With the rise of the Zirid dynasty Tunis gained importance, but the Sunni population tolerated Shi'ite rule less and less, and carried out massacres against the Shi'ite community. In 1048 the Zirid ruler Al-Muizz ibn Badis rejected his city's obedience to the Fatimids and re-established Sunni rites throughout all of Ifriqiya. This decision infuriated the Shi'ite caliph Al-Mustansir Billah. To punish the Zirids, he unleashed the Banu Hilal Arab tribe on Ifriqaya; a large part of the country was put to fire, the Zirid capital Kairouan was razed in 1057, and only a few coastal towns, including Tunis and Mahdia, escaped destruction. Exposed to violence from the hostile tribes that settled around the city, the population of Tunis repudiated the authority of the Zirids and swore allegiance to the Hammadid prince El Nacer ibn Alennas, who was based in Béjaïa, in 1059. The governor appointed by Béjaïa, having reestablished order in the country, did not hesitate to free himself from the Hammadids to found the Khourassanid dynasty with Tunis as its capital. This small independent kingdom picked up the threads of trade and commerce with other nations, and brought the region back to peace and prosperity.
New capital of Tunisia
In 1159, the Almohad 'Abd al-Mumin took Tunis, overthrew the last Khourassanid leader and installed a new government in the kasbah of Tunis. The Almohad conquest marked the beginning of the dominance of the city in Tunisia. Having previously played a minor role behind Kairouan and Mahdia, Tunis was promoted to the rank of provincial capital. In 1228, Governor Abu Zakariya seized power and, a year later, took the title of Emir and founded the Hafsid dynasty. The city became the capital of a Hafsid kingdom stretching towards Tripoli and Fez. Walls were built to protect the emerging principal town of the kingdom, surrounding the medina, the kasbah and the new suburbs of Tunis. In 1270 the city was taken briefly by Louis IX of France, who was hoping to convert the Hafsid sovereign to Christianity. King Louis easily captured Carthage, but his army soon fell victim to an outbreak of dysentery. Louis himself died before the walls of the capital and the army was forced out. At the same time, driven by the reconquest of Spain, the first Andalusian Muslims and Jews arrived in Tunis and would become of importance to the economic prosperity of the Hafsid capital and the development of its intellectual life.
The Ottoman Empire took nominal control of Tunis in 1534 when Barbarossa Hayreddin captured it from the Hafsid Sultan Mulai Hassan, who fled to the court of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Charles, suffering losses from the corsairs operating out of Djerba, Tunis, and Algiers, agreed to reinstate Mulai Hassan in exchange for his acceptance of Spanish suzerainty. A naval expedition led by Charles himself was dispatched in 1535, and the city was quickly recaptured. The victory against the corsairs is recorded in a tapestry at the Royal Palace of Madrid. The resulting protectorate lasted until the Ottomans retook Tunis in 1574. After 1591, the Ottoman governors (Beys) were relatively independent, and both piracy and trade continued to flourish.
In April 1655 the English admiral Robert Blake was sent to the Mediterranean to extract compensation from states that had been attacking English shipping. Only the Bey of Tunis refused to comply, with the result that Blake's fifteen ships attacked the Bey's arsenal at Porto Farina (Ghar el Melh), destroying nine Algerian ships and two shore batteries, the first time in naval warfare that shore batteries had been eliminated without landing men ashore.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Tunisia entered into a new period in its history with the advent of the Husainid dynasty. Successive Husainid rulers made great progress in developing the city and its buildings. During this period, the city prospered as a centre of commerce. Taking advantage of divisions within the ruling house, Algerians captured Tunis in 1756 and put the country under supervision. At the beginning of the 19th century, Hammouda Bey faced bombardment by the Venetian fleet, and the city experienced a rebellion in 1811. Under the reign of Hussein Bey II, naval defeats by the English (1826) and French (1827) saw the French become increasingly active in the city and in the economy.
Various sources estimate the 19th-century population to have ranged from 90,000 to 110,000 inhabitants. During the later 19th century, Tunis became increasingly populated by Europeans, particularly the French, and immigration dramatically increased the size of the city. This resulted in the first demolition of the old city walls, from 1860, to accommodate growth in the suburbs. The city spilled outside the area of the earlier town and the banks of the lake, and the new districts were modernised with running water (1860), lighting gas (1872), roads, waste collection (1873), and communication with adjacent suburbs and the city centre. The crafts and traditional trades declined somewhat, as the newcomers increased trade with Europe, introducing the first modern industries and new forms of urban life.
Development under the Protectorate
The French occupied the city from 1881 to 1956, having established a protectorate system of administration that recognized the nominal authority of local government. In those years there were huge European colonies (like the Tunisian Italians) in Tunis. Europeans formed half the population. The city expanded and created new boulevards and neighborhoods.
The creation of the French protectorate in 1881 was a turning point in Tunis's history, causing rapid redevelopment of the city in the span of two to three decades. The city rapidly spread out of its fortifications: it divided into a traditional Arab-populated old city, and a new city populated by immigrants, with a different structure from that of the traditional medina. Tunis also benefited from French construction of a water supply, natural gas and electricity networks, public transport services and other public infrastructure.
Tunis was quiet during the First World War. After the war, the city faced new transformations as the modern portion grew in importance and extended its network of boulevards and streets in all directions. In addition, a series of satellite cities emerged on the urban rim and encroached on the municipality of Tunis proper. In the economic sphere, commercial activities expanded and diversified as modern industries continued to grow, while traditional industry continued to decline.
During World War II, Tunis was held by Axis forces from November 1942 to May 1943. It was their last base in Africa, as they escaped to Italy after being surrounded by Allied forces from Algeria in the west and from Libya in the east. On 7 May 1943, at 15:30 in the afternoon, Tunis fell to troops and tanks of British 1st army who had defeated most of the German Fifth Panzer Army left guarding the city. At midday on 20 May 1943, the Allies held a victory parade on Avenue Maréchal Galliéni and Avenue Jules Ferry to signal the end of fighting in North Africa. Having succeeded in driving the Axis powers out of Tunisia, the Allies used Tunis as a base of operations to stage assaults against the island of Pantelleria, then Sicily, and finally Italy.
Following the Second World War, suburbs grew up quickly around Tunis to facilitate rapid industrialization.
Growth since independence
After independence in 1956, Tunis has consolidated its role as the capital, first with the establishment of a constitution stating that the Chamber of Deputies and the Presidency of the Republic must have their headquarters in Tunis and its suburbs. In a very short time, the colonial city transformed rapidly. As the city has grown and native Tunisians gradually began to replace the extensive European population, conflict between the Arab city and the European city has gradually decreased with the arabization of the population.
Because of population pressure and the rate of migration to the capital, the city continued to grow, even with the creation of new districts in the suburbs. Old buildings have gradually been renovated and upgraded and new buildings have come to influence the urban landscape. At the same time, an active policy of industrialization is developing the municipal economy.
The Arab League was headquartered in Tunis from 1979 to 1990. The Arab League, which represents 22 Arab nations, transferred its headquarters to Tunis in 1979 because of Egypt's peace with Israel but has been headquartered back in Egypt since 1990.
The Palestine Liberation Organization also had its headquarters in Tunis, from 1970s to 2003. In 1985, the PLO's headquarters was bombed by the Israeli Air Force (F-15), killing approximately 60 people.