The first thriving centres of culture in Tunisia were the Phoenician cities with Carthage founded in 814BC. Though there were other Phoenician cities that remained independent the Carthaginian empire started to spread and flourish, absorbing many other cities. The Punic Wars with Rome however eventually led to the downfall of Carthage after Hannibal and his armies were eventually defeated and the Romans sacked cities including Tunis and Carthage.
It is with the Romans that Tunis gained importance though, being rebuilt and becoming an important trading post and later city in its own right under the empire. Incursions by the Berbers weakened the North African part of the Roman Empire though and Vandals took control. Later Justinian sent his Byzantine armies to recapture Tunisia from the Vandals in 553 AD and took the cities of the area back with few problems and finding the cities far from vandalised by the Vandals in fact maintained and kept in much the way the Roman Empire had left them.
Arabian armies spreading the Islamic faith eventually pushed out the Christian Byzantines and spread their religion, though Arabs and Berbers fought for control for much of the next thousand years, the result was that the area became split between different tribes though Islam slowly became dominant.
With no dominate ruler the Christian Spanish and Islamic Ottomans fought for control in the 1500s with Turkey controlling Tunisia until their power also waned and the Husseinite dynasty came to rule an independent Tunisia.
Tunisia remained independent until France came on to the scene at first controlling the nation unofficially through a series of treaties and the moving in of forces, initially to put down uprisings.
During the Second World War though the Tunisians sided with the Allies even after much of France had fallen to Germany and they ceased to be in control. Tunisia was also of course a major battleground as the Allies fought for control of North Africa against the Axis powers controlled by Rommel the Dessert Fox.
The Axis armies in Tunisia surrendered in May 1943 and the Tunisians now looked to declare full independence from France as the war came to a close, it was 1957 though that Tunisia would officially become a independent republic. Bourguiba, still a national hero had been the main force behind independence for Tunisia and was the new republic’s first president: he was succeeded in 1987 by Ben Ali following a coup d’etat.
Ben Ali’s rule was generally considered to be that of a dictator using sham elections to give himself legitimacy and using violence and intimidation to keep down protests. Many of the people of Tunisia though rose in protest with numbers that Ben Ali was no longer to control in late 2010 and on January 14th 2011 Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and an interim government took control, making Tunisia’s government the first to change during the Arab Spring.
Tunisia is now a true Republic and elections that were judged free and fair took place in October 2011 and a new constitution has been drafted.
The majority of Tunisians are of Arab and Berber origin though it is inevitable that there will still be Roman, Vandal, Turk and Phoenician blood mixed in for many natives. Most Tunisians identify themselves as Arab though and the language is a Tunisian Arabic Dialect with many Berber influences and borrowed words. The Berber language however is still spoken in places in Tunisia, primarily in remote mountain and Saharan areas. There is a small European population, mainly French and Italians, and Jewish population as well.
Religion follows a similar balance with 98% of the population Muslims, as well as around 1% Christians and 1% Jewish; of those giving their religion as Muslim the majority are Sunnis.
Tunisia spends 6% of GDP on education, which is to a high standard and compulsory for 6 to 16 year olds, as well as Tunisian and standard Arabic children are also taught French and English. Tunisia also has a number of well thought of universities.
In Tunisia the position of women is much more equal than in many Arab countries and women visiting will find few problems in the major cities, though in restaurants and hotels questions and bills will initially be presented to the men in the party. In law though the equality of women is guaranteed and though traditionally marriages may be arranged, often by the groom’s mother, consent of both parties is essential to make a wedding valid and breaking of agreements is common though these arrangements are becoming more rare in the first place. .
Tunisia has several major oil fields, these give a significant contribution to the economy, though the country certainly isn’t reliant on it. Tourism as well is important to the Tunisian economy and certainly a short-term drop in tourism during uprisings against Ben Ali hurt some businesses.
Tunisia has a fairly diverse economy however and is therefore generally stable and commodity prices don’t have as great affect on it as with some neighbouring countries.
Agriculture, mining and manufacturing are all important with Sfax the country’s main industrial centre. Tunisia’s Association Agreement with the European Union has seen the EU become a major trading partner with around 75% of imports and 75% of exports going from and to the EU respectively. Going forward Tunisia is looking to increase the number of multinationals operating in the country with Hewlett Packard and Airbus already attracted to what has been ranked Africa’s most competitive economy, which offers workers with a high level of education, close to the EU but with much lower wages.
Destroyed and then rebuilt by the Romans, Tunis has a long and fascinating history that can only truly be appreciated by coming here and walking the streets. The medina part of the city is the most fascinating and much of the city’s suburbs are modern and built during the last century during which Tunis has grown in size and importance.