The Most Important Eras in Tunisian History

Landmark of Kairouan

Tunisia’s strategic location has given the country a rich and eventful history. Since ancient times the country has been an important trading post and at the same time the scene of armed conflicts. Due to its location and the succession of important civilizations, the country has many culturally and historically important sites, eight of which are classified as Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Modern Tunisian history is shaped by the French protectorate and the two presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who have ruled the country with a hard hand since independence in 1956. On January 14, 2011, the popular uprising against the government and Ben Ali’s flight heralded a new era. The Tunisian revolt was also the first in a series of uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring.

The openness to the sea and the checkered history of the country, in which a large number of civilizations settled Tunisia, still play an essential role for the self-image of the Tunisians, who like to emphasize that these historical and geographical conditions are the most open and tolerant The mentality of the population.


According to businesscarriers, the first human traces in Tunisia date back to the Paleolithic and were found in an oasis near the southern Tunisian city of Gafsa. Only in 2016 was another prehistoric settlement discovered near the town of Tozeur. In the Neolithic Age, the Berbers spread into what is now Tunisia and the first Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon settled in Tunisia. The first city foundation was 1101 BC. Utica, a trading post in the north of the country (on the coast between Tunis and Bizerte). 841 BC Carthage was founded, around 14 km from present-day Tunis. According to legend, Elissa (Didon), sister of Pygmalion, king of Tyr, founded the city. When she came to Carthage, she asked the locals for a piece of land. This granted her a piece of earth the size of a cow’s skin. According to the founding myth, Elissa cut the cowhide into thin strips with which she demarcated a large area. It is said to be the Byrsa Hill in Carthage.

Carthage quickly grew into the most important Phoenician trading post in the western Mediterranean. This quickly brought the Roman Empire into action, and the power struggle ended in the three Punic Wars between 264 and 146 BC. Even if Hannibal succeeded several times, among other things with his spectacular crossing of the Alps, to push the Romans to the brink of defeat, they finally triumphed and destroyed the Phoenician Carthage.

The subsequent Roman rule lasted until the 5th century AD. During this time Carthage became the granary of Rome and, in addition to Egypt, supplied a large part of the food needs of the Roman Empire, especially oil and grain. Over time, the Romans penetrated more and more inland, where they founded countless cities. The well-preserved ruins of Dougga, El Jem and Sbeitla, for example, give an impression of the extent of Roman settlement at that time. Tunisia became part of the Roman province of Africa (initially with Utica as capital, from 14 AD Carthage), which subsequently gave the entire continent its name. The agriculturally important region around El Kef and Jendouba in the northwest of the country is still called Friguia by older Tunisians in the local dialect.

Late antiquity, middle ages and modern times

From 647 AD the Arabs spread in Tunisia. 670 AD Oqba Ibn Nafi founds the city of Kairouan, whose mosque is still the most important center of Islam in Tunisia and all of Africa. At the end of the 7th century there were armed conflicts over Carthage, in the course of which the city fell into the hands of the Arab Ghassanids, the Byzantines and Berbers. In 689 the Arabs finally won the battle and then continued to prepare inland. This resulted in more and more Berbers converting to Islam and the spread of the Arabic language. In the period that followed, Tunisia was ruled by various Arab dynasties, whose power was repeatedly called into question by Berber revolts.

Tunisia was a province of the Ummayad dynasty until 750 before it fell to the Abbasids. After the Aghlabids (800-909), who made Tunis the capital of the country, the Shiite Fatimids took control of Tunisia (909-972). They quickly spread to Cairo and increasingly left Tunisia to the local tribe of the Zirids (972-1148). Years of clashes between the Zirids, Fatimids and the Banu Hillal tribe followed that led to the decline of the region. In the 12th century, the Normans from Sicily briefly conquered the Tunisian coastal region before Tunisia was conquered by the Almohads in 1159. Under her rule, trade with other Mediterranean regions flourished and the country experienced an economic boom. When the ruler’s son founded the Hafsid dynasty in 1228, Tunisians ruled the country for the first time. In the 14th century, Moors and Andalusians increasingly immigrated to the coastal regions of the country.

With the end of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Ottomans conquered Tunisia in 1574 and made it a province of the Ottoman Empire. The area became a bey(a governor), who was able to act largely independently, so that Tunisia was relatively independent under the Ottoman rule. This was facilitated by the low interest that the Ottoman rulers showed in the province. The Bey Ahamad I Al-Husain (1837-1855) introduced a modernization of the administration of Tunisia. Under and as a result of his rule, among other things, slavery and religious jurisdiction were abolished and a constitution was passed. But since the 1820’s the Tunisian economy suffered from a poor export balance and high foreign debt, so that the government had to declare national bankruptcy in 1869. Due to its strategic location, the European powers quickly became interested in Tunisia, so that England, France and Italy set up a joint finance commission that controlled the country economically. All three powers speculated on gaining greater influence in the region. When Berbers from the Kroumirie Mountains in northern Tunisia advanced into Algeria, which had already been colonized by France, in the spring of 1881, France was offered an excuse to invade Tunisia. Prime Minister Jules Ferry’s troops captured Tunis within three weeks.

Landmark of Kairouan