Tunis (Arabic: تونس Tūnis) is the capital of Tunisia. It is Tunisia's largest city, with a population of 651,183 as of
2013. The greater metropolitan area holds some 2,300,000 inhabitants.
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.
Tunis is the transcription of the Arabic name تونس which can be pronounced as "Tūnus", "Tūnas", or "Tūnis". All three variations were
mentioned by the Greek-Syrian geographer al-Rumi Yaqout in his Mu'jam al-Bûldan.
Different explanations exist for the origin of the name Tunis. Some scholars relate it to the Phoenician goddess Tanith ('Tanit or Tanut), as many ancient cities were named after patron deities. Some scholars claim that it originated from Tynes, which was mentioned by Diodoros and Polybius in the course of descriptions resembling present-day Al-Kasba; one of Tunis's suburbs.
Another possibility is that it was derived from the Berber verbal root ens which means "to lie down" or "to pass the night". Given the variations of the precise meaning over time and space, the term Tunis can possibly mean "camp at night", "camp", or "stop". There are also some mentions in ancient Roman sources of such names of nearby towns as Tuniza (currently El Kala), Thunusuda (currently Sidi Meskine), Thinissut (currently Bir Bouregba), and Thunisa (currently Ras Jebel). As all of these Berber villages were situated on Roman roads, they undoubtedly served as a rest-stations or stops.
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
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.
From the 12th century to the 16th century, the old city was controlled by the Almohad and the Hafsid Berber dynasties. During this period Tunis was one of the richest and grandest cities in the Islamic world, with a population of about 100,000.
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.
Confronting the difficulties previously encountered, the Ottoman Uluç Ali Reis, at the head of an army of janissaries and Kabyles, retook Tunis in 1569. However, following the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Spanish succeeded in retaking the city and re-establishing the Hafsid sovereign. Following these conflicts, the city finally fell into Ottoman hands in August 1574. Having become an Ottoman province governed by a Pasha who was appointed by the Sultan based in Constantinople, the country was not slow to attain a certain autonomy (1591). Under the rule of deys and Moorish beys, the capital sprang into new life. Its population grew by additions from various ethnicities, among which were Moorish refugees from Spain, and economic activities diversified. To traditional industry and trade with distant lands was added the activity of the Barbary pirates, then in their golden age. Profits obtained from the trade in Christian slaves allowed the rulers to build sumptuous structures that revived the architectural heritage of the Middle Ages.
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.
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.
The medina of Tunis has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. The Medina contains some 700 monuments, including palaces, mosques,
mausoleums, madrasas and fountains dating from the Almohad and the Hafsid periods. These ancient buildings include:
The Great Mosque (including the Muslim University and library)
Aghlabid Ez-Zitouna Mosque ("Mosque of the Olive") built in 723 by Obeid Allah Ibn-al-Habhab to celebrate the new capital.
The Dar-al-Bey, or Bey's Palace, comprises architecture and decoration from many different styles and periods and is believed to stand on the remains of a Roman theatre as well as the 10th-century palace of Ziadib-Allah II al Aghlab.
With an area of 270 hectares (over 29 hectares for the Kasbah) and more than 100,000 people, the Medina comprises one-tenth of the population of Tunis. The planning of the Medina of Tunis has the distinction of not grid lines or formal geometric compositions. However, studies were undertaken in the 1930s with the arrival of the first anthropologists who found that the space of the Medina is not random: the houses are based on a socio-cultural code according to the types of complex human relations.
Domestic architecture (palaces and townhouses), official and civilian (libraries and administrations), religious (mosques and zaouïas) and services (commercial and fondouks) are located in the Medina. The notion of public space is ambiguous in the case of Medina where the streets are seen as an extension of the houses and subject to social tags. The concept of ownership is low however and souks often spill out onto public roads. Today, each district has its culture and rivalries can be strong.
Founded in 698 is the Zitouna Mosque and the surrounding area which developed throughout the Middle Ages dividing Tunis into a main town in two suburbs, in the north (Bab Souika) and the south (Bab El Jazira). The area became the capital of a powerful kingdom during the Hafsid era, and was considered a religious and intellectual home and economic center for the Middle East, Africa and Europe. A great fusion of influences can be seen blending Andalusian styles with eastern influences, and Roman or Byzantine columns, and typical Arab architecture, characterized by the archways. The architectural heritage is also omnipresent in the homes of individuals and small palace officials as well as in the palace of the sovereign of Kasbah. Although some palaces and houses date back to the Middle Ages, a greater number of prestigious houses were built in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries such as Dar Othman (early 17th century) Dar Ben Abdallah (18th century), Dar Hussein, Dar Cherif and other houses. The main palace beys are those of La Marsa, Bardo and Ksar Said. If we add the mosques and oratories (about 200), the Madrassah (El Bachia, Slimania, El Achouria, Bir El Ahjar, El Nakhla, etc..), The zaouias (Mahrez Sidi Sidi Ali Azouz, Sidi Abdel Kader, etc.) and Tourbet El Fellari, Tourbet Aziza Othman and Tourbet El Bey the number of monuments in Tunis approaches 600. Unlike Algiers, Palermo and Naples, its historical heart has never suffered from major natural disasters or urban radical interventions. The main conflicts and potentially destructive human behavior has been experienced in the city occurred relatively recently following the country's independence which it why it made into a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Medina is one of the best preserved urban locations in the Arab world.
The souks are a network of covered streets lined with shops and traders and artisans ordered by specialty. Clothing merchants, perfumers,
fruit sellers, booksellers and wool merchants have goods at the souks, while fishmongers, blacksmiths and potters tend to be relegated to the periphery of the markets. North of the Zitouna
Mosque is the Souk El Attarine, built in the early 18th century. It is known for its essences and perfumes. From this souk, there is a street leading to the Souk Ech-Chaouachya (Chechya). The main
company that operates it is one of the oldest in the country and they are generally descendants of Andalusian immigrants expelled from Spain. Attached to El Attarine are two other souks: the first,
which runs along the western coast of Zitouna Mosque, is the Souk El Kmach which is noted for its fabrics, and the second, the Souk El Birka, which was built in the 17th century and houses
embroiderers and jewelers. Given the valuable items it sells, it is the only souk whose doors are closed and guarded during the night. In the middle there is a square where the former slave market
stood until the middle of the 19th century.
Souk El Birka leads to Souk El Leffa, a souk that sells all kinds of carpets, blankets and other weavings, and extends with the Souk Es Sarragine, built in the early 18th century and specializing in leather. At the periphery are the souks Et Trouk, El Blat, El Blaghgia, El Kébabgia, En Nhas (copper), Es Sabbaghine (dyeing) and El Grana that sell clothing and blankets and was occupied by Jewish merchants.