We would never have considered Tunisia as a destination if our friend Leslie wasn’t here. We would have skipped right from Spain to Morocco without a second thought.
Thankfully that is not what happened.
Leslie has lived here for more than a year now working in the International School, and after
our week with her we are so grateful we had the opportunity, through her generous hosting, to spend some time in this land of antiquities.
What do you know about Tunisia? This is not a test. Because I knew next to nothing about it other than where it was on the map (and its okay if you don’t know that either – look between Libya and Algeria in North Africa on the Mediterranean sea).
Of the 54 African countries, Tunisia falls #35 in size with about 63,000 square miles – very
similar to the state of Florida. During our week however, we only saw the area around the cities of Tunis and Carthage on the Mediterranean – about as far North in Africa you can be. I can nearly throw a rock and hit Italy. South from here however is so much more to see as the populated region of the north gives way to the more inhospitable but beautiful terrain of the Sahara Desert.
I’m not going to pretend I am coming away from Tunisia with a perfectly clear understanding of all the ancient history of this area. I wish. But I am taking away a sense of wonder at all I have seen and witnessed of the long and fascinating history of human civilization here – some the most ancient I have had the pleasure to see.
Africa is often referred to as the cradle of humanity and Tunisia clearly shows why. It’s estimated that the first people were in this area 200,000 years ago, when the region was much greener and wetter than it is today. But when talking about Tunisian history it’s
Carthage that first comes to mind:
- 1200 BC The Berbers are the strong tribe in the region
- 1100 BC Phoenician seafarers arrive and create a port and begin trade routes
- 814 BC Carthage is founded and quickly becomes a wealthy and powerful seat
- 263-242BC The first Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage where Carthage loses some ground
- 218-202BC The second Punic Wars where Carthage nearly topples Rome
- 149-146BC Rome wipes Carthage off the map and Rome begins a 500 year rule
- AD 439 The Vandals (from the region we know today as Germany and where the word vandalism comes from) rule the region for a short period.
- 533 the Byzantine Empire ends the Vandal rule
- 669 Muslim Arab armies become a solid power in the region and by 672 have planted the Islamic flag and claimed North Africa.
The sites we have seen while here in Carthage and Tunisia are primarily from the Roman area, when Rome used its slaves and wealth to build huge cities, entertaining centers with theaters and coliseums and Roman baths, often building these over the top of what the Berbers and Phoenicians and Carthaginians had laid in the centuries before. Gotta hand it to those Romans, they knew how to build things that would last, and today Tunisia is home to eight Unesco World Heritage sites; four of Roman ruins, three Muslim cities and one natural bird migratory site.
For centuries after Islamic rule came to Tunisia the region was passed around with battles for the Punic Port and trading routes and the wealthy economy continuing amongst the Muslim countries. The Ottoman Empire takes control in the 1500’s but in 1881 after Tunisia has declared bankruptcy, French troops take over the country, and unrest and violence continue until Tunisia is granted independence in 1956. This period of course included the Second World War. Tunisia played a significant role in the North Africa campaign during the Second
World War. Carthage is home to the North Africa American Cemetery where 2841 of our boys are laid to rest from WWII.
Since independence things have still been topsy-turvy – “President for Life” Bourguiba’s Islamist suppression and pro-Western modernization did not sit well with everyone. After 30 years a coup in 1987 brought a new leader to power. Ben Ali continued to keep parties blending politics and Islam away from the ballot box. He has enjoyed a high level of national
approval until January 2011 when the Tunisian Revolution ousted him. The 1959 constitution was repealed. Since 2011 there have been three Presidents. The current President, Beji Said Essebsi, is the first elected democratically. In 2006 and 2015 terrorist attacks in Tunisia by Isis brought to the front the underlying displeasure of extremists. Since 2015 tourism has dropped significantly in the country. But today tourists are slowly coming back and Tunisia’s economy is once again on the mend.
This is about as abbreviated version as there possible could be of the history of this absolutely fascinating country. A country still evolving – will be evolving for all time.
I have felt safe the entire time I have been here. Stepping on my soap box for just a second, I honestly feel safer here than I do in many places in the United States. So
why would you not travel to Tunisia, but you would consider returning to Las Vegas? There are dangers everywhere you go. Traveling in itself has risks – but that should not stop you from exploring this fascinating planet and the incredible country of Tunisia – with some of the best antiquities the world has to offer.
Traveling to Tunisia – yes you should.
(Note – historical dates and data taken from Lonely Planet Tunisia 2012 and Wikipedia)