Archaeological evidence from the ancient street plan of Tunis shows a pre-Arab-occupation settlement already in existence by 700 CE. The city was officially founded in the 8th century by Muslim Arabs, and by the 12th century it had become the capital of Ifrikiya (central North Africa). Arab chronicles describe the town as a favored base for Arab trade and military operations. The 16th century was marked by devastation from the Ottoman-Spanish wars; although the city recovered in the 17th century, it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that Tunis flourished as the capital and economic hub of the Tunis basin.
Pre-Islamic Origins (240 BCE - 146 BCE)
Polybius (ca. 203-120 BCE) describes the earliest composition of Tunis's early population as a product of the Libyan mercenary revolt of 240 BCE. The Libyans used the city as a base for their trade and military operations. The scholarly consensus is that this mercenary occupation added significant numbers to the settlement, which originally consisted of indigenous Tunisians descended from nomadic Berbers. Pliny's account of African cities gives Tunis the title of oppidum, a Roman term describing a fortified native (non-Roman) settlement.
Pre-Roman Tunis was demolished by Scipio Aemilianus in 146 BCE (the end of the first Punic War). This destruction of Tunis during the invasion was probably not complete, since the city came back into existence shortly after the war. The early fate of Tunis contrasted greatly with that of the nearby settlement of Carthage (situated on the eastern side of Lake Tunis, across from the center of the city), which, during the Punic Wars, was burnt, razed to the ground and its fields famously ploughed with salt. As modern Tunis expands, ancient Carthage is being slowly subsumed into its suburbs.
Roman Tunis (146 BCE - ca. 705 CE) and the Vandals (439 CE- 533 CE)
The Romans established a rural colonia in Tunis, with a traditional Roman street plan centered on a cardo and a decumanus found under today's medina. Modern streets following this same grid include the western side of Zaituna Mosque (the rue Dar el Jeld, el Pasha, Sidi Ben Arus and Turbet el Bey), which correspond to the cardo; the streets of Suq Es Sekhajine and Rue Jama'a ez Zaituna correspond directly to the Roman decumanus.
Street and intersection intervals in the part of Tunis bounded by the Roman streets can be measured in multiples of 24 Roman feet. This area of the Roman grid covers a little over 40 hectares, an area corresponding to less than half the size of the medina today; the Roman town suffered substantial damage during the Arab raids.
Over the 850 years of Roman rule, Tunis remained a vici, or small settlement, in the Tractus Carthaginienis hinterland of Carthage, known as the Roman colony of 'Africa.' Tunis was one of many small, high population density towns in this colony, which continued under Roman rule until the final fall of Carthage to the Arabs in 705 CE. At this time, Carthage was the largest city in Africa and was vying for second place after Rome as a western empire powerhouse, competing only with Alexandria and (periodically) Antioch. Strong under the Romans, Carthage began to weaken following occupation under the Vandals and, later, the Arabs. The post-Roman decline of Carthage is also attributed to religious dissent and environmental factors: the desiccation of southern steppes led to a migration of the population away from the Carthaginian territories. Nevertheless, Carthage remained Christian, tied to Rome and subsequently to Constantinople.
Early Arab Tunis (705 CE - 1574 CE)
The Arabs arrived in Ifriqiya in 670 CE, although it would take them another 28 years to fully conquer the territory. Shortly after the completion of the occupation, Arab settlers built the first of many mosque projects, which would continue over the next millennium. The Jama'a ez Zaituna mosque was built in 732 or 734 CE, and was later renovated in 864 CE. As the Zaituna was the only Friday mosque during this time, it became the focus of the city's early Islamic identity. Several smaller masjids were situated in each rebat (suburb of the medina). By the early 8th century, under the Aghlabid era, many indigenous Tunisians had converted to Islam.
By 1054 CE, al-Bakri, the Spanish-Arab geographer-historian well known for his prolific accounts of European, North African and Arabian city geography and their inhabitants, culture, and customs, had described Tunis in the period preceding the raids of the Banu Hilal in the 11th century. The Banu Hilal were members of the Rihayi faction, a small part of a larger band of marauding Arabs devastating the Mahgreb region. A Bedouin group, the Banu Hilal created political instability by forcing the local sedentary population to take refuge in the hinterlands between 1050 and 1052. Their raids took over territories in southern Tunisia, forcing the local populations to flee further north. The fortification in the city wall and gates of Tunis prevented an invasion from their invading forces, allowing urban life within the city walls to remain relatively intact. In 1054, al-Bakri described a city wall with five gates circumscribing the settlement: Bab Saqa'in (now Suwaiqa), Carthegena, Behar, Jezira and a fifth gate, Bab Artah, whose location is now unknown. These city wall gates were built during a restoration under the city's patron saint, Sidi Mehrez. Three of the city gates were situated on the eastern side of the medina, and the fourth gate (Bab Suwiqa) was situated north. Of these gates, two of the three on the eastern side (Carthegena and Behar) were placed at the limits of the recognizable Roman cardo. Four more medina gates, Benat, Ghadr, al Menara and Jedid, would later be constructed on the western side of the city.
A lack of archaeological evidence prevents scholars from definitively characterizing the housing typology in Tunis during the 11th century. However, evidence in the adjacent cities of Carthage, Mahdia and Sousse can be extrapolated.
All of these nearby cities display an introspective Ifriqiyan style characterized by of a set of rooms around an internal courtyard. Access to this inner court was typically hidden from the public street.
Between 1050 and 1250 Tunis transformed radically from a medieval provincial city to a quadripartite capital consisting of a medina, two rabats and a qasbah (fortified area), all under Khorassanid, and then Almohad-Hafsid, rule. The city's commerce grew through international trade ,and its port grew in importance. The earliest known commercial treaty was signed in 1157 CE between Tunis and the Italian city of Pisa. Between 1159 CE and 1160 CE the qasbah precinct was established as an administrative capital by an Almohad prince, Abdal Mu'min. Part of his economic strategies involved taxing up to fifty percent of citizens' belongings towards development of a large part of the qasbah and the cultivation of a strong city and national government.
During the Hafsid-Tunis period (1229 - 1574 CE), which lasted over three hundred and fifty years, the vitality of Tunis was expressed in both secular and religious building projects. New infrastructure was erected, including fortifications in the city wall (Bab Menara in 1232 CE and Bab Jedid in 1276 CE) as well as new public gardens, (Ras Tabia and Abu Fihr), both famous across the Mediterranean. The garden of Ras Tabia (c. 1225 CE) was later the site of a palace and at the time was connected to the qasbah by a walled alleyway. This intervention allowed women to visit the garden unobserved, as custom dictated. The gardens of Abu Fihr, constructed between Tunis and Ariana, were irrigated by water from the restored Roman aqueduct coming from Zaghwan.
The city's foreign relations were cemented through the establishment of consular services: the first of the consulates was that of the Venetians, built in 1231 CE. From the end of the twelfth century, the Spanish Christian Reconquista led to the migration of many Muslim families to North Africa, and Tunis was a principal destination. Building in Tunis extended beyond mosques and (Maliki) madrasas. Civic life was also extended with the establishment of a library whose collection comprised 30,000 volumes. This collection was housed in a madrasa whose style was copied from a Marrakesh mu'minid structure. A royal prayer ground, musalla, was set into the hillside in the south of the medina on the edge of the qasbah outside of the Bab Menara gate.
During the late 14th and 15th centuries, Tunis was heavily affected by the Black Death as it devastated Europe. in 1350 CE, a hospital (maristan), was built as a response to the plague. Another madrasa was built in honor of a minister of state, ibn Tafrijin, who was later buried there in 1364 CE. The invasions of the Marinid rulers of Fez in 1348 and 1356 CE, together with the plague, affected the rate of development of many public works projects.
Later, between 1470 and 1530 CE ,Tunis flourished as a Hafsid city with rich trade relations extending to the Sahara, the Sudan, and Europe. The first of the palaces to be built under the Hafsid dynasty was on the site of the modern day Bardo Museum. Eight Friday mosques were shared amongst the medina, the three rebats and the qasbah. Population pressures changed the typology of urban housing from one to two storeys. Outside of the medina on the city periphery were gardens and houses belonging to wealthier families; these properties functioned as both summer retreats and arable farmland.
The Turkish-Algerian pirate Khair ed Din (Barbarossa) captured the city in 1534 CE. Tunis was plundered and devastated by political power struggles from 1534 until 1574 CE, when the Hafsids, whose dynasty had waned, ceded power to the Ottomans.
Ottoman influence on Tunis's urban fabric was evidenced in the stylistic introduction of octagonal minarets on the Ottoman Hanafi mosques, now preferred over the square minarets of the Maliki school. The first major public building of this period was the Hanafi mosque of Yussuf Dey. This mosque, completed in 1616 CE, introduced the differentiated Hanafi minaret and also included in its plan a turba, (Turkish funerary chamber), as an independent building situated within the mosque complex. This design contrasted sharply with the earlier design of the Jama'a al Hiqq constructed in 1375 CE under the Hafsids.
The Ottoman system of land ownership created a client and tenancy relationship with local farmers, and the homes of Tunis's wealthy expanded with fortunes made in trade. The nomadic group of the arabi facilitated the inland caravan trade of luxury products, with networked routes reaching as far as Muslim outposts in China and Java. Within the African continent, these routes reached south and east to the kingdoms of Kilwa and Zanzibar, and southwest to Ghana. An illicit slave trading route was also established; captives were forced to migrate from Katsina in the north of Nigeria across the Sahara to Tunis. The infrastructure around the previously established sea port that developed under Hafsid rule facilitated the export of materials and goods such as wheat, barley, olive oil, hides and beeswax, while raw materials such as wood, tin and copper were imported in large quantities.
By the 1840s, the cultural matrix of Tunis included a sizeable European population.
The Napoleonic wars sent Sicilian immigrants to the Maison Franques quarter and the eastern fringe of Rebat B. Jezira, while Maltese immigrants settled north of the consular area of the city near the rue de l'Ancienne Douane and rue Zarkoun. Jewish residents tended to the more affluent part of the rebats, and sometimes owned lavish summerhouses on the city's periphery. The city was enriched by each new wave of immigration: incoming Andalusians, Turks, Levanitines, Granada Jews, and Maltese and Sicilian Christians found themselves confronted with the constantly changing city and their integration into the local Islamic culture, as institutionalized by the Ottomans.
The country as a whole experienced a sequence of pivotal years between 1857 -1881 CE. The Mamluk ruling class was gradually losing touch with the working class population, and the agricultural production line suffered from gradual impoverishment. A colonial power struggle ensued over the Tunisian territories as France had a vested interest in ensuring the stability of Tunisia to guarantee her heavy investments in colonial Algeria, while newly unified Italy claimed Tunisia as a part of its Roman birthright. Italy also staked a claim based on its having the largest European population residing in Tunis. By the late 19th century, Britain, Italy and France had created the International Financial Commission, and rendered Tunisia a duumvirate state run by the Commission and the Bey (who controlled the government). Even during these struggles between multiple powers, the social and economic apparatus of the city remained relatively intact through the 1880s. Tunis continued to maintain its reputation as one of the safest cities in the Muslim world, and the city's public works projects then included new mosques, quttabs, Sufi zawiyas, madrasas, hammams, suqs, and ribats.
The French Colonial Period (1881 - 1956)
In 1881, the French annexed Tunisia and took control of certain government functions: internal security, foreign affairs, and the administration of French law. This peaceful transition by treaty effectively rendered Tunisia a protectorate, rather than an officially conquered French colony. While the nature of Tunisia's status as a dependency was clear by 1884, the symbols of colonial domination were not present in the city until 1898, when a formal square surrounded by French colonial administrative buildings was built to replace the makhzen (national treasury) and the Ottoman barracks in the qasbah. The new political, social, and economic duality of the city was expressed through the existence of two judiciaries, two economic circuits, and two official languages, effectively creating two cities.
The two legal systems functioned in parallel, with some overlaps: French law was applicable to all, while Tunisian law could be applied only to Tunisians. Tunisians could also acquire French citizenship, but the reverse was impossible. In spatial and urban terms, the new French colonial city had the freedom to expand into the countryside, but the old city of the Tunisians remained cocooned within the city walls.
Independence and Contemporary Tunis (1956 - )
Post-world War II France suffered under pressure from the United Nations to relinquish colonial power. This, together with the country's own internal crises and a protracted armed struggle in Algeria, forced the French polity to reframe its colonial enterprise. The colonial power could no longer hold onto Morocco (the first of its colonies to gain independence in 1955 CE), and in 1956 Tunisia would become the second of its colonies to gain independence. At this point, Tunis was considered both the uncontested economic capital of Tunisia, with one of the highest social organizational structures in the entire Mahgreb, and a pre-eminent center of learning rivaling Cairo and Baghdad. However, Tunis remained relatively ineffective at staking its claim as the government center of the country. It was not until 1957 that the city was able to free itself from the Beylical autocracy, as the Beylicate and its legislative system were unable to survive independence. Overall, Tunisia has had a relatively stable society and government since independence; civic and national development based on the French colonial legal and administrative systems have been relatively successful.
Current sites in modern Tunis include the medina (over 1400 years old), a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. The medina contains some 700 monuments including the Great Mosque (Jama'a ez Zitouna, or the Mosque of the Olive Tree). Historical buildings that have been rigorously preserved and redeveloped as the Belverdere park precinct include the Bardo Museum, housing one of the most extensive collection of Roman mosaics in the world. Ancient sites include the Antoine Baths (the largest Roman baths in Carthage), Dougga (a Roman site), and Kerkouane (a Punic site). Other important public spaces include the suqs (clustered markets in the center of the medina, housing trades, crafts and goods such as jewelry, carpentry, perfumes and spice).
Tunis is served by the Tunis-Carthage International Airport, located about 9 km northeast of the city. While the medina itself is navigable by foot, an extensive network of public transportation serves the growing metropolitan area. This network includes buses, a Metro (an above-ground light rail system built in 1985 CE), and the TGM, a regional train line running along the Tunis- La Goulette - La Marsa route that links the city center to its closest northern suburbs. Successful public works infrastructures include multi-lane highways surrounding the city periphery. The overall development of city infrastructure has facilitated the industrialization of the port area around la Goulette, a development that increasingly encroaches on the old qasbah. The tension between the historical artifacts of Tunis's past and the industrialization and techologization of its urban future provides for contested modern spaces.
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