Tunis, the capital and largest city of Tunisia, is known by its Arabic name. It is situated in the metropolitan area of Tunis, often referred to as “Grand Tunis,” and is home to approximately 2,700,000 people.
As of 2020, it ranks as the third most populous city in the Maghreb region, after Casablanca and Algiers, and the eleventh largest in the Arab world.
The city is located on the expansive Gulf of Tunis, along the Mediterranean Sea. It extends across the coastal plain and surrounding hills, with the nearby presence of the Lake of Tunis and the port of La Goulette.
At its core lies the Medina, which has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To the east of the Medina, one enters the modern part of the city known as the “Ville Nouvelle” through the Sea Gate, also known as the Bab el Bhar or the Porte de France.
This area is traversed by the grand Avenue Habib Bourguiba, often likened to the Tunisian version of the Champs-Élysées, where colonial-era buildings coexist with older, smaller structures.
Continuing eastward along the coastline, one encounters the suburbs of Carthage, La Marsa, and Sidi Bou Said.
As the capital, Tunis serves as the central hub for Tunisia’s political and administrative affairs. It is also a significant center for the nation’s commercial and cultural activities.
The Romans, after the conclusion of the Third Punic War, deliberately destroyed much of Carthage’s culture and records.
While a few Punic texts were translated into Greek and Latin, and inscriptions on monuments and buildings found in Northwest Africa provide some insights, the main historical sources are Greek and Roman writers.
These historians, including Livy, Polybius, Appian, Cornelius Nepos, Silius Italicus, Plutarch, Dio Cassius, and Herodotus, belonged to cultures that were in competition or conflict with Carthage.
Greek cities vied with Carthage for control over Sicily, while the Romans engaged in three wars against Carthage.
Consequently, their accounts of Carthage are often strongly biased and hostile, with any favorable Greek works having been lost over time.
The region initially housed Berber settlements, and evidence from the 4th century BC confirms the existence of settlements in and around the Tunis area.
Perched on a hill, its strategic location allowed for monitoring naval and caravan traffic to and from Carthage.
It was among the first towns in the region to come under the Carthaginian rule, and its presence was documented in military histories associated with Carthage.
During Agathocles’ expedition in 310 BC, the town changed hands multiple times. During the Mercenary War, it is possible that the town served as a hub for the local population, mainly composed of peasants, fishermen, and craftsmen.
The ancient ruins of the town are smaller compared to those of Carthage. According to Strabo, both the town and Carthage were destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC during the Third Punic War.
However, the town was rebuilt earlier than Carthage, under Augustus’ rule, and became an important center under Roman control, particularly in the thriving agricultural industry.
It is mentioned in the Tabula Peutingeriana as a “mutatio” (resting place) along the Roman roads in the province of Africa.
The town gradually adopted Roman customs and was eventually Christianized, becoming the seat of a bishop. However, it remained relatively small compared to Carthage during this period.
Following Tunisia’s independence in 1956, Tunis solidified its position as the capital city. This was emphasized by the establishment of a constitution mandating that the Chamber of Deputies and the Presidency of the Republic be based in Tunis and its surrounding areas.
In a relatively short period, the colonial city underwent rapid transformation. As the city expanded and native Tunisians gradually replaced the significant European population, tensions between the Arab and European sections of the city diminished as the population became more Arabized.
Due to population growth and migration to the capital, the city continued to expand, even with the development of new suburbs.
Old buildings underwent gradual renovation and improvement, while new structures began to shape the urban landscape. Concurrently, an active policy of industrialization contributed to the growth of the municipal economy.
The Arab League, representing 22 Arab nations, relocated its headquarters to Tunis in 1979 following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. However, the Arab League later returned to Egypt in 1990.
From 1982 to 2003, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also had its headquarters in Tunis. In 1985, the PLO’s headquarters was targeted in an airstrike by Israeli Air Force F-15s, resulting in the loss of approximately 60 lives.
Medina of Tunis
The Medina of Tunis, located in the capital of Tunisia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. It boasts approximately 700 historical structures, including palaces, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas, and fountains from the Almohad and Hafsid eras.
The Medina originated around the Zitouna Mosque in 698 AD and gradually expanded during the Middle Ages.
The main thoroughfare extended from the mosque to the government center in the Kasbah to the west and to Bab el Bhar in the east.
Northern and southern expansions gave rise to two suburbs, namely Bab Souika and Bab El Jazira.
Prior to the dominance of the Almohad Caliphate, Mahdia and Kairouan served as capitals. However, Tunis became the capital of Ifriqiya under Almohad rule, and during the Hafsid period, it flourished as a religious, intellectual, and economic hub.
The Medina, as we know it today, began to take shape during this era, incorporating architectural influences from Ifriqiya, Andalusia, and the Orient, as well as borrowing elements from Roman and Byzantine monuments.
The Medina spans an area of 270 hectares and is home to nearly 110,000 residents. It represents one-tenth of Tunis’ population and a sixth of its urbanized area.
Despite the colonial perception of Medina as a dangerous, anarchic, and chaotic place, ethnological studies since the 1930s have revealed a well-organized urban fabric governed by sociocultural norms.
Houses are constructed based on clear guidelines related to complex human relationships, which prioritize public and private spaces, residential and commercial areas, and sacred and secular spaces.
Unlike formal grid-like layouts, the urban structure of the Medina does not conform to geometrical patterns.
However, it features north-south and east-west axes akin to Roman cardo and decumanus streets, intersecting at the court of Zitouna Mosque.
The streets range from main thoroughfares to secondary roads and small dead-end alleys. Some areas are exclusively reserved for women. The built environment comprises a juxtaposition of large plots and communal ownership.
Public space in the Medina is nuanced, as streets are seen as extensions of houses and subject to social norms.
Individual ownership is relatively low, and market activities often spill onto the streets. Shop spaces are small, approximately 3 square meters, and bedrooms measure around 10 square meters.
The Muradid dynasty significantly contributed to the development of the Medina, with Hammouda Pasha overseeing the construction of numerous souks and palaces.
He also commissioned the Hammouda Pacha Mosque, featuring an elegant octagonal minaret and a family mausoleum beneath it.
His successor, Murad II Bey, built the Mouradia Madrasah dedicated to the Maliki school of Islamic law. Mohamed Bey El Mouradi constructed several monuments, including the Sidi Mahrez Mosque, modeled after Istanbul’s mosques, with a central dome.
Ali II ibn Hussein, from the Husainid dynasty, commissioned the Tourbet el Bey in the southern part of the Medina as a grand mausoleum for his family. It stands as the largest funerary monument in Tunis.
During the reign of Muhammad III as-Sadiq, the Medina’s walls severely deteriorated and posed a collapse risk.
Also read: 10 Interesting Facts About Tunisia
In 1865, he initiated their demolition along with several historic gates, including Bab Cartagena, Bab Souika, Bab Bnet, and Bab El Jazira.
Food & Culture
1. Tunisian Cuisine: Tunisian cuisine draws influences from Mediterranean culinary traditions. One of the most popular dishes in Tunisia is couscous, which consists of specially prepared semolina grains steamed and served with meat and vegetables. The Tunisian diet features an abundance of fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits, along with freshly baked bread, dairy products, olive oil, a variety of seafood (including fish), and commonly poultry and other meats. Tunisian cuisine is known for its flavorful and often spicy dishes.
2. Cafes in Tunisia: In Tunisia, you will come across two types of cafes: those exclusively for men and those open to both men and women. All-male cafes often have groups of men enjoying shisha (hookah) and coffee. In some of these cafes, women are strictly prohibited, while in others, they may be discouraged from entering.
3. Dress Code in Tunisia: As Tunisia is an Arab country, it is recommended that women dress conservatively, opting for clothing that provides coverage such as long skirts, trousers, dresses, and t-shirts or long-sleeve shirts. However, in tourist areas, one is most likely to see both tourists and Tunisian women wearing tops that reveal their shoulders, shorter skirts, and flashy jewelry. As a result of this, Tunisian women have started to embrace a more Westernized or European style of dressing.