Tunisia has been the subject of fights between successive great civilisations. Its lush cultivated areas – once the breadbasket of Rome – still account for a reasonable portion of the economy, and its strategic position has long ensured it was dealt an economically viable hand.
The Phoenicians marched into Tunisia around 1100 BC, establishing their capital, Carthage (just north of today’s Tunis), as the main power in the western Mediterranean by the 6th century. The emerging Roman Empire was not happy with these events, and 128 years of Punic Wars ensued. The legendary general of Carthage, Hannibal, nearly conquered the Romans after his invasion of Italy in 216 BC, but the Romans finally won, razed Carthage, sold its population for slaves and then re-created it as a Roman city in 44 BC. Roman Tunisia boomed, creating the temple-decked city of Dougga and the extravagant El Jem colosseum.
The Roman decline and fall in the 5th century was followed by the rampaging Vandals, who saw their opportunity and captured Carthage in 439. Unhappy with the nihilistic rule of the Vandals, the local Berber population formed small kingdoms and rebelled, but both groups were conquered, and the Vandals ousted by the approaching Byzantines in 533.
In the 7th century the Arabs arrived from the east, bringing Islam with them. Despite continuous Berber belligerence, the Arabs ruled Tunisia until the 16th century, leaving behind the strongest ongoing cultural impact of all of Tunisia’s invaders. Stuck between the Spanish Reconquistas and the powerful Ottoman empire, Tunisia became an outpost of the Ottomans until France began to gain ground in the region during the 19th century. Establishing their rule in 1881, the French proceeded to spend the next 50 years attempting to transform Tunisia into a European-style nation.
Tunisia became a republic in 1957, with Habib Bourguiba as the first president and the country’s major reformist. He swore to eradicate poverty, and separate politics from religion, while ‘righting all the wrongs done to women’. He introduced liberal laws, instituted a secular state, established women’s rights, free education and the abolition of polygamy, and laid out the groundwork for the economically savvy structure of today’s Tunisia. However, he wasn’t too keen to give up power, and reports of senility ended his rule with a bloodless coup in 1987.
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali took over the steering wheel and continued down similar roads to Bourguiba, especially when it came to handing over leadership. The dubiously overwhelming results at the 1989 and 1994 elections affirmed his stranglehold on presidency, peaking with a 99.44% majority in the 1999 and 2004 elections. Having been expected to retire in 2004, Ben Ali tweaked the constitution and allowed himself to run for another two terms. The main opposition group, the Democratic Progressive Party, pulled out in protest two days before the vote, calling its country’s political system ‘a masquerade of democracy’.
Discontent with Ben Ali's autocratic rule reached a climax in 2011 with mass street demonstrations, finally prompting him to step aside. This epochal moment inspired uprisings across the region that became known as the Arab Spring.
Tunisia’s strong trade links with Europe have made it more prosperous than its neighbours, and its relatively modern outlook on religion ensured its popularity with Europeans. Visitor numbers did drop following the uprising and upheaval in 2011, but Tunisia is working hard to win back many of the tourists who once flocked to its resorts every year.