According to legend, the Phoenicians founded Carthage in 814 BC. Ruling from Tyre in modern Lebanon, their power was at its peak, and Qart Hadasht (Phoenician for ‘new city’) was founded to consolidate their North African gains. After Tyre came under increasing threat from the Assyrians during the 7th century BC, Carthage took over as the seat of Phoenician power.
The settlement was ideally placed: a narrow, hilly promontory flanked by the sea on three sides – Sebkhet Er Ariana, the salt lake to the north of Tunis, was connected to the sea at this time. At the centre of a shipping network, it was also the perfect spot for a civilisation based on trade.
However, after two ferocious wars with rival Rome, Carthage fell during the third conflict. Around 50,000 Carthaginians were taken into slavery, while a thousand remained defiantly besieged. Their commander, Hasdrubal, surrendered, his wife and children committed suicide by immolation, and the site was levelled and symbolically ‘sown’ with salt.
It was not until over a century later, in 44 BC, that Caesar Augustus re-established the city, and it became a provincial capital in 29 BC. Within 200 years it was the third-largest imperial city behind Rome and Alexandria, with 300,000 residents, three forums, a circus holding 70,000 spectators, mammoth baths and an amphitheatre.
The Carthaginians and the Romans had both ruled from Byrsa Hill, on the coast to the east, but after ousting the Byzantines in AD 695, the victorious Arab Hassan bin Nooman decided to build elsewhere. Ever mindful of defensive possibilities, he sited his new medina on a narrow band of high ground, flanked by the Sebkhet Sejoumi (a salt lake) to the southwest and Lake Tunis to the east. A deep-water channel was dug across the lake to access the sea and a port was developed at La Goulette.
The city of Tunis was born with the building of the Zitouna Mosque in AD 732, but it was in the 9th century, when Aghlabid ruler Ibrahim ibn Ahmed II moved his court here, that it became the seat of power.
Tunis declined under the Fatimids, who chose Mahdia as their capital in the 10th century. It thus escaped the ravages of the 11th-century Hilalian invasion, emerging again as capital following the Almohad North African conquest in 1160.
The city flourished and trade boomed under the Hafsids, who ruled from 1229 to 1574. The population more than tripled (to about 60,000). Souqs (markets), mosques, madrassas (Quranic schools) and the Zitouna Mosque University were established.
Tunis suffered badly during Turkish-Spanish tussles, leading to the fall of the Hafsids. Much of the city was destroyed and the population fled. Sinan Pasha finally secured the city for the Ottomans in 1574, and people began to return, including refugees fleeing religious persecution: Moorish Andalusians from Spain and Jews from Livorno in Italy. Many were fine artisans who played an important role in the city’s reconstruction.
The Ottomans built a kasbah (fort) at the port in La Goulette and allowed a corsair fleet that preyed on Christian shipping in the Mediterranean to operate from it. A small, walled town grew from the profits, housing a substantial Jewish community. In colonial times, many Italians moved in, developing the area to the north known as Little Sicily. La Goulette was a stronghold of the independence movement. Today, both the Italian and Jewish communities have all but disappeared.
In the 19th century, the colonising French built their elegant Ville Nouvelle ('new town') on land reclaimed from Lake Tunis, moving the city’s focus. Today this area is popularly known as Centre Ville.