Phoenicians founded Carthage around 800 BC not far from modern Tunis. It grew into a powerful trading city whose control extended over most of northern Africa, the southern part of Spain, Sardinia, and parts of Sicily where competition with Rome started the Punic wars which led to its total destruction in 146 BC.
In 439, the Vandals who had moved south through Spain, occupied the Roman province of Africa until they were overcome by the Byzantine general Belisarius in 533 AD. Around 700, the Arabs completed the conquest of North Africa who was henceforth ruled by a series of dynasties, the Umayyad (700-800, from Damascus), the Aghlabid (800-909, locally), the Fatimid (909-973), the Zirid (973-1048), the Almoravid (1050-1147), the Almohad (1121-1228) and the Hafsid (1228-1574).
In the 16th and 17th centuries pirates based in Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli and other corsair bases along the so-called Barbary Coast were blackmailing the maritime nations into paying tribute to safeguard their shipping. The US navy intervened to curb piracy in 1815 and the French conquered and annexed Algeria in 1830. Later, the French invaded Tunisia which became a protectorate in 1881.
After World War II, Habib Bourguiba's Neo-Destour party campaigned vigorously for Tunisian independence until it was granted in 1956. Bourguiba's 30 year pro western leadership liberated Tunisian women and modernized the country. He was replaced in 1987 by his Prime Minister Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali who was elected to the presidency in the 1989 elections and again in 1994.
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I was delighted to stroll down Habib Bourguiba Avenue once more and surprised to see that it had not changed much in the 35 years since that I had come here on business. The old Tunisia Palace were I used to stay had been transformed into a shopping center but the trendy Café de Paris and the ill famed Monseigneur Nightclub were still there.
I enjoyed a nostalgic visit to the Medina behind this gate on Place de la Victoire.
The Medina's narrow streets were quiet in the mid-day heat when many shops close for lunch but they soon filled up with colourful crowds when the sun abated. Below, on the left, another view of the Medina and on the right, the Tunis Cathedral.
The remarkable social revolution carried out by Habib Bourguiba is well illustrated by this policewoman blowing her whistle to control traffic on the corner of Avenue Habib Bourguiba and Avenue de Paris. In no other Arab country have I seen a woman traffic cop! On the corner behind her, you can see the landmark Café de Paris that I have mentioned earlier.
After the Medina, I stopped at the Canadian Embassy to have them stamp an official Arabic translation of my passport's first page into it to satisfy the Libyan authorities. Then I left it at the Libyan Embassy to have it stamped with the visa that had been arranged for me by a Libyan tourist agency that I had contacted through the Internet. With these bureaucratic rituals behind me, I took the time to enjoy the remarkable collection of Roman mosaics and statues of the Bardo Museum of which there is a sample below.
The Medina and the city center had not changed much but Tunis had grown considerably since my last visit. It was now connected to Carthage and the other beachside suburbs by a rapid transit system and it boasted of many modern buildings like this inverted pyramid.
The Romans so completely destroyed Carthage that there's nothing of it left today. The earth moving they did here prompted one of their historians, I forget which, to write: "We have conquered, we have filled in the valleys and have flattened the mountaintops".
After razing the Carthaginian stronghold of Byrsa, the Romans flattened the hill it was on and filled in its sides to build a huge platform on which they erected their temples and administrative buildings (which were in turn later destroyed by the Vandals). I think this picture is particularly interesting for its shows clearly the ruins of an ancient cut-stone Carthaginian construction straddled by the huge concrete foundation pillars the Romans had to build to support the temples they erected over the soft land-filled parts of their platform.
With my Libyan visa in hand, I left for Tripoli overland which was the only way to get there for the air embargo had not yet been lifted at that time. This gave me the occasion to visit a number of cities of which Kairouan where I stayed at the hotel Sabra just outside Bab ech Chouhada (Martyrs' Gate).
Here is Bab ech Chouhada seen from my hotel window.
Founded in 670 on the site of a Byzantine fortress by Sidi Okba for the account of the distant Umayyad dynasty, Kairouan soon became the base from which the Arabs conquered North Africa.
Bab ech Chouhada seen from the south end of Avenue Bourguiba, just inside the city walls.
Kairouan became the first capital of the Aghlabid dynasty in 800 and maintained that role under the Fatimid and Zirid dynasties until the latter moved the capital to Mahdia after being defeated by the Banu Hilal tribes in 1050.
As far as I can remember, this must be el-Kadraoui street that leads to the Grande Mosquée from the souq (I would appreciate being corrected by one of you if am mistaken).
Its two and a half centuries of dominance made Kairouan one of the most historically important cities of the Maghrib. It is during this period that Islam penetrated all of North Africa and part of the Sahel. Consequently, Kairouan is considered as one of Islam's holy cities ranking after only Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Kairouan's Grande Mosquée was founded more than 13 centuries ago in 670 (by Sidi Okba). Much of it has been reconstructed through the ages, but it has been determined that the lower level of the minaret was built in the 8th century, reputedly making it the oldest standing minaret in the world.
At the north end of Avenue Bourguiba (also called Ave. Ali Belhaouane), stands Bab Tunis so named because it leads to the Place de Tunis and of course, to the road to Tunis.
My next stop was at Sousse that features this fine 9th century Mosque and a large medina but which I found too crowded with tourists for my taste.
Below on the left, the 9th century Ribat (fortified monastery) next to the Mosque and on the right, one of the narrow and steep streets of the of the medina.