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Facts and information about Tunisia
Tunisia Tunisia is a nation of North Africa and the Maghreb, bordering on Algeria to the west and Libya to the southeast. The overwhelming majority of the population professes the Muslim faith and speaks Arabic, although French is still widely used in the cities and the Berber language is spoken in vast areas of the South and on the island of Djerba. The name of the country derives from the Berber word tunes, “promontory” or perhaps also “place to pass the night.” Tunisia is a complex land and for this reason extraordinarily fascinating from many points of view. The geography of the territory, edged by 1300 kilometers of coastline, is highly variable, shifting as it does from the Mediterranean plains to the sands of the Sahara, and on the whole the land is quite low-lying: only one-third of the territory reaches or tops 200 meters above sea level. The few real mountains are all found in the North: the easternmost extension of the Aurès range of the Atlas chain runs from northeast to southwest and culminates in the 1544-meter peak of Djebel Chaambi. The climate also varies greatly, combining Mediterranean and Saharian influences: from north to south, annual rainfall drops from 1000 mm to a mere 200 mm, with intensely hot summers and winters that are damp and on the whole quite mild. These physical and climatic characteristics have created clear economic and cultural distinctions between the fertile, productive plains of the north, where agriculture has always thrived, and the more arid, poorer regions of the central and southern regions, where hostile conditions permit only limited cultivation and hamper even herding and grazing. But Tunisia wasn’t always like this. In prehistoric times, the territory was a savanna populated by buffaloes, zebras, and hippopotami. Although we know that an early species of hominid appeared in the savanna about a million years ago, numerous finds, especially in the Gafsa area, confirm that man as we think of him today began to inhabit Tunisia only in the Lower Paleolithic, when the territory was covered with Mediterranean-type forests pullulating with deer, wild boars, and bears. With the passing of time, the progress of Tunisia’s early inhabitants, who lived by hunting and gathering the spontaneous fruits of the land, was probably favored by contact with African and Egyptian peoples known by the Greeks as “Libyans” and by the Romans as “barbarians”; hence the name of their modern descendents, the Berbers. These ancient peoples, including the Phoenicians, always on the lookout for new trade emporiums, demonstrated a propensity for establishing new settlements along the coasts of the territories to which they came. And in fact, the first great power to arise in these lands was of Phoenician origin: Carthage, a small colony founded in the early 1st millennium BC, became a thriving Punic metropolis, strong enough to oppose the expansionist aspirations of the Greeks and the Romans. At its height, Carthage’s maritime empire, constellated with trading centers, extended from Great Britain to Spain and from Sardinia to Egypt; and Carthage had full control of the Strait of Sicily. But the very existence of such a power soon became intolerable to the emerging Rome: at the end of three famous wars in the 3rd and 2nd century BC, Carthage was finally defeated and the city was razed in 145 BC. This event marked the beginning of a long Roman parenthesis in the history of Tunisia; and all in all, it was a period of peace and prosperity. With a soil so fertile as to merit for Tunisia the appellative “granary of Rome,” the region was quickly urbanized and commercial and manufacturing activities flourished. New cities and villages were founded, roads and monuments were built, art and culture flowered; urban centers, colonies, municipalities, and small civitates grew up under a strict hierarchical scheme in the splendid province of Africa Proconsularis. In the 2nd century AD, Roman Africa, by this time split into three smaller provinces (Zeugitana, Byzacena, and Tripolitania) in which the Punic and Berber traditions persevered despite heavy Romanization, began to feel the influence of a new, explosive, and unabating phenomenon: Christianity. But then Tunisia was invaded by the Vandals, who in 439 occupied Carthage and extended their military oppression over the entire region. Tunisia was liberated by the Byzantines, with the arrival in 533 of Emperor Justinian’s troops, but never regained her former level of prosperity–or, in truth, even any real security. So it was that when in 647 the Arab Muslim invaders crossed the borders of Tripolitania with the firm intention of making short work of Tunisia, the Byzantine forces opposed only nominal resistance. Berber resistance was quite a different matter: it took the Arabs almost a century to subdue them, and even so they never completely subjugated the Berber civilization or significantly modified the cultural makeup of this proud people. In the centuries that followed, Tunisia–or more precisely, the region that then went by the name of Ifriqiyah–was governed by a succession of dynasties of caliphs: first the Abassid caliphate; then the Aghlabid dynasty of emirs, who raised their capital, Kairouan, to undreamed-of splendor and worked to spread Islam, the Arabic language, and literacy among the majority Berber component of the population; and then the Fatimids, who chose Mahdia as their capital and built up the existing system of ribats and fortresses to protect the country; and, finally, the Almohad caliphs and the Hafsids, who strengthened the by then well-affirmed role of Tunis as capital and established a government that proved capable–albeit with some difficulty–of resisting the constant attempts at takeover by Pisa, Genoa, Venice, Florence, Marseilles, Barcelona, and other European power who saw in Tunisia a bridgehead of enormous commercial and strategic value. And so we come to the 16th century, when Tunisia came into the sights of Spain, which under Charles V, following the Reconquista of Andalusia, moved on Tunisia and in 1535 conquered the territory. The Ottoman caliphs of Istanbul responded immediately: since they perceived themselves as the protectors par excellence of the Muslim peoples, they did not hesitate to undertake a recovery operation that culminated in 1574 with the triumphant entry of the Turkish general Sinan Pascià into Tunis. Thus began the era of Ottoman rule and settlement, which took form in wide-ranging works of reconstruction that extended to all corners of the country, providing a new stimulus to the country’s hard-pressed economy and radically restructuring the administrative system: military power was in the hands of an officer called the dey; civil and administrative power fell instead to the bey. All the while, the country took in Andalusians exiled from Spain by the edict of 1609 and learned from the Andalusians’ proverbial prowess in farming and crafts (for example, it was they who imported the chechia, the typical brimless red cap, to Tunisia). The last reigning dynasty was that of the Husseinite beys, who found themselves having to combat increasingly heavy interference by the colonial powers, always ready to blow on the embers of a popular unrest already fanned by a government whose officials, from the bey to the ministers to local functionaries, were often despotic and oppressive. The revolt of 1860 was only the first step toward an inevitable point of arrival: in 1881, France, taking as a pretext Tunisia’s incapacity to meet her financial obligations (and in particular, to repay the debt contracted with France), forced the reigning bey to accept French protectorate status for Tunisia. Although the government of the country maintained formal independence, it was actually controlled by the Resident General of France. A rapid, massive influx of colonists followed; Frenchmen, Italians, Maltese, and Greeks soon occupied all the key posts, relegating the Tunisian community to second place. The period that followed was one of misery and impoverishment for the local populations, while at the same time exports toward the colonial powers increased: raw materials, important agricultural products like grain, grapes, citrus fruits, oil, and even industrial products flowed out of the country in what can only be described as a regime of systematic exploitation. Not surprisingly, there soon arose a strong nationalist movement, which was visibly and actively supported mainly by young people and intellectuals but was in truth firmly rooted at all levels in the Tunisian population. The nationalist sentiment burned underground for many years and finally flamed to the surface in the aftermath of World War II: France was first forced to negotiate (1954), then to grant relative autonomy (June 1955), and finally to acknowledge the independence of the country (20 March 1956). A constitutional assembly was immediately called to draft Tunisia’s constitution; the country was declared a republic on 26 July 1957, with Habib Bourguiba as its first elected president: a post designed to be held for life. The new government accomplished a great deal in the way of rebuilding a free and independent country with a solid economic base and a good and capillary educational system; a country in which polygamy was banned in 1956 and women have since won substantial emancipation. In 1987 Bourguiba fell ill and was no longer capable holding the reins of power. He was replaced by Zine al-Abidine Ben Alì, whose accession as president marked the beginning of a new, even more democratic era in which an already flourishing Tunisia, proud of her traditions, a world-scale tourist attraction with an economy supported by a tightly-knit network of small industries and crafts activities, has finally been handed over to the whole Tunisian population.