Tunis / Republic of Tunisia
Arab Region’s Capital of Islamic Culture for 2019
Tunis as the crossroads of civilizations and cultures
New urban pole replacing Carthage
Tunis, capital of the Republic of Tunisia, is located on the Northeast of the country and is divided into several regions, namely the Medina (old town), which covers 75 hectares; the two suburbs which emerged in the Middle Ages (Bab Souika and Bab El-Jazira); and a growing number of other surrounding suburbs. The Great Tunis area includes four governorates: Tunis, Ariana, Manouba and Ben Arous, and is home for more than 2.5 million people which makes up for about 25% of the Republic’s population. Tunis is the major political, economic and administrative pole of Tunisia.
Throughout history, Tunis represented a vital trade hub in the Mediterranean and the Maghreb. It was conquered by the Arab leader Hassan Ibn an-Nu`umanin 82 A.H. /701A.D., who turned the city into a military naval base to counter the Byzantines’ attacks. He built the city on the ruins of an ancient village known as “Tunes” and “Tarchich” to serve as frontline protection for Carthage. Arab authors attempted to explain the name linguistically, maintaining that it is associated with the Arabic word “tu’nis” (comforts) and dates back to a monk whose voice used to comfort Muslim troops whenever they rested near his temple, hence the name. Moreover, Arab sources state that Hassan chose Tunis for its proximity to Carthage, which was only 10 miles to the north; and to Rades Sea (present-day Gulf of Tunis), which he connected to the city by digging a channel. He also established a shipyard and brought workers from Egypt during the reign of Abdulaziz Ibn Marouan, thus making Tunis a sea port and center for the Islamic fleet.
Eventually Tunis overshadowed Carthage which, in comparison, dwindled to a small village with active stone and marble quarries and salt evaporation ponds. Tunis became such a major city in the North of Tunisia to the extent that Arab sources started talking about “the two Egypts” (Al-Masrayn) referring to Kairouan and Tunis. While Kairouan dominated the central and southern parts of the country, Tunis mainly covered the North, a region which, thanks to its location and richness at the agricultural, mining or handicraft level, became a destination for wealthy Arab people. It also benefited from the old urban infrastructure, especially the road network (some of which dated back to Roman era) that linked the city to various regions of the country such as Kairouan and other major cities: Bizerte, Béja, Tabarka, El Kef and Tebessa.
Radical Transformation during the Aghlabid era
Tunis witnessed an urban resurgence in the 9th century A.D. /3rd century A.H. Ramparts were built around the city, and Ez-Zitouna Mosque was completed during the reign of Emir Abu Ibrahim Ahmad 250 A.H. /864 A.D to become one of the major academic centers in Muslim countries, on par with the mosques of Kairouan, Fes and Cordoba. Tunis was one of the major centers which frequently led revolutions against the rulers of Kairouan, most notably the revolution of Mansur Tunbudhi who rebelled against the Aghlabid State and almost overthrow it in 824. The prominent position of Tunis enabled it to serve as the capital whenever circumstances deteriorated in Kairouan, thus becoming a second center of power resorted to whenever there was unrest in Kairouan.
Tunis: major center in the Fatimid and Zirid eras
Following the defeat of the Aghlabids by the Shiite Fatimid Caliphate in 909, Tunis witnessed an architectural resurgence which has continued with the Zirids, whose legacy include a number of still existing mosques and buildings, in addition to modifications in Ez-Zitouna Mosque, most notably the ones introduced to the courtyard, dome and colonnades, which were documented in written engravings. Other landmarks attributed to the Zirids include, inter alia, Hammam El Grana, and El-Ichbili Mosque. Among the key figures in the city’s history is Muhriz ibn Khalaf, who was known in the historical sources for his strong opposition to the Shiites, his defense of Sunnites and his close ties with Emir Al- Muʻizz ibn Badis. He was also famous for defending the city’s people including the Jews as he was the first one to bring them into the city after they had been living in the endemic district of Mellasine.
However, the city was not an exception to most of Ifriqiya, as it did not escape the crisis of Zirid rule which led to the Hilalian invasion and divided the state into sect-driven emirates. In Tunis, a small emirate called Banu Khurasan emerged and undoubtedly became a key region in Ifriqiya. During their era, the Khurasanis introduced some modifications and marble panels to Ez-Zitouna Mosque; and built new quarters and luxurious mansions including their mansion which was built near the present-day Ksar Mosque and is believed to have been located where Dar Hussain presently stands. The mausoleum of the founder of the Khurassani Emirate still exist in this area and is known as Qubbat Sidi Bukhrissan, near the present-day Essaraya Restaurant.
Tunis, Capital of Tunisian and Arab territories
The progress witnessed in Tunis during the reign of Banu Khurassan contributed to its selection by Almohad Abd al-Muʾmin ibn Ali as the center of his government starting from 1159 following his victory against the Christian Normans who took over the country in 1147. However, Tunis did not become the country’s actual capital until Almohed Governor, Abu Zakariya Al-Hafsi (1228-1249), announced his independence from Almohed Dynasty in the Maghreb, leading Bani Hafs Tribe, an Amazigh Masmoudi tribe, to assume power in the country. The Hafsids developed their governing methods and made Tunis the largest civilizational hub in the Tunisian territories, which expanded as far as Tripoli to the West and Béjaïa to the East. Tunis was also ethnically diverse as it was home to Arab, Amazigh (Masmoudis), Andalusian, Eastern, non-Arab and non-Muslim (Allouj, Christians and Jews) communities. In addition, Tunisian relations with Mediterranean countries, especially in Europe prospered and the Tunis Port witnessed an unprecedented activity to the extent that it became one of the largest ports on the southern part of the Mediterranean. The city’s handicrafts flourished, markets boomed and new ones emerged, making it famous for its pottery, tile, blacksmithing, carpentry, construction and traditional headwear making (Shashia). However, the city’s close ties with the Orient and special location in the Arab Islamic world were undoubtedly the reason it was targeted by the Crusades led by Louis IX in 1270.
Furthermore, Tunis witnessed a major architectural and cultural resurgence. The dawn of the 14th century saw the construction of schools like Al Madrasa EchChamaiya which is the oldest school in North Africa and was famous for some of its Maghreban attendees of the likes of Ibn Khaldoun, Ibn Arafa, and Ibn Asfur; in addition to many landmarks that stand witness to the Hafsid era in Tunis.
It was also in this era that suburbs surrounded the city, namely Bab Souika and Bab Jdid, as well as a quarter called Kasba reserved, to this day, for decision makers. Many riads, gardens and mansions were also built around the Medina including the Gardens of Abu Fahr in Ariana; and mansions in Ras-Tabia, Bardo and Marsa which were particularly occupied by wealthy people, dignitaries and sultans, indisputably making Tunis the main Arab Islamic city, in par with the cities of the Christian West.
Tunis, Ottoman Eyalet and gateway to global civilization
After struggling with the Spanish, the Ottomans took over Tunis in 1574 and kept it as the Eyalet’s capital. The city, like the rest of the country, was under the rule of the Ottoman walis, Muradid Beys, and later the Husaynid Dynasty. Tunis was a major city in the Maghreb, along with Algiers, Marrakesh, and Tripoli; and many of its landmarks and suburbs date back to the Ottoman era such as La Goulette Fortress (El Karaka), Hammouda Pacha Mosque, Youssef Dey Mosque, Essabaghine Mosque, and Husayn bin Ali Mosque. The Husaynid era was marked by an increase in the number of schools and luxurious houses owned by the city’s dignitaries, many of which still stand witness to this prosperous era. This era also saw the emergence of new markets and an increase in the number of mansions in the suburbs (formerly-known as Souanis).
Given its openness to the West, the city was subject to major reforms which aimed at modernizing the state. In this connection, Bardo Military School, Sadiki School, and Tunis City Hall were established in 1840, 1875, and 1858, respectively. In 1881, Tunis was under the French Protectorate which eventually led to some architectural modifications, most notably the establishment of the European city where the National Movement flourished and its key figures rose to fame, like Abdelaziz Thâalbi, Habib Bourguiba and Mahmoud El-Materi. Other key intellectuals that supported the Tunisian independence include Taher Haddad, Aboul-Qacem Echebbi, and Taher bin Ashur.