“Where is Tunisia?” or “Why Tunisia?” These were the questions my daughter Pam and I frequently encountered last summer when we told people we would be traveling to Tunisia in mid October. It seems that Americans aren’t very familiar with Tunisia. So before I go further into writing about our Tunisian travels, I’m going to pose a quiz to test your knowledge of Tunisia. The answers to the questions are embedded in the text after the quiz. If you don’t want to read the text, I’ve included the answers without text at the end. Good luck.
TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF Tunisia. Select the correct answer(s) for each query. There may be more than one correct answer.
1. Where is the country of Tunisia located?
a. With the “stan” countries in what was formerly part of the Soviet Union
b. In Central Africa
c. In the Maghreb
d. On an island in the Arabian Sea
2. Which of the following invaded, governed, and/or settled in Tunisia?
d. Ottoman Empire
3. In what year did Tunisia gain independence?
4. Shariah (Islamic) Courts play a role in the Tunisian legal system.
5. What is/are the chief language(s) used in Tunisia?
6. Judaism is practiced in Tunisia.
7. The movie The English Patient was filmed or partially filmed in Tunisia.
One of the smallest countries on the African continentâ€”about the size of the state of Missouriâ€”Tunisia juts into the Mediterranean Sea to form the northernmost tip of Africa. It is home to a variety of interesting ecosystems, including mountains in the north, plains in the central area, the Sahara desert to the south, and chotts or low salt lakes bordering the desert. Situated to the west of Tunisia is Algeria. On the other side of Algeria lies Morocco. These three Northwest African Arab statesâ€”Tunisia, Algeria, and Moroccoâ€”share a common culture and form the area known as the Maghreb. Libya lies to the Southeast. Unlike other Arab countries whose boundaries were sometimes specified by colonial powers, the boundaries of Tunisia generally follow natural divisions.
With over 700 miles of coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, Tunisia has many fine ports and beaches. In the past, Tunisia’s ports lured invaders interested in establishing or dominating trade along the Mediterranean. In the present, Tunisia’s ports and beaches are vital to the economy. Ninety-six percent of Tunisia’s foreign trade flows through its ports, and its beaches welcome international tourists to enjoy the sea and sand.
The private beach at the El Mouradi Gammarth Hotel in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, at sunset. We stayed at the hotel for two nights.
If a beach doesn’t fit your bathing requirements, try the pool.
Pool at the El Mouradi Gammarth Hotel in Tunis. The photo was taken at sunset on a cloudy and cool day
The island of Jerba off the east coast of Tunisia is a popular tourist area. The island, which is accessible by car via a causeway built by the Romans and also by ferry or by plane, offers a host of activities.
Tourists ride camels and horses through the water from Jerba to another island. Our coach made an unplanned stop for our tour group to watch the fun. We were on our way back to our hotel after visiting an ethnological museum on the island
Our tour coach entered Jerba on the causeway and returned to the mainland on the ferry.
A series of countries and peoples have found their way into the mix of people who for more than three millenniums have inhabited Tunisia and shaped its culture.
People 1: Berbers
Berbers, a people without a written language, are the original inhabitants of Tunisia. Today, Berbers make up only 1-2 percent of the population. They primarily live in villages in the southeastern part of the country, often in caves or mud-walled homes.
A toddler in a Berber home we visited helps his mother as she grinds grain. We had free rein to tour the home, which was built into the earth. Rooms were neat and while we were there, the mother, eyes lit up and smiling broadly, graciously served us a beverage
People 2: Phoenicians
The Phoenicians, Semitic seafaring traders whose lands correspond to coastal parts of present-day Lebanon, established settlements in North Africa beginning in the 12th century B.C.E. One of these, Carthage, which legend says was established in 814 B.C.E., became very powerful and is immortalized in the epic poem The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. The Phoenicians are descendents of the Baal-worshipping Canaanites mentioned in the Bible.
People 3: Romans
As Roman ambitions for power in the Mediterranean increased, it fought the Phoenicians in three wars known as the Punic Wars. In the first Punic war, Rome defeated the Carthaginians in 241 B.C.E. after Carthage had become weakened by internal revolts. Rome began to extend its empire in the region.
In the second Punic War, which lasted from 218-201 B.C.E., Hannibal, the son of a former Carthaginian leader, led a campaign against the Romans, but ultimately the Romans prevailed. Much of this war was fought away from Tunisia.
After Carthage broke a peace agreement and went to war with a Roman ally, the Romans once again besieged Carthage and after three years of war, completely destroyed the city in 146 B.C.E., leaving no trace of the Phoenician presence. Rome built a new city on the site to serve as an administrative center for the Roman Empire in Africa and continued expanding into Tunisia.
A portion of the remains of the Antoine bath complex on the coast of the Mediterranean in Carthage. Rome began construction of this large bathing complex in 146 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Hadrian and completed it 20 years later in the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius after whom it is named. Today, Carthage is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As can be seen at the many Roman archeological sites in Tunisia, Roman engineers were highly skilled.
My daughter Pam (right) and I pose for a photo in the temple of Minerva at the Roman ruins in Sbeitla, Tunisia. Photo courtesy of co-traveler Pat Bush.
Tunisia has taken good care of the many extensive Roman archeological sites that dot its landscape and seems to be proud of its Phoenician-Roman heritage. Its major airport, which we flew into from Rome, is called the Tunis-Carthage International Airport.
People 4: Vandals
Germanic warriors known as the Vandals conquered Carthage in 439 A.D. and established Vandal rule in North Africa.
People 5: Byzantine Empire
In the sixth century, the Vandals were defeated by the Byzantine Empire, which was the eastern half of the split of the Christian Roman Empire. Carthage became part of the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).
People 6: Arab Muslim Rule
Arab Muslims defeated Carthage in the seventh century and began to rule various parts of Tunisia. Islam began to become the dominant religion in the region. At various times during Arab Muslim rule, Berbers and Christians gained control of some areas.
People 7: Ottoman Empire
After back-and-forth victories and defeats with the Holy Roman Empire over control of North Africa, the Ottoman Empire conquered Tunis in 1574 and brought the area under the rule of the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
People 8: French Protectorate
Buoyed by the 1874 Berlin Congress in which the European Powers divvied Africa up for themselves, France invaded Tunisia in 1881 and established a Protectorate.
During World War II, Germany invaded Tunisia in November 1942. After Germany and its allies were defeated in North Africa in 1943, Tunisia again came under the control of the French.
Under the leadership of a French-educated Tunisian lawyer Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia achieved independence in 1956. The following year Tunisia established itself as a republic with Bourguiba as president. Bourguiba worked hard to modernize the country, modifying Islamic institutions and practices that he thought inhibited positive change. In ill health, Bourguiba was deposed as senile in 1987 by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali continues to be president, most recently being reelected on October 25, 2009.
Campaign poster for Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president of Tunisia since 1987. The 2009 presidential campaign was in its final stages while we were there, and photos of Ben Ali were posted everywhere.
In 1956, under Bourguiba’s reforms, shariah (Islamic) courts were abolished, and the Code of Personal Status was adopted for all Muslims. The Code abolished polygamy and gave equal rights to women. In 1957, rabbinical (Judaic) courts were abolished, and the Code of Personal Status was extended to all Tunisians.
Tunisia’s official language is Arabic but according to what I’ve read since my visit to Tunisia, the Arabic spoken on Tunisian streets is much different than the written Arabic common to all Arabic-speaking countries.
My name written in Arabic by a calligrapher at the Ethnological Museum in Jerba. Arabic reads right to left. Cost: 5 Tunisian Dinar = $3.84 (10/9/09).
Because of Tunisia’s colonial ties to France, French has become its second language and is introduced in the school curriculum in the third year of primary school. Pam, who has studied French, was able to practice her French quite often during our visit. She also served as a resource for our tour mates when they wanted to know how to say something in French. I could only speak a few French words, such as Merci and Bonjour.
While English is not an official language of Tunisia, our tour guide Akram was well grounded in it. Both he and his wife were English teachers, he at a university in Tunis and she at a high school. Having spent a year studying in the United States, Akram’s pronunciation and idiomatic use of English were excellent.
Moreover, most of the desk people we dealt with in the hotels where we stayed spoke good English. When the clerk at one hotel learned that Pam and I were from Chicago, he immediately started speaking fluent English telling us how much he liked the television show Oprah, currently based in Chicago. I found this somewhat ironic since although I have lived in the Chicago area for 50 years, I have never watched an Oprah program.
While Tunisia’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, it also declares that Islam is the official state religion and that the president must be Muslim. Muslims make up 98 percent of the population. Most Tunisians are Sunni Muslims.
During the Roman and Byzantine eras, Christianity was the major religion in Tunisia. Tunisia was also an important cultural and religious center for the Christian West until the Arabs arrived. Today about one percent of Tunisia’s population is Christian, and most of these are Roman Catholic of French background.
Jews have lived in Tunisia since olden times, but today Judaism is the faith of a remnant of Jews that live on the island of Jerba. Many from the once thriving community of Tunisian Jews left the country after the first Arab-Israeli war in the late 1940s. The Jews at Jerba are descendants of Jews who came to Jerba more than 1,000 years ago from the Andalusian region of Spain. Our tour group visited their famous and beautiful El Ghriba Synagogue.
Interior view of the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Jerba. Entrusted to El Ghriba, but not on view, is one of the oldest Torahs in the world. The Synagogue is considered one of the holiest Jewish places in North Africa, and Jewish pilgrims from around the world visit it.
While I tend to prefer buildings and rooms clean looking with little ornamentation, I found El Ghriba’s decorative and colorful interior beautiful.
Another interior view of El Ghriba Synagogue. Visitors have to take off shoes and wear a head covering before entering the sanctuary. When traveling, I always carry a scarf in my purse for such occasions. This avoids having to use one that is provided by the site and may not be too clean.
Tunisia’s easily reachable diverse landscapes and the high literacy level and technical expertise of its people have made Tunisia an increasingly popular location for filmmakers. Well-known film producer, screenwriter and director George Lucas who has gone to Tunisia to film all of the Star Wars movies, has said, “When I was searching in 1977 for a place to make the first Star Wars movie, I found Tunisia the ideal country for filming: beautiful countryside, unique architecture and a very high level of technical sophistication.”
A chott (salt lake) in Tunisia. The otherworldly landscape of Tunisia’s chotts, has attracted sci-fi film makers.
Other popular films that have been filmed or partially filmed in Tunisia, include such favorites as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The English Patient.
- Because you can ride camels in Tunisia.
- Because Tunisia is a beautiful country.
- Because the citizens of Tunisia are friendly.
- Because Tunisia’s geography includes different and interesting ecosystems in a fairly small package easily reached and enjoyed.
- Because Tunisia’s deep history, which has included many peoples, has led to a government that grants its citizens equality and takes a moderate, open stance toward others.
- Because Tunisia’s deep history, which has included many peoples, has given Tunisia lots of interesting archeological wonders, which Tunisia values and has taken great care to preserve, thereby allowing us to learn about the past.
How did you do on the quiz?
1. c. In the Maghreb
2. a. Romans, d. Ottoman Empire, e. France
3. b. 1956
4. b. False
5. a. Arabic, d. French
6. a True
7. b True
Carew-Miller, Anna. Tunisia (Modern Middle East Nations and Their Strategic Place in the World series). Mason Crest Publishers. Broomhall PA. 2004. ISBN 1-59084-518-8.
Rosalind Varghese Brown and Michael Spilling. Cultures of the World: Tunisia. Times Publishing Limited. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7614-3037-7.
Previous Post on Tunisia
Future article posts on Tunisia will visit Sidi Bou Said, Roman ruins, the desert, and a chott (salt lake). Photos not included in the article posts will be placed in a photo album on Tunisia.