For magazine of Roman North Africa cruise boat
The bay of Tunis is the undisputed centre of a nation, a vast anchorage that looks north to Sicily and Europe. It is framed to the west by the slow gathering heights of the Khroumirie highlands and to the east by the rugged extrusion of the Cap Bon peninsular - though the actual shore-line has always been occupied by a labyrinth of beaches, lagoons and marsh-fringed lakes. The unmistakable silhouette of Jebel Bou Kornine (with its two horns defining an open air temple to Baal) acts as a lodestone on the marine horizon to draw in the shipping of the entire Mediterranean to this central bay. It has cradled three distinct urban civilizations, the Phoenician Imperial city of Carthage, followed by Roman and Byzantine Carthage (second city of the Empire) which would be replaced in the early medieval era by Tunis, a brand new Muslim white city on a nearby hill.
Tunis had been founded (in 699) as both a trading station and a fortress to protect the North African shore. It stood a little inland, connected to its port of La Goulette, by a lagoon and a canal, for the first Arab conquering-generals were rightly concerned about Christian counter-attacks from the sea. For the five hundred years of its history, Tunis remained a provincial city, for the Islamic capital was securely located at the holy city of Kairouan, surrounded by the horse-breeding steppe-lands, on the edge of the mountains and the pre-Sahara. It was only the triple blows of an internal invasion by hoardes of Arab Bedouin coming in from the desert, followed by the Normans of Sicily capped by conquering armies marching out of a fundamentalist Islamic Empire (centred on Morocco) that allowed Tunis a new destiny. As the old patterns of authority were swept away, the well-governed port-city of Tunis emerged as the new capital-city in 1160. The Hafsid dynasty of Tunis (though in origin from the Saharan mountains of Morocco) embellished their chosen capital city like a bride. Under their skilful governance it also (in 1230) became the capital of an independent Empire that ruled not over just Tunisia, but all of western Libya and eastern Algeria for 300 years. The fifteenth century was the apogee of Hafsid Tunis as half a dozen university colleges were established in the streets around the great mosque and the cities mushrooming population of 100,000 spilled out from its old concentric walls to create two new satellite cities complete with new mosques, gates and walls. European merchants flocked to the port to acquire the products of the trans-Saharan caravan trade (that orientalist litany of gold dust, ebony, ivory, black slaves and ostrich feathers) as well as the clothes, worked leather, horses, dates and scents of North Africa. In this period, Tunis stood beside Mameluke Cairo and Moroccan Fez as one of the pre-eminent centres of Arabic culture and learning.
The wars, sieges and naval battles of the sixteenth century totally destroyed this brilliant late-medieval flower. The Hafsid Sultans did their best to plot a middle course between the emerging maritime powers of Catholic Spain and Ottoman Turkey but Tunis was too central and strategic a base to escape this conflict. The city was repeatedly fought-over and occupied and twice brutally sacked by Christian armies between the years of 1534-1574. In the wretched aftermath, the last Hafsid princes of Tunis died as exiles in Istanbul and Madrid while Tunis was occupied by an Ottoman governor and his garrison of Turkish janissaries.
The burnt-out, blackened city would however be re-created in the seventeenth century, as the old trade routes were re-opened and the profits of the corsairs captains (raiding the maritime trade routes of the central Mediterranean) poured into Tunis. This is the living city one can still see and admire today, further enriched when Tunisia broke away from direct Ottoman rule under the Husseinite dynasty of Beys in 1705 - even though they tactfully maintained the fiction of loyalty to the Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul for another two hundred years. The palace-museum of the Bardo, the Dar el Bey and the Tourbet el Bey are the three great Husseinite monuments from the 18th and 19th-centuries. In 1861 the Bey's made the decision to expand the crowded core of the old walled city with the creation of brand new quarters, built on reclaimed land from the lake. The tree-lined avenues of this New Town created a perfect foil to the old city, the playful balconies, street cafes and art-deco plaster-work of the new apartment blocks established this quarter as one of the great white cities of the Mediterranean, a brood sister to Algiers, Alexandria, Naples, Marseille and Tangier. The French militarily imposed themselves on the city and the nation in 1881 and left in 1956, but they were in any case always outnumbered by larger numbers of more vocal, creative and merchantile Italians, Jews, Sicilians and Maltese.
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by Barnaby Rogerson