« Tunis La Goulette »
We know it has existed since antiquity. Its strategic and economic strength come from its sheltered position deep within a gulf. Although the site was an obstacle for the Phoenicians and Romans, and although the tip of the peninsula which closes the bay was chosen as the place to build the city of Carthage, the Arabs considered the lagoon a natural barrier and, in the early eighth century, they needed a city safe from invaders from the sea. So they abandoned the seafront used by Carthage, though without abandoning its maritime activities. In 711 they established a port and arsenal looking back over the lagoon, connected to the open sea by a canal going to the fort of La Goulette. At the same time a thousand Copt families from Egypt arrived and settled there. This choice had serious consequences for the city’s relationship with the maritime world, as the lagoon, which was constantly silting up, cut the town off from the sea. At the same time another water barrier to the west, the sebka Sijoumi, meant the town could not spread very far.
Protected by a solid wall in the eighth century,Tunis became the capital of Ifriqiya Aghlabid in the late ninth century. Commercial capital and intellectual center, it went through a troubled period in the eleventh and twelfth centuries but that did not stop Italian caravanserais setting themselves up there. By the thirteenth century Tunis’ prosperity was catching the imagination of envious crusaders, soldiers and merchants. In 1280 an Aragonese fleet captured the city for a while. However, Tunisian merchants spread across the whole Mediterranean area and beyond. In 1498,when Vasco da Gama arrived in Calcutta, he was welcomed by two Tunisians. In the sixteenth century, good relations with France were sealed by the arrival of Tunisian ships in Marseille, laden with presents for Francis I (lions, camels). The French reciprocated by sending the Bey luxury goods. The capture of Tunis by Barbarossa in 1534 provoked Charles V to send an expedition to attack La Goulette in 1535, but the operation was inconclusive and relations with France remained cordial. In 1550 the Bey of Tunis granted Marseille fishermen a monopoly on coral fishing near Bone. The Turkish governor installed in Tunis shortly after the Battle of Lepanto (1571), renewed this privilege even though competition with the Compagnie du corail de Tunis was becoming serious (1575).
In the seventeenth century, 80,000 Moors expelled from Spain settled in the regency, but pirating was now a major source of income for Tunis, though it seriously disrupted Mediterranean shipping. In 1662, to put an end to it, Louis XIV declared war on the Berber / Barbary Regencies (Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli). After fighting under the walls of La Goulette, a treaty was signed in 1673, but disputes between pirates continued and Tunis was occupied by corsaires from Algiers several times between 1686 and 1695. Pirating resumed in the early eighteenth century and although it was nothing compared to the situation in Algiers, the prisons in Tunis harboured nearly 20,000 captives, ransomed thanks to the “father redeemers”, even though there were plenty of European merchants in the city. Indeed the French had a caravanserai and Marseille exported thousands "Tunis-style caps" (fez). Tunisian pirating, more generally pirating along the whole coast, provoked strong reactions from European fleets, most notably the British bombardment of Tunis in 1816.
Before the Italian colonial project, the French protectorate in 1881 marked a watershed in the history of Tunis, bringing a sharp increase in the European population: in 1911 Tunis had about 150,000 inhabitants, of whom 70,000 were Europeans: Italians (45,000), French (almost 18,000), Maltese, Greeks,Spaniards and Jews (20,000). A modern port was built (1897), with a 10 kilometre canal linking the town of Tunis to La Goulette and the sea across the waters of the lagoon. Tunis became a center for exporting phosphates and minerals (iron and lead), and agricultural products, in exchange for fuel, machinery and manufactured goods.
Since independence (1956), Greater Tunis (the city plus the suburbs) has never stopped expanding: from 4,000 hectares in 1956 to nearly 30,000 in 2008, pushing the city limits to the water’s edge, with a population that has risen from one million in 1984 to 2.4 million in 2008. While it has never been a waterfront city and although the old port of La Goulette has been demolished several times, Tunis today is turning more towards the sea. It is also the country’s major industrial center, home to many European offshore companies, while tourism was growing rapidly until the Arab Spring of 2011.
K.J. Perkins, Historical Dictionary of Tunisia, Londres, 1989.
P. Sebag, « Tunis ». Encyclopédie de l'Islam, deuxième édition, 2012.
P. Sebag, Tunis. Histoire d’une ville, Paris, 1998.