10 Things You Might Not Know about Tunis
Tunis is the capital and largest city of Tunisia. It is situated on the northeastern part of the country, just west of a coastal lagoon known as the Lake of Tunis. In a blend of Arab and European designs, the city has spread out from its central hill and around a salt marsh (sebkha) that guarantees damp winters and humid, steamy summers.
1. Tunis (ancient Thynes, known as Tunes to the Romans), owes its origins to the Phoenicians. The site served periodically as a convenient base for invaders with designs on the nearby city of Carthage.
2. With the arrival of Arabs in the 7th century A.D., Tunis acquired importance in its own right. The Aghlabid dynasty briefly used Tunis as its capital and from 856-863 entirely renovated the Zitouna Mosque, which still dominates the city. The decision by subsequent dynasties to locate their capitals farther to the south slowed the development of Tunis for four centuries.
3. A center of textile manufacturing and food processing, Tunis is home to most of the country's modern industry. The University of Tunis and the Zitouna Mosque assure the city's status as a center of learning and culture.
4. Tunis is the nexus of inland transportation in Tunisia and has ready access to the seaport of La Goulette through a canal-and-dike system. Virtually all Tunisian roads lead to the city, which is also served by air, rail, and two suburban commuter train services.
5. At the heart of Tunis lies the madina (Arabic, "city"), once encircled by a continuous stone wall of which only its several gates remain. Principal government buildings crown the steep hill that dominates the madina, while the government's technical offices, the largest commercial establishments, and a burgeoning service sector are all in the French-built section that lies below and east of this old quarter. Industry has located primarily in the south, to the east of the Sedjoumi sebkha. The more desirable residential suburbs are in the north and west.
6. For most of its history Tunis was the madina. Modest settlements grew up outside the madina, and a few sumptuous palaces lay beyond its walls, but until the establishment of the French protectorate in 1883, the marshes of the Lake of Tunis came nearly to the city's eastern gate. The French drained the marshlands and built their own city, with characteristic colonial architecture, on the reclaimed land. The madina gradually lost both its cultural and economic stature.
7. The modern city stretches out from Avenue Bourguiba, which opens from a causeway across the lagoon. The tree-lined boulevard is always crowded, its numerous cafés heavily patronized -mostly by men. The boulevard ends at the Porte de France (Bab al-Bahar), the madina's eastern gate. In the modern section just below the madina lies the city's central market, a jamboree of colorful produce and pungent spices. Nearby is the busiest shopping district, offering an array of consumer goods and clothing, much of it Tunisian made.
8. The madina houses most of the city's major landmarks and possesses an equal measure of its charm. Narrow, twisted lanes are flanked by white stucco buildings, with an occasional door or window painted Mediterranean blue. Madrasas (residential Islamic colleges), zawiyas (Muslim shrines), and once-elegant houses decorated with tile and intricate stucco carvings are hidden behind heavy wooden doors.
9. Alternative routes lead from the Porte de France to the madina's two principal monuments. The left fork winds through vaulted suqs (bazaars) loaded with souvenirs and artisans' goods to the Zitouna (Olive Tree) Mosque. A massive structure of repeating columns and arches, the Zitouna dwarfs the stalls of perfume and spice sellers accorded a place of privilege at its edges. The right fork off the Porte de France winds more steeply uphill to the Casbah Mosque and the Dar al-Bey, Ottoman guest quarters that today house the Tunisian prime ministry.
10. The city's one major park, the Belvédère -featuring a landscaped lake, a qubba (domed mausoleum with portico), and a small zoo- lies on the northern outskirts. The Bardo Museum, in the northwest, holds a vast collection of Punic (Carthaginian), Roman, and Byzantine artifacts, including spectacular mosaics. Near Tunis, northeast of the city, are the ruins of Carthage.