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The name Tunisia is eponymous with its major city Tunis, as is its neighbor, Algeria, with Algiers. Tunis is said to be derived from the verb meaning to encamp, to rest, to lie down. And this is readily understandable to any journeyer who’s had this kind of conversation: Let’s aim for that mountain peak today. We’ll rest the night just shy of the ridge, or just over the ridge in the shade from the wind. We’ll encamp and lie down there, and get a fresh start in the morning. In plan view, in two dimensions at sea level, the conversation would be, we’ll aim for that point today and encamp on the lee side, out of the current and the wind. The ancients were expert astronomers, thoroughly conversant with latitudes, and it is unlikely that they did not understand this point was the northernmost point of Africa in the Great Sea. At the least, they understood it as a point, and appreciated it as a fine encampment.

Carthage grew up on this spot. Yes, that Carthage. The Carthage of legends, the Carthage of epic movies, the Carthage of Hannibal, the center of the Phoenician Empire. A mighty empire was managed for centuries from this campsite on the northern edge of the African continent. No doubt they needed a good right’s rest.

The Romans rose and fell, but not before they conquered Carthage, converted to Christianity, and Carthage had produced Tertullian and Augustine, whose writings altered the course of human thought and whose death dates plagued secondary school students in the after centuries.

The Battle of Carthage 698 AD marked the end of the Roman era as administrated from Constantinople. The Arabs were on the rise, took over the Mediterranean coasts and occupied Carthage, and the land converted to Islam.

From Independence to Revolution

The European colonial era officially closed for Tunisia on March 20, 1956 with independence from France. The following year, Tunisia became a republic, only the second in the modern Arab world, and elected as president, Habib Bourguiba, who continued in office for thirty years until he was removed from office in what was been described as a bloodless coup d’etat.1 His successor, El Abidine Ben Ali, became president November 7, 1987, and continued in office for twenty four years until fleeing the country in the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring2 may be said to have begun in Tunisia. It was in Tunisia, December 17, 2010, where the street vendor poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire.

Mohammed Bouazizi died January 4, 2011. Standing before a government building in the middle of the midday street, he emptied a canister of gasoline over his head and cried out, “Then how am I supposed to make a living?”, and then lit the match. He was the prime breadwinner for his widowed mother and six siblings. Twenty-six years old and out of a job, he was selling vegetables from a sidewalk cart. Authorities, that had harassed him previously, had that morning confiscated his cart and scale for failing to present a permit. He went to the government office to protest and beg to get the equipment of his livelihood returned, but no one would listen. Reports vary, but it is said that no permit was necessary and that harassment by authorities was frequent, verbal, and occasionally, physical. One can hear the desperation and anger in his voice as he yells at a faceless government building, “Then how am i supposed to make a living?” The match he lit ignited a fire across many nations as his deed gave expression to the economic dilemma they all felt; and in shared grief of this young man’s unnecessary death, the multitudes rose up as one, uniting in defiance of the inhumane authoritarianism of their various governments.

Like wildfire, in almost spontaneous combustion, protests in other nations erupted. January 14, 2011, ten days after Mohammed Bouazizi’s death, the President of Tunisia fled the country into exile. By the end of February, rulers in Egypt and Libya and Yemen had been forced from power. Essentially all of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula were engulfed in the conflagration. It’s been called “biggest transformation of the Middle East since decolonization.”3

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  1. It was a medical coup d’etat in which seven doctors signed a form attesting the the mental incapacity of Bourguiba. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1987_Tunisian_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat
  2. the series of anti-government protests and uprisings that spread across North Africa and the Middle East in 2010 and 2011 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring
  3. A. Murat Agdemir, Arab Spring and Israel’s Relations with Egypt: A View from Turkey. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Volume 10, 2016, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23739770.2016.1221154