** Tunisia

Tunisia: Ethnicity

Figure 1.--Here we see a Bedouin family from a French posdcrd taken asbiut 1900 during the French colonial era. They are depicted as beggars. This is an obviously staged photograph.

The population of Tunisia is a complex mixture of people with European Arab, Berber, and to a lesser extent Turkish descent. It is described today as highly homoginized and constituting some 98 percent of the population. There was once a small Turkish elite as a result of the Ottoman era, but today the great mass of the Tunisan population sees itself as having Arab or Berber origins and just describe themselves as Arab. Arab is, however, more of a cultural than a ethnic term. It does not mean that the dominant ethnic component comes from the Arabian Peninsula. The Europeans (French and Italian) and Jewish peoples. were once part of this mosacic but left or were expelled after World War II.

Ancient Peoples

Numerous civilizations and peoples subsequently invaded or migrated to Tunisia, dominating coastal regions. These included Phoenicians/Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Spaniards, Ottoman Turks and Janissaries, and French. The Carthaginians were of Phoenician origins. Carthage was a major ancient power, but did not control muxch of the interior. They were eradicated or enslaved by the Roman during the Third Punic War (2nd cenntury BC). In the case case of the Romans they contolled a substantial area of the interior and would have left an important ethnic imprint. Unlike the Cathaginians, the Romans were primarily interested in agriculture and the production of grain.


The first people known to inhabit modern Tunisia were the Berbers. Until recently this ethnic melting pot, especially the ancient part of it was lost to history. DNA studies now provide actual data to assess the ethnic origins of the Tunisian people. While most modern Tunisians identify themselves as Arab, they are genetically mostly of Berber origins groups, with substantial Phoenician/Punic, Arab, and Western European (primarily Roman) inputs. Tunisians are descended, to a much lesser extent, from other African, Middle Eastern and/or European peoples. DNA studies show that less than 20 percent of the Tunisian genetic material (Y-chromosome analysis) comes from the present day Levant, Arabia, Europe, or West Africa. [Semino et. al and Cruciani et. al.] One DNA researcher writes, "In fact, the Tunisian genetic distances to European samples are smaller than those to North African groups. (...) This could be explained by the history of the Tunisian population, reflecting the influence of the ancient Punic settlers of Carthage followed, among others, by Roman, Byzantine, Arab and French occupations, according to historical records. Notwithstanding, other explanations cannot be discarded, such as the relative heterogeneity within current Tunisian populations, and/or the limited sub-Saharan genetic influence in this region as compared with other North African areas, without excluding the possibility of the genetic drift, whose effect might be particularly amplified on the X chromosome." [Athanasiadis et. al.] This suggests a fairly significant Middle Eastern and European input to Tunisian genetics compared to other neighbouring populations. The DNA work is ongoing. The most recent work suggests that Tunisians exhibit a mostly indigenous North African (Berber) genetic make up similar to other Maghreb populations. And a relatively high degree of native North African genes, but with higher Middle Eastern input than in Algeria or Morocco. [Ennafaa et. al.] What is mean by Native North African genes is something that needs to be assessed.


Arab is more of a cultural than a ethnic term. It does not mean that the dominant ethnic component comes from the Arabian Peninsula. In fact the ethnic compsition is more complicated. Tunisia was part of the ancient Mediterranean world long bedore the arrival of the Arabs. After the Arab conquest (7th century AD), there was a flow of nomadic Arab tribes from Arabia. [Stearns and Langer, pp. 129–131.] Mb>


The flow of Europeans ceased except for captives taken by Corsairs at sea or on raids of Sicily and European coastal areas. This finally changes with French colonization (1880s) occured well after that of Algeria. Substantial numbers of French colonuists and administrators arrived as well as many Italians. Mixing with the Arab population, however, was limited. The Europeans (French and Italian) were once part of this mosacic beginning with the colonial rra (19yh century). They left or were expelled after World War II.


The history of the Jews in Tunisia extends over two melennia. It bmay have fist occured during theb Punic era. Carthage was a great trading natiin, but therevis no confirmed information. The Jewish community in Tunisia grew in waves during the Roman Empire. Presumably some Jews arrived in Tunisia during the Roman era as a result of the expulsion from Palestine and the Diaspora. Unlike Christians, Jewish comminities outside Palestine were not persecuted. With the rise of Constantine, Christianity became the established religion of the Empire. And Byzantine rulers began anti-Jewish measures as well as actions against heretical Christian sects. The Arabs conquered Tunisia (648-69). The Jews as a people of the Book were tolerated by Arab armies and subsequent Islamic rulers. This includrd, various Arab and Berber dynasties. Toleration varied from ruler to ruler, but was Muslim rulers were geberally more tolerant than Christians rulers, especially with advent of the Crusades. A strong Jewish presence in Tunisia (13th century). Jews lived primarily in the Hara, a communit in Tunis. Spain had veen a haven for Jews in Europe. Spain with rhe success of the Reconquista expelled its Jews (1492). Portugal folloed suit a few years later. Some were killed rather than expelled. Many went to Morocco and Algeria, fewer went to Tunisia. We are not sure why, but may have been a function of geography. The Ottomon Turks conquered Tunisia (1570-74) and ruled it until the 19th century. The Ottomams were relatively tolerant of Jews, generally more tolerant than local Berbrs and Arabs. Sephardic Jews settled in Italian Tuscany, enjoying a rare degree of toleration. Jews there settled in ports (Livorno and Pisa), establishing trading relations throughout the Meduiterranran. A community of related Jews developed in Tunis. Hara became a kind of ghetto. Tunisia was an Ottoman province, but as Ottoman power declined, essentially became independet. The Husainid dynasty acceded to the throne (1705). This is when Tunishian rulers began to use the Ottoman term 'bey'. Tunisia became a stronghold for the Barbary Pirates. As a result there was a run in with the new American Republic. America's first distant projection of power was aimed at the Barbary Pirates. Gradually Europe became inncrasingly liberal and tolerant during the 19th cebtury. The Revilutions of 1848, although few suceeded. Europeans becamne comcerned of the aupression of minority groups in the Ottoman Empire, mostly Christians, but also Jews to some extent. Jews at the time were being liberatedfrom essentail medieval restictions and becoming enfranchissed. The Bey as a result of a revolution moced in the opposite direction. He abrogated the constitution (1864). One source describes 'great suffering on several Jewish communities, especially on that of Sfax".


After the Christian Reconquista of Spain and expulsion of Moors and Jews, many sought refuge in North Africa, including Tunisia. One historian reports, "As many as eighty thousand Moriscos {Moors expelled from Spain] settled in Tunisia, most of them in and around the capital, Tunis, which still contains a quarter known as Zuqaq al-Andalus, or Andalusia Alley." [Carr, p. 290.]


We re not sure just what was ment by Bedouin in Tunisia. The word means a combinastuon desert-dweller or momad. It originlly meant a number of a nomadic Arab desert tribe. The later would have ethnic connottions, the former would not. Tunisia of course is a long way from Arabia. We suspect that the SArabizn bedouin did not migrate to Tunisia. Thast my not be the case, but we have yet to find a description of Tunisian Bedouin ethnicity. We suspect they were primarily ethnic Berbers. They still existed during the Frenvh colonial era. After indeoendence, the b=new Tunisdian Goverment rquired they settle down and gave them sand to help with this process.


Athanasiadis, Georgios, et. al.. "The X chromosome Alu insertions as a tool for human population genetics: data from European and African human groups," European Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 15, (2007), pp. 578–83.

Carr, Matthew (2009). Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain. (The New Press: 2009).

Cruciani, Fulvio; et al. (May 2004). "Phylogeographic Analysis of Haplogroup E3b (E-M215) Y Chromosomes Reveals Multiple Migratory Events Within and Out Of Africa," The American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 74, No. 5 (May 2004), pp. 1014–22.

Ennafaa, Hajet et.al.. "Mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome microstructure in Tunisia," Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 56 (2011), pp. 734–41.

Semino, Ornella, et. al. American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 74 (2004), pp. 1023–34.

Stearns, Peter N. and William Leonard Langer. William (2001). The Encyclopedia of World History: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Chronologically Arranged Sixth Edition (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2001).


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main Tunisian page]
[Return to the Main Tunisian Jewish page]
[Return to the Main Middle Eastern country page]
[Return to the Main Middle Eastern page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Topics]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing National Pages:
[Return to the Main Middle-Eastern and North African page]
[Algeria] [Chad] [Egypt] [Libya] [Mali] [Morocco] [Sudan] [Turkey]
[France] [Italy]

Created: 1:57 PM 4/21/2018
Last updated: 5:19 PM 2/23/2020