How Tunisia came to have its name

Nii Ntreh April 10, 2020
The territory known as Tunisia has history dating back thousands of years. Photo Credit: Pinterest

It does not please many Pan-Africanists when they have to litigate the authenticity of some people’s Africanness. When it comes to Maghrebian North Africans, the question is whether these lighter-skinned and fuller-haired occupants of Africa’s north are Africans at all.

The problem does not look like one that has received particular scholarly attention in the last few decades. We would have overcome a few hurdles if it had.

Consider the country that is Tunisia. The territory is steeped ancient history as the land of the Carthaginians, a 7th-century BC Phoenician empire that was situated on the African continent.

Most of the ancient Carthaginians were not dark-skinned. Indeed, they would pass as Mediterraneans or Arabs but they shared the same home continent as the Bantu and Khoisan people who have also been in Africa for thousands of years.

This at least, makes the compulsion to define Africa as home of dark-skinned people problematic. Equally problematic is the motivation to use “Sub-Sahara Africa” to separate the light-skinned north from the rest of the continent.

After the Punic Wars in the 3rd and 2nd century BC, Carthage came under the control of Rome and later, Rome’s eastern half of the empire known as Byzantine.

Evidence of the Roman administration of Carthage is still visible in the fragile architecture that stands in modern Tunisia.

The Carthaginians were not the only people who occupied the land. There were the Berber too, some of the oldest-existing autochthonous Africans.

After 700 years or so, Arabs from the Middle East defeated a weakened Byzantine Empire in North Africa and became the overlords of Carthage.

Indeed, the Umayyad Caliphate that conquered North Africa in the 7th century AD is credited with calling the conquered lands Ifriqiya, a nomenclature corrupted to become Africa.

Later, Napoleon Bonaparte marched battalions through North Africa in the 18th century to claim the lands by unprecedented force for France. This was the most consequential political maneuvers in that part of the world.

But the name Tunisia was already in existence by that time. Unfortunately, we are not quite sure how.

Some theorize that Tunisia is named after the Punic goddess Tanith (Tunit). But for others, the land takes its name from the Berber tns (mentioned tenes).

The Berber reference means “encampment” or to “lay down”.

Whatever the correct etymology is, the area known as Tunisia has had its name for at least, more than 300 years. When the country gained independence in 1956, the founders found no reason to opt for another name.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: April 10, 2020


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