Tunisia, republic in North Africa. With an area of some 63,362 sq mi (164,150 sq km), Tunisia is bounded on the south by Libya, on the west by Algeria, and on the north and east by the Mediterranean Sea. The Cape Bon peninsula, in the extreme northeast, is only 96 mi (153 km) from Sicily. Tunis is the capital and chief port.
Tunisia's irregular coastline has several good harbors, among them Bizerte. In the northwest, spurs of the Atlas Mountains enter the country from Algeria. The Medjerda River, Tunisia's only permanent river, flows through the northern mountains on its way to the Gulf of Tunis. The Medjerda River valley is a major wheat-producing area. The northern highlands also have dense forests of oak and cork oak, pines, and junipers. The Tabassah Mountains rise in west-central Tunisia and include the country's highest peak, Mt. Sha'nab (5,066 ft/1,544 m). In north-central Tunisia, the dry plain of the Sahel lies between the Atlas and Tabassah mountains and gives way to Tunisia's fertile, heavily populated coastal plain. To the south of the Sahel, beyond the Chott Djerid and other salt lakes, are the Saharan sands and date-palm oases of southern Tunisia. In coastal Tunisia, summers are generally hot and dry; winters are warm and wet. The Sahel has less than 10 in (25 cm) of rain yearly. Rainfall can be irregular and there are sometimes droughts.
The people of Tunisia, predominantly Berber and Arab, include small French, Italian, and Maltese minorities. Most people live in the fertile north and some 55% of the population live in towns. The people are overwhelmingly Muslim, and French is spoken, though Arabic is the official language.
Tunisia's economy is primarily agricultural. The main crops are wheat, barley, and other grains; olives, citrus fruits, dates, and wine grapes; and vegetables. Crude petroleum is the country's principal export, followed by clothing, olive oil, and phosphates. Industry has traditionally centered around food processing, but is expanding.
Once a colony of the Phoenicians, Tunisia was the state of the ancient city of Carthage, center of a rich and powerful commercial empire which was conquered by the Romans in 146 B.C. After several centuries of Roman rule, Tunisia was conquered by the Vandals in 439 A.D., by the Byzantines in 533, and by the Arabs in 670. Tunisia saw its heyday as a Muslim state under the Hafsid dynasty, from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Late in the 16th century, Tunisia came under the sway of the Ottoman Turks and the Barbary States were a haven for pirates until Tunisia was made a protectorate by the French in 1881. Tunisia achieved its independence from France in 1957 and became a republic under the presidency and virtual one-man rule of Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba's dominance was not effectively challenged until 1987, when he was replaced by Gen. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.