The Tunisia of Ahmad Bey, 1837-1855

The Tunisia of Ahmad Bey, 1837-1855

by Leon Carl Brown


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691618180
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Studies on the Near East
Pages: 430
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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The Tunisia of Ahmad Bey


By Leon Carl Brown


Copyright © 1974 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03100-2


Tunisia: Mediterranean, Muslim and Ottoman

A. Tunisia in the Mediterranean and Muslim Worlds

Some of the categorical conceptions acquired in early schooling can hamper understanding of Tunisia. We learn of the continents, and the implicit assumption is that they represent different entities. To this is overlaid the distinction between the Islamic world and the West (or in earlier days, Christendom). At an even higher level of abstraction there is the difference between East and West.

A few moments with a map of the lands bounding the Mediterranean correct these arbitrary distinctions. Overlooking political boundaries, one can follow the natural routes — the lines of least resistance — for the movement of men and ideas: plains, seas, rivers, mountain passes, and oases. They make comprehensible such events as a Roman Empire which extended to Egypt and the Fertile Crescent in the east and Spain and North Africa in the west, the Roman-Carthaginian rivalry, the spread of Christianity along both the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, the spread of Islam along the southern, the Crusades, and the Ottoman-Hapsburg rivalry of the sixteenth century.

There is a Mediterranean unity which ties together these portions of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Mediterranean Islam and the Mediterranean West, although living in hostility and mutual incomprehension during most of their long history, have never been out of contact. And as for East and West, it suffices to observe that Tunis is west of Rome and Tangier west of London.

Tunisia borders the Mediterranean, roughly 900 miles as the crow flies from the Straits of Gibraltar and somewhat more than 1,300 miles from the Suez Canal. Only eighty-five miles separate Tunisia from Sicily. Tunisia and Sicily cut the Mediterranean in two. Located thus at the hub of this great inland sea, with both an eastern and northern coastline, Tunisia has been a weathercock for Mediterranean history, revealing from which direction have come the stronger winds of politico-military power.

A center of power in its own right in the Carthaginian period, Tunisia later became the heartland of Roman Africa. The territory of present-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria was also the strongest bastion of North African Christianity. Following the rise of Islam and the beginning of the Arab penetration into North Africa in the seventh century, Tunisia embraced Arabo-Islamic culture. Thereafter, Muslim Tunisia, given its central Mediterranean location, fluctuated between eastern and western Islamic worlds, at times more identified with the one, at times more with the other.

In periods of maximum strength, Muslim dynasties from Tunisia (as in the ninth century) have conquered Sicily and established temporary bases in the Italian peninsula (reaching the gates of Rome in 846). When the wheel of political fortune turned against Mediterranean Islam, Tunisia suffered attacks including those by Normans from Sicily (twelfth century), Spanish Hapsburgs (sixteenth century) and modern colonization by France (1881-1956). The rising strength of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century resulted in the Turkish period of Tunisian and North African history, which constitutes the more immediate point of departure for any study of the political system still prevailing on the eve of Ahmad Bey's reign.

Geography's legacy to Tunisia of an outside exposure served to create resilience in the face of foreign threats coupled with an openness toward receiving and absorbing outside influence. Tunisia has usually not presented the invader with protracted military resistance or a scorched-earth policy, and here geographical factors are important.

The nomad with his easy mobility can retreat before outside pressure and with the same ease return when the pressure is removed. The mountaineer can withdraw to his mountain peaks and, using his tactical advantage of higher terrain, make the invader pay so dearly for his conquest that he usually decides to seek a more attractive prey. Both nomads and mountaineers have always figured in Tunisia's history but have seldom played the important role they have assumed in so many other countries of the Near East and North Africa. Tunisia's mountains (forming the eastern end of the great Atlas chain which cuts across North Africa from Morocco) are for the most part on the western boundary separating her from Algeria, and they are also not nearly so impenetrable as those portions of the Atlas chain lying in Algeria and Morocco. The true nomad is to be found only in the southern part of the country. Neither mountaineer nor nomad is easily brought to heel in Tunisia, any more than elsewhere in the world, and those parts of Tunisia where they live have always been most resistant to outside change and, in modern parlance, most backward. Yet, as geographical good luck would have it, the Tunisian areas of mountaineers and nomads are on the margins of what could be called the Tunisian core.

The Tunisia that would interest the conqueror — the seaports, the inland cities, and the fertile lands — forms a contiguous and exposed land mass from the northern and eastern littoral of the country and the hinterland behind for (in most places) no more than forty or fifty miles — roughly from Bizerte in the northwest to Sfax or slightly beyond in the south. It is this exposed Tunisia which had developed a tradition of openness and an ability to adjust to new circumstances as the best possible means of maintaining civilization against the pressures coming from the sea, the mountains, and the deserts. Since Phoenician times men and ideas have usually tended to filter into North Africa from this Tunisian vantage point.

These same geographical factors eased the burden of Tunisian government. Since the strongholds of mountaineers and nomads were in the outlying areas to the west and the south, weaker governments could survive simply by containing them there, or at worst by folding back toward the eastern coastal plain (the Sahil), the environs of Tunis, and the peninsula of Cap Bon. Even in these straitened circumstances a Tunisian government controlled a compact, contiguous territory with easy internal lines of communication.

Kairouan and Sousse were within ninety miles of the capital. Le Kef, the principal garrison guarding the mountainous region and the Algerian border to the west, was only 105 miles west of Tunis. Sfax, although farther to the south along the eastern coast (162 miles from Tunis), was nevertheless very close to the more northerly strong points of the Sahil such as Sousse and Monastir. Also, any of these centers in the Sahil could be reached and provisioned from the sea. Even before the days of telegraph or railroad one could travel from Tunis, Sousse or Monastir by coach in two days with one night spent on the road, and a system of runners could carry news from Tunis to Sousse within twentyfour hours.

The bey's armies moved more slowly but the two annual expeditionary forces (mahalla) to collect taxes from the tribes could reach the remotest limits of effective beylical control in less than two weeks.

This compact territorial core for anv Tunisian government embraced all of the cities and almost all of the towns (although it did exclude Gabes, the capital of the al-A'rad district to the south, which was 250 miles from Tunis, and the oasis capital of the Djerid region, Tozeur, 270 miles from Tunis), all of the sedentary agriculturalists, virtually all of the olive cultivators, and a large measure of the semi-sedentary sheep and goat herders. These were the groups whose wealth could fill government coffers. Their need for order and security predisposed them to accept even a high degree of governmental inefficiency and tyranny as preferable to the anarchy that would inevitably bring the outlanders into the zone of civilization.

Since the establishment of the Hafsids in the thirteenth century, no force of nomads or mountaineers from within has overthrown a dynasty and created another, or even played a crucial role in political changes. The brief period of Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, the imposition of the Turks later in that same century, and the subsequent wars between the Turks of Algeria and of Tunisia all found the majority of Tunisians as passive spectators or, at most, secondary actors in the determination of the outcome.

The size and configuration of Tunisia's heartland has also predisposed a single major urban center dominating the other cities and the rest of the countryside. Carthage gave way to Kairouan in the interior at the time of the Muslim conquest because the new occupants were a land-based power, but the development of Muslim sea power, plus the natural tendency to place the major capital in the center of the sedentary heartland, had by Hafsid times given Tunis a primacy it was never to lose thereafter.

The ethnic, religious, and linguistic pattern of an area is itself the interaction of geography and history. Tunisia being open and exposed, the basic Berber stock which is presumed to have been there, as in all of North Africa, since the dawn of history has received many outside immigrations. Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Turks, Spanish Muslims (Andalusians), Negroes, and Europeans have all come throughout the centuries, some to make their lasting mark on Tunisian civilization, others to be absorbed more unobtrusively.

Yet, in Tunisia the ultimate result by the turn of the nineteenth century was radically different from the mosaic of peoples, languages, and religions which characterized and, in large measure, continues to characterize the Near East and North Africa. Great communities of native Christians survived in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, but in Tunisia (as in all of North Africa) the native Christian population had disappeared by the thirteenth century. In Morocco and Algeria large groups of Berber-speaking peoples remained, perhaps even a majority in Morocco, but Tunisia by the early nineteenth century had only a handful, mainly nomads in the region of the Tripolitan border.

In the Near East almost every great religious innovation has left behind a community of adherents. Some of these have survived, in part, as a result of the extra protection given by geography.

Tunisia (and North Africa as well) experienced nothing like the exuberance of religious variety known to the Near East, but there were a number of politico-religious movements that, by Near Eastern norms, should have survived as a minority religion tenaciously holding on. Interestingly, virtually none has left a trace. One of the earliest schisms in Islam — Kharijism — was actively represented in Tunisia by the eighth century, but except for a handful of Ibadites (descendants of the original Kharijites) on the island of Djerba, Tunisian Muslims had long since returned to the ranks of orthodoxy. Even the few who did remain were in Djerba and thus south of the Tunisian heartland.

The great Fatimid dynasty, which counts among its later achievements the founding of Cairo in 969, got its start as a state in Tunisia, where it overthrew the AghIabid dynasty in the early years of the tenth century. For almost three-quarters of a century the Fatimids ruled Tunisia as a Shi'i dynasty before moving on to Egypt. Their designated successors, the Berber Zirids, maintained Shi'ism as official doctrine for almost as long again. Yet, Fatimid Shi'ism never succeeded in challenging Maliki Sunni orthodoxy for the loyalty of the masses. Within a relatively short time after it lost political sponsorship, Shi'ism had vanished from Tunisia without apparent trace.

The Tunisia which in 1574 became part of the Ottoman Empire was, by Mediterranean Muslim standards, remarkably uniform. Only the few Ibadites in Djerba and the native Jewish community located mainly in Tunis and Djerba stood out as exceptions to the rule of Sunni Muslim uniformity of the Maliki juridical school (for there are four madhhabs, or schools of Muslim law, acceptable to the orthodox Sunni community). Tunisia was also well advanced in integrating the great folk-migration of Arabs (the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym) who had begun to infiltrate North Africa in the mid eleventh century. In the process these Arab nomads gave a great stimulus to the spread of Arabic in the hinterland while they in turn were slowly absorbed into Maliki Sunni Muslim orthodoxy and Tunisian social mores.

The Turks themselves came to Tunisia as Muslims in a jihad ("holy war") against the Christians and as representatives of the Ottoman Empire, the last great political representation of the umma ("the Islamic community"). They had no great trouble in gaining acceptance.

As Ottomans, they followed the Hanafi school of Sunni law, the official school of the Ottoman Empire. Even this occasioned no great problem. Adherents of the four different Sunni schools often lived together in tranquility (indeed, the uniform Malikism of North Africa stood out as something of an exception by comparison with the Near East).

The Hanafi school of law was easily superimposed upon the existing Maliki structure just as the "foreign" Turkish ruling class readily fell into place as the political elite governing the native Tunisian society. The Hanafi muftis and qadis had precedence in public functions and enjoyed certain emoluments denied their Maliki colleagues. The discerning traveler in the Turkish period could immediately recognize the Hanafi mosques by their distinctive octagonal minarets in contrast with the square minarets of the Maliki mosques. In the early years of Turkish rule the differences between Hanafi and Maliki passed unnoticed, or, more accurately, reflected the distinction between ruler and ruled which was accepted by both groups. Later, when the political class became more Tunisian in its outlook and when elements of Tunisian society began to assert themselves, changes in this balance began to take place. Signs of this change had begun to appear as early as the eighteenth century. More would be manifest in the age of Ahmad Bey — one more example of the historical pattern in which Tunisia absorbs its conquerors while, at the same time, openly accepting many of the new ways brought by the outsider.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the geographical constants had molded the historical variables in such fashion as to make Tunisia one of the most cohesive and uniform societies in the Muslim Mediterranean. With no great religious or linguistic differences to sunder the body politic, with the ruder elements of the society — the mountaineers and the nomads — a safe distance from the heartland, Tunisia was less likely to slip from the ruler's grasp at the first sign of weakness. Any Tunisian ruler who chose the path of innovation and reforms, with its unavoidable cycle of experimentation-failure-new experiments, would be blessed with a generous margin of error. Considering the challenge to be faced, every bit of that margin and more, was needed.

B. The Ottoman Connection and the Emergence Of The Husaynid Dynasty

Tunisia's tie with the Ottoman Empire provides a variation on a familiar theme — that of Tunisia absorbed into a rising new imperial structure but later, when the new empire approaches maturity, moving into a position of virtual autonomy because the imperial power base is too remote to make a closer link practicable.

This happened following the original Arabo-Islamic conquest at the end of the seventh century. When the age of rapid Muslim conquests ended and the Abbasid defeat of the Umayyads transferred the center of political power from Syria to Iraq, Ifriqiya (the medieval Tunisia) proved too distant to be controlled from Baghdad. No sharp break with the caliphate ensued. The Aghlabid dynasty (800-909) in Tunisia was satisfied with the caliph's grant of a hereditary governorship, and this situation prevailed until the Aghlabids themselves were overthrown a century later.

Post-Fatimid Tunisia is another example. Once the Shi'i dynasty, which got its imperial start in Tunisia, had moved to Egypt with political ambitions directed even farther eastward against the decadent Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, Tunisia became a remote backwater. The Fatimids were no longer willing to allocate the men and resources to keep Tunisia in the imperial orbit. Even before a later prince of the Zirid family, whom the Fatimids left behind as vassals, openly renounced his allegiance, autonomy had been assured.


Excerpted from The Tunisia of Ahmad Bey by Leon Carl Brown. Copyright © 1974 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Illustrations, pg. ix
  • Preface, pg. xi
  • Note on Translation and the Use of Arabic and Turkish Technical Terms, pg. xiii
  • Abbreviations Used, pg. xiv
  • Table of Principal Dates, pg. xv
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • I. Tunisia: Mediterranean, Muslim and Ottoman, pg. 19
  • II. The Political Class, pg. 41
  • III. The Web of Government, pg. 93
  • IV. The Religious Establishment, pg. 146
  • V . . . And the Ruled, pg. 184
  • Introduction to Part Two, pg. 207
  • VI. Ahmad Bey, pg. 209
  • VII. Tunisia and an Encroaching Outside World, pg. 237
  • VIII. Military Reforms, pg. 261
  • IX. Marks of Modernity, pg. 313
  • X. The Fatal Flaw, pg. 335
  • Conclusion: The Meaning of it all, pg. 353
  • APPENDIX I. Husaynid Marriage Patterns, pg. 369
  • APPENDIX II. Provincial Qaids, pg. 372
  • APPENDIX III. A Note on Population, pg. 375
  • Glossary, pg. 379
  • Bibliography, pg. 383
  • Index, pg. 399

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