Chapter 1






Roman Rule

Christian Era





The Beylik

The Kingdom

The Republic

Armed Forces

Beylical Armed Forces

The Protecorate

Modern Times





The coast of Tunisia was settled in 10th cent. B.C. by Phoenicians. In the 6th cent. B.C., Carthage rose to power, but it was conquered by Rome (2d cent. B.C.), and the region became one of the granaries of Rome. It was held by Vandals (5th cent. A.D.) and Byzantines (6th cent.). In the 7th cent. it was conquered by Arabs, who founded Al Qayrawan. The region became known as Ifriqiya and the Berber population was converted to Islam. Successive Muslim dynasties ruled, interrupted by Berber rebellions. The reigns of the Aghlabids (9th cent.) and of the Zirids (from 972), Berber followers of the Fatimids, were especially prosperous. When the Zirids angered the Fatimids in Cairo (1050), the latter ravaged Tunisia.

The coasts were briefly held by the Normans of Sicily in the 12th cent. In 1159, Tunisia was conquered by the Almohad caliphs of Morocco. The Almohads were succeeded by the Berber Hafsids (c.1230–1574), under whom Tunisia prospered. In the last years of the Hafsids, Spain seized many of the coastal cities, but they were recovered for Islam by the Ottoman Turks. Under its Turkish governors, the beys, Tunisia attained virtual independence. In the late 16th cent. the coast became a pirate stronghold The Hussein dynasty of beys, established in 1705, lasted until 1957.


European Influence and Nationalist Aspirations

In the 19th cent. the heavy debts that the beys had contracted gave European powers cause for intervention. France, Great Britain, and Italy took over Tunisia's finances in 1869. A number of incidents, including attacks by Tunisians on Algeria (a French possession since 1830), led to a French invasion of Tunisia. The bey was forced to sign the treaties of Bardo (1881) and Mersa (1883), which provided for the organization of a protectorate under a French resident general. The protectorate was opposed by Italy, which had economic interests and a sizable group of nationals in Tunisia. Italy's attitude grew increasingly belligerent, and, in the years immediately preceding World War I, threats of annexation were made.

A nationalist movement developed fairly quickly in Tunisia. In 1920 the Destour (Constitutional) party was organized. In 1934 a more radical faction, led by Habib Bourguiba, formed the Neo-Destour party. In World War II, Tunisia came under Vichy rule after the fall of France (June, 1940). Major battles of the war in North Africa were fought in Tunisia After the war nationalist agitation intensified. In 1950, France granted Tunisia a large degree of autonomy. The French population in Tunisia, however, opposed further reforms, and negotiations broke down. Bourguiba was arrested (1952), and his imprisonment precipitated a wave of violence.


Tunisia since Independence

In 1955, France granted Tunisia complete internal self-government. Full independence was negotiated in 1956, and Habib Bourguiba became prime minister. The country became a republic in 1957 when the bey, Sidi Lamine, was deposed by a vote of the constituent assembly, which then made Bourguiba president.






In the time of the Empire of Carthago the emblem of its territory was a datepalm-tree. Such a tree is on carhaginian coins. In the colonies the tree was accompanied by another symbol like a lion or a horse.




5th-4th century BC Cartaginian coins


Roman Rule


From the time of Roman rule two pieces from the Bardo Museum are of interest for us. Both are from the 2nd century AD, a period from which no governors are known. The first piece is a mosaic depicting the carthaginian (pine-)tree supported by two lions passant. Such an achievement is of Phoenician origin and has even much older roots.  It is a kind of prototype for many other later achievements showing a tree between two lions.[1] This achievement could mean: the proconsular government of Carthago, the proconsul represented by a lion. We may suppose that it is from the palace of the Roman governor of the province.

Mosaic from the Bardo Museum, 2nd c. AD


A second piece is the Apollo from Bardo which is a statue of a naked man crowned with a crown of laurel decorated with a medallion in front. Such a crown is also on the head of Trajan (98-117) of his bust dressed in the armory of a chief commander in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. On his medallion is a roman eagle.

Much later, in the 6th c. AD, such a crown is depicted in the S. Martino in Cielo d’Oro in Ravenna on the head of a praetorian prefect.

We may conclude that the Apollo of Bardo is a portrait of an unknown governor (proconsul?) of Africa.

Christian Era



In the later Roman era the region called Tunisia today was situated in the diocese of Africa which was a part of the prefecture of Italia et Africa. It comprises the former provinces of Africa Proconsularis and Byzacena. These were the successors of the larger Africa Proconsularis which had comprised also Tripolitana. The term Africa thus can refer to the territory of Carthage, to the main part of western North-Africa, to the region around Carthago and to all the African continent. Present Tunisia is named after the city of Tunis, founded 698 near ancient Carthago.


In the early fifth-century Notitia Dignitatum (List of Officials) the diocese of Africa is represented by a female figure wearing a crown.

The insignia of the offcials in Africa consisted of a


·                     Table covered with a blue cloth

·                     Theca, which is the emblem of judicial authority

·                     Ivory diptych

·                     Book of Mandates on which is written the abbreviation of  Floreas Inter Allectos Comites Ordinis Primi (Mayst thou prosper amongst the chosen counts of the first rank).

·                     Epistola (appointment document, letters of credence.) [2]




The insignia of the Vicar of Africa were a theca and a table with a book of mandates and an epistola. (fol. 210v)  (66)



After the reform of Diocletian the proconsulate of Africa was an ancient annual office of high prestige, renewable and not infrequently renewed. The proconsul stood somewhat outside the official hierarchy in that he was subject to neither vicar nor to the praetorian prefect.

The insignia of the Proconsul of Africa (i.c. the province of Africa Proconsularis) were a diptych with three golden bands, which are the insignia of rank of a prefect, on a table, and a theca (fol. 210r) (65)




The insignia of the Count of Africa (Byzacena) were a book of mandates and an epistola (fol.212) (70)



In this time the Roman Christian symbols of authority were introduced. These were the square cross, for administrative authority, the latin cross for religious authority and the chi-rho cypher for armed authority.


Mosaic from the Bardo Museum

square cross

Mosaic from Uppenna Basilica

latin cross

Mosaic from Tebessa

chi-rho cypher


Also the crux immissa was introduced consisting of a latin cross and a greek letter rho. This is the emblem of a bishop or archbishop.


The use of roman emblems of authority was continued by the Vandals (439-533) who struck coins bearing a latin cross.

After the Byzantine conquest of the Vandal kingdom the former administration was restored. The provinces Tingitania, Carthago, Byzacium and Tripoli came under proconsuls with the rank of consul and a praetorian prefect of the former diocese of Africa was installed as a governor in Carthago.

Probably the consuls had an eagle for emblem of rank. The emblem of a praetorian prefect may have been a peacock, but no 6th and 7th century testimonies from Tunisia have been  found until now.


The Almohads


After the conquest by the Arabs the region became a part of the Omayyad empire and its successors. From the end of Almohad rule and the beginning of Hafsid rule heraldic devices are known which were the emblems of Tunisian rulers. The political situation at the beginning of the 13t century in Tunisia was as follows.

The founder of the Hafsid Dynasty Abu Hafs 'Umar Inti was one of the Ten, the crucial early adherents of the Almohad movement [al-Muwahhidun], circa 1121. These Ten were companions of Ibn Tumart the Mahdi, and formed an inner circle consulted on all important matters. Abu Hafs 'Umar Inti, wounded in battle near Marrakesh in 1130, was for a long time a powerful figure within the Almohad movement. His son 'Umar al-Hintati was appointed by the Almohad caliph Muhammad an-Nasir as governor of Ifriqiya in 1207 and served until his death in 1221. His son, the grandson of Abu Hafs, was Abu Zakariya

Abu Zakariya (1203-1249), served the Almohads in Ifriqiya as governor of Gabès, then in 1226 as governor of Tunis. In 1229 during disturbances within the Almohad movement, Abu Zakariya declared his independence: hence, the start of the Hafsid dynasty. In the next few years he secured his hold on the cities of Ifriqiya, then captured Tripolitania (1234) to the east, and Algiers (1235) to the west and later added Tlemcen (1242). He solidified his rule among the Berber confederacies. Government structure of the Hafsid state followed the Almohad model, a rather strict centralization. Abu Zakariya's succession to the Almohads was briefly acknowledged in Friday prayer by several states in Al-Andalus and in Morocco. Diplomatic relations were opened with Venice, Genoa, Sicily, and Aragon. Abu Zakariya became the foremost ruler in the Maghrib.

For an historic moment, the son of Abu Zakariya and self-declared caliph of the Hafsids, al-Mustansir (r.1249-1277), was recognised as caliph by Mecca and the Islamic world (1259-1261), following termination of the Abbasid caliphate by the Mongols (in 1258). Yet the moment passed; the Hafsids remained a local sovereignty. In 1270 King Louis IX of France, whose brother was the king of Sicily, landed an army near Tunis; disease devastated their camp.

Probably during the 8th crusade of Louis the Saint which ended in Tunis (1267-1270) in the last days of the Almohad empire († 1269). the arms of several North African princes were recorded [3]


They were written down in the Wijnbergen Roll  which contains at


n° 1283 le de gaquart roi: Argent, a lion rampant Azure, and a bordure Gules strewn with besants

n° 1284 le Roi de marroc: Azure, three rooks Or, 2 and 1. (Fez)

n° 1286 le Roy dauf’que: Azure, strewn with square crosses, three hearts 2 and 1 Or. (Gabès)

n° 1287 le Roy de tunes: Argent a lion rampant Azure. (Tunis)

n° 1288 le Roy darrabe: Azure, three lions passant guardant Or. (Tlemcen)

n° 1290 le Roy de danant: ¼ : 1& 4: Argent, an eagle Gules; 2&3: Azure, a castle with three towers Or, openend Sable. (Jaen)

n° 1294 le Roi de tunes: Gules, strewn with six-pointed stars, a decrescent Or. (Tunisia)

n° 1300 le roi daufrique: Or, a lion rampant Azure, crowned and armed Gules (Gabès)

n° 1302 le Roy de grenade: Argent, a Lion rampant Sable and a bordure Gules charged with 14 castles with three towers Or. (Granada)


To which we may add the Argent a lion Purpure from the Burgos banner:



These arms can be classified in three groups:



1. The crescent and stars which could be the insignia of the head of state, that is to say of the sultan himself or of his vice-regent (naib al-sultana).

The device can be ascribed with some certainty to Muhammadf I al Mustansir (1249-‘77) who was declared caliph after the termination of the Abbassid Caliphate in 1259 and the fall of the Almohad Empire in 1269


2. The shields charged with three pieces. These could be the insignia of the viziers or local administrators. The arms of the King of Africa being the arms of the Governor of Gabès, the arms with the castles being those of Morocco and the arms with the lions of Tlemcen.




3. The shields charged with a lion. These could be the insignia of the emirs (counts, dukes or generals).

The arms of the Kings of Tunis and Africa being the Counts of Tunis and Gabès.


The last arms happen to be documented by a non-frankish source on a North African finger bowl, fortunately dated about 1260-’70. [4] This shows a yellow roundel charged with a blue lion.


Such roundels are more or less characteristic for the heraldry of the Southern Mediterranean.  Other examples are known from Alexandria (Sable, a lion Argent) and Antioch (Argent, a lion Gules), and as we showed before, from Spain (Granada?). We may suppose that there have been many more such arms and it is said that Sultan Baybars had also such a lion for device


It is remarkable that the insignia are individualized for the different districts.


After the fall of the Almohad empire the heraldic system of figurative badges of rank or office disappeared without leaving a trace. The use of emblems for the empire, the state and the ruler however was continued.


The Hafsids


From the end of the 12th century we are informed about the emblems of authority of the Hafsid sultans by a series of portulans (sea-charts) which were explored by Catalan and Portuguese travellers.

On these portolans there are flags for Tunisia showing a crescent. This crescent is the symbol of a state comprising the administrative, religious and armed power. In many cases another symbol is added to such a crescent, making the symbol of the head of state. On the portolans no emblems of the Hafsid sultans are depicted, neither have we met with a Sword of Islam, which could have been the arms of the chief commander in Tunisian context.

The first emblems of state of Hafsid Tunisia are red flags or shields charged with a white crescent.


The end of Hafsid Rule

In 1534, the Ottoman admiral Khayr al-Din “taking advantage of a revolt against the Hafsid al-Hasan” invaded by sea and captured the city of Tunis from Spain’s allies

Yet the following year (1535) the Emperor Charles V (Carlos, Rey de España) (r.1516–1556) organized a fleet under Andrea Doria of Genoa, composed predominantly of Italians, Germans, and Spaniards, which proceeded to recapture Tunis in 1535, following which sultan Muhammad VI (1526-’43) was reestablished.

A few decades passed until in 1556 another Turkish corsair Dragut (Turgut), ruling in Tripoli, attacked Tunisia from the east, entering Kairouan in 1558. Then in 1569 Uluj Ali Pasha, a renegade corsair, now the successor to Khayr al-Din as the Beylerbey of Algiers, advanced with Turkish forces from the west, and managed to seize the Spanish presidio Goletta and the Hafsid capital, Tunis. After the key naval victory of the Christian armada at Lepanto in 1571, Don Juan de Austria in 1573 retook Tunis for Spain and the Empire, restoring Hafsid rule. Yet Uluj Ali returned in 1574 captured Tunis with finality. The last ruler of the Hafsid Dynasty was then sent to Constantinople and an eyâlet of Tunis was established.


Hafsid Caliphs (Sultans) of Tunis

Yahiya I

(Abu Zakariya)



Governor of Tunis 1226-1229

Independent 1229

Muhammad I


Amir al-mu’minin 1253

Yahya II


Ibrahim I


Abd al-Aziz


Ahmad b. Marzuq


Umar I


Muhammad II


Abu Bakr I


Khalid I


Zakariya I


Muhammad III


Abu  Bakr II


Ahmad I


Umar II


Marinid Occupation 1347-1350



Al Fadl




Marinid Occupation 1357



Ahmad II


Abd al-Aziz II


Muhammad IV




Yahya III


Abd al Mumin


Zakariya II


Muhammad V


Muhammad VI


Spanish conquest 1535

Ahmad III


Ottoman Rule 1569-1573

Muhammad VII





on portolans and from other sources



ï  Le Rey de Tunes, 1295

Gules a crecent  increscent argent  [5]


Red, a yellow and a white crescent.

Marino Sanudo. 1321 ca.[6]

Red, a white crescent

Angelino Dulcerta, 1339

White, a black crescent

Book of Knowledge, 51. 1350 ca [7]

Red, a yellow crescent

Anonymous Catalan Atlas, 1385



White, a black crescent

Gabriel de Vallseca, 1439

White, two black crescents

Jacobo Bertran and Perero Sell, 1456

Blue [black] three white crescents

Anonymous portolan, 1492


Quarterly of Castile and Leon

Vesconte Maggiolo, 1537 [8]

White, a blue crescent

and mast end

Jacobo Russo, 1550

Yellow, a black two-headed eagle

Giorgio Sideri, 1565



In this overview the black crescent has to be associated with the Marinid Dynasty and the occupation of Tunis by Fez in 1347-’50.  The later black crescents are from the time when Tunis occupied Fez.

Of course the flag quarterly and the flag with the two-headed eagle are from the time of  the Spanish suzerainty (1535-’69). The flag with the blue crescent increscent is supposed to be of Muhammad VI.


The Achievement of Mulay Hassan (Muhammad VI)



Arms European style seem to have been granted by Charles I of Spain when Muhammad VI was restored. They were inspired by the three white crescents on a blue background from the time of Zakariya II (1490-’94), symbolizing a sultanate. The two-headed eagle symbolizes the imperial suzerainty (and protection) of Charles I.

The arms were displayed at the funeral of Charles I in 1555.







ï  Thune, 1555

Azure, three crescents Argent and a chief  Or, a two-headed eagle Sable. Crown : A royal crown.  [9]

The Eyâlet of Tunis


After 1574 when the Eyâlet of Tunis was established it came under Uluj Ali, then Beylerbey in Algiers, until his death in 1587.

In this time the then flag of the Ottoman Empire was flown over Tunis, consisting of a yellow crescent on a red background. This flag was the successor of the flags of the Spanish suzerains.

The office was abolished in 1587 and a Pasha was appointed by the Porte. Under the Pasha served a Bey, among whose duties was the collection of state revenue. 

By a coup in 1591 a military government was established under a Dey who surpassed the Pasha in power.

By 1606 the government of Tunis had become virtually independent. [10]



Red, a yellow crescent

Joan Oliva 1590

The Muradids


Untitled, 1620

Gules, three crescents 2 & 1 Or

Crown: A royal crown. [11]


In 1613 a Corsican named Murad Curso followed into the office of Bey, which he exercised effectively (1613–1631). Eventually he was also named Pasha, by then a ceremonial post; yet his position as Bey remained inferior to the Dey. By virtue of his title of Pasha, the Bey came to enjoy the social prestige comparable with this of the Sultan-Caliph in Constantinople.


His son Hamuda Bey (1631–‘66), with the support of the local notables of Tunis, officially acquired both titles, that of Pasha and that of Bey. In 1640, at the death of the Dey, Hamuda Bey maneuvered to establish his control over appointments to that office. As a consequence the Bey then became supreme ruler in Tunisia.

The high prestige the Beys enjoyed is symbolized by a coat of arms showing three yellow crescents on a red field, the number of crescents matching a sultanate, the crown making it the symbol of a sultan.


After the death of Murad II Bey (1666–‘75), internal discord within the Muradid family led to armed struggle. The Turkish rulers of Algeria later intervened on behalf of one side in this struggle born of domestic conflict; these Algerian forces remained after the fighting slowed, which proved unpopular.

Tunisia's unfortunate condition of civil discord and Algerian interference persisted.

As a result of the strengthened grip of Algeria on Tunisian affairs, the Ottoman flag was flown over Tunisia. This showed a white crescent on a red background.


The last Muradid Bey was assassinated in 1702 by Ibrahim Sharif, who then ruled for several years with Algerian backing. Hence, the dynasty of the Muradid Beys may be dated from 1613 to 1702.



Red, a white crescent

Pietro Cavallini, 1677


The Husaynids


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 © Hubert de Vries 2011-10-11


[1] For example in medieval Morocco and Sicily

[2] Notitia Dignitatum fol 215v

[3] Adam-Even, Paul & Léon Jéquier: Un Armorial français du XIIIe siècle, l'armorial Wijnbergen. In: Archives Heraldiques Suisses. 1951 pp. 49-62, pp. 101-110, 1952 pp. 28-36, 64-68, 103-111, 1953 pp. 55-77.

[4] Lamm, C.J., Mittelalterliche Gläser und Steinschnittarbeiten aus dem Nahen Osten, Berlin, 1929-30. Vol. I, 306, vol. II, pl. 115 no. 12.

[5] From: Lord Marshal’s Roll, dated 1295. Source: Society of Antiquaries, London, ms664, vol 1, ff 19-25. N° 21

[6] Marino Sanudo: Secreta Fidelium Crucis. 1321 ca.Rome, Bibl. Apostolica Vaticana

[7] Book of the Knowledge of all the kingdoms, lands, and lordships that are in the world. (ca 1350) Works issued by the Hakluyt Society. 2nd series N° XXIX. 1912, n° 51.

[8] Musée Maritime, Rochefort (Aunis, Fr.) MnM9Na24.

[9] After: Jacques le Boucq: “Le très admirable  Triump­he de la Noble Ordre de la Thoison Dor”. 1555. Arch. of the Order of the Fleece, H.H. & Staatsarchiv Wenen. Cod. nr. 24 fol. 45 v°

[10] Pitcher, Donald Edgar: A Historical Geography of the Ottoman Empire from earliest times to the end of the sixteenth century. Leiden E.J. Brill, 1972.

[11] After an anonymous sea-chart, 1620, today in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.