Coastal Areas and Islands culture
Arabic in culture and tradition, Tunisia is one of the most liberal and tolerant Muslim countries. Although the nomadic Bedouin still follow their traditional way of life in the southern desert, the country's diverse origins can be seen in its architecture, crafts, music and regional folk dances. Tunisia has also developed an international reputation as an intellectual and cultural centre.
Dress can be informal, but visitors should keep in mind that what may be acceptable on a beach or in a hotel may not be acceptable in the streets, restrict shorts and beachwear to the tourist resorts. The conventions of Islam should be respected when visiting religious monuments - covering bare shoulders and knees, for example.
Tipping is not a requirement but around 10% is the norm for good food and service.
The main religion is Islam and virtually all Muslims are Sunni. Mosques can be seen everywhere and the call to prayer is heard throughout the country five times per day. There are Christian churches in most of the larger cities and towns, and Jewish communities in Tunis and on the island of Djerba.
It was the Phoenicians who first inhabited Tunisia in 1100 BC, using it as a staging post on the route from Tyre (now Lebanon) to Spain. Carthage, the dominant port, became the main power in the western Mediterranean and implacable enemy of Rome. It was captured and destroyed by the Romans in the Punic Wars that ended in 146 BC. The Romans then founded cities and colonies across Tunisia's plains and coastline.
Having been ruled by the Vandals and Byzantines, the Arab armies established their rule by the 8th Century AD. The region then became a province of the rapidly growing Islamic Empire under the control of the caliphs of Damascus.
When the Turks took Tunis in 1574 it became an Ottoman territory. This state of affairs continued right until the 19th century, when France became the principal power in the Western Mediterranean and Tunis came under pressure to adopt European ways.
The French granted independence to Tunisia in 1956, and Habib Bourguiba (who had led the independence movement) became its first President. He clamped down hard on Islamic fundamentalism; a trend continued under his successor Zine el-Abidine ben Ali who ousted him from power in 1987.
Nearly 10 million people live in Tunisia and the population is the result of much migration, occupation and intermarriages. While the vast majority of modern Tunisians identify themselves as Arab, most descend from indigenous Berbers - in fact, less than 20% of the Tunisian genepool comes from the Middle East.
Large influxes of population have come through conquest by the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Ottomans, and French. Many Spanish Moors and Jews also arrived at the end of the 15th century. The Arab identity is connected to the Arabic language, the official language in Tunisia. Jerbi, a Berber language, is also spoken by people living in small communities in the south. Recently their number has decreased as more of them move into modern villages and cities and adopt the Arab culture and identity. French is widely spoken and English, German and Italian are spoken in major cities.