In 1902 the northern coast of Africa was the battleground of competing European empires picking the bones of the dying Ottoman Empire. Italy had designs on Libya and Tunisia, but France snatched Tunisia from it and also held modern day Algeria and Morocco. This photo gallery gives a glimpse of what North Africa was like as it transitioned from the centuries of decay and neglect under the corrupt Ottoman Empire to an uncertain future as a colony of European powers.
Note some of the details: all the people in the photograph are wearing traditional dress, indicating a lack of western cultural influence at that point in time. There are few women on the street; most of the pedestrians are men. There are no horses or carriages, let alone motorized vehicles. There is no indication of electricity or telegraph wires. But what is also interesting is that no one seems to be paying the least attention to the photographer, indicating perhaps a familiarity with the concept or complete indifference.
Until the post World War 2 period when Arab nationalism and demagogues such as Egypt’s Nasser made the Jews into a convenient bogey man in order to radicalize and manipulate their populations, most Arab countries had sizable Jewish populations living relatively peacefully besides the Muslim majority. This is not to say that the life of Jews in an Muslim country such as Tunis would have been easy or that they enjoyed equality. From the time of the Arab conquest, Jews and other non-Muslims had been required to pay a special poll tax, they had been required to wear special clothes identifying them as non-believers, they were prohibited from holding certain offices, and were often segregated into their own quarters of the city.
Let’s explore the various quarters of the city, savoring the sights and sounds of a bygone era.
I have been to the large bazaar in Istanbul, built during the late Middle Ages. It is a huge complex containing thousands of tiny shops. The shops specialize in various things, some sell tea, others sell leather goods, while others sell jewelry. The shops are grouped by what they sell, so that in any one area there may be a hundred shops selling basically the same thing. As you walk by the shop keepers attempt to entice you. They may invite you in for tea while they show you their wares, or if they see you looking at an item they will immediately approach you and name a price. The opening price is never the real price and it is expected that you will haggle. I found that the best way to lower the price was to reject their offer and simply walk away without making a counter offer. As I walked away the shopkeeper would start yelling out lower and lower prices until they would usually reach 50 percent off of their original price by the time you were almost out of ear shot. If I liked the price I would turn around at that time and complete the bargain. It was a fascinating shopping experience but also very tiring. I could not imagine having to engage in heated bargaining to buy even the most basic of items.
The Tuaregs are nomadic inhabitants of North Africa. They lead a primitive existence in a very hostile climate, and controlled the trade routes between North Africa to Timbuktu and sub Saharan Africa.
This is a much modern section, with wide roads. However, note the lack of any motorized traffic. The city was still on the cusp of the modern era, existing in between the world of the west and the timeless traditions of its people.
This brings us to the end of our tour of Algiers and Tunis of 1902. We hope that you enjoyed your trip back in time with us.
This article was last updated on April 15, 2021.