Broad-faced, imposing Qsar Essaïd in Tunis was the palace Sadok Bey, one of Tunisia’s many rulers under the Ottoman Empire. It was here where Sadok Bey adopted Qanoun Eddawla, the country’s first constitution. Two decades later, he signed the Treaty of Bardo, marking the beginning of the French protectorate. Today, sixty years after independence and six years after the revolution, Qsar Essaïd has been opened to the public with “The Awakening of a Nation,” an exhibition on a period of Tunisia’s history (1837-1881) that contemporary regimes preferred to forget.

Tunis, between compliance and autonomy

From 1574 until 1881, Tunisia was recency of the Ottoman Empire, governed by a series of beys serving as intermediaries between Tunis and Istanbul. Early in the nineteenth century, under pressure of shifting trade relations in the Mediterranean and military defeats, the Empire hurried to push through a series of reforms, called tanzimat. Under political pressure from above and economic pressures within, Tunisia’s successive beys adapted a movement of reforms which wavered between compliance with imperial projects and the adoption of innovative measures that sought to affirm the country’s autonomy1.

Ahmad Bey

While Hussein Bey (1824-1835) and Mustapha Bey (1835-1837) had begun military reforms with the creation and strengthening of a new regular army, it is the long reign of Ahmad Bey, 1837 to 1855, that is associated with the most audacious initiatives of the time. Like his predecessors, Ahmad Bey devotes himself to building up the army. In 1840, he establishes a military school in Bardo where European and Tunisian instructors are in charge of training and education, including courses in math, history, French and Arabic. Throughout his reign, Ahmad Bey maintains official correspondence in Arabic (as opposed to Turkish), and refuses to pay the annual tribute to Istanbul, under pretext of the high cost of maintaining the army. In 1842, Ahmad Bey declares anyone born in the regency is a free person and in 1846 mandates the definitive abolition of slavery. The same year, he is the first bey to venture overseas where, in Paris, he seeks the favor of King Louis-Philippe. He returns to Tunis without the desired support from the West and, having jeopardized his relations with the Sultan, endeavors to implement reforms favorable to the Empire.

After the reign of Ahmad Bey, Muhammad Bey (1855-1859) establishes a more traditional form of governance—politics are conducted outside the public sphere—but continues to pursue the trajectory of reforms. Perhaps the most consequential of these is brought about by the execution of Batou Sfez, a Tunisian Jew sentenced to hanging for blasphemy against Islam. The execution is condemned by dignitaries in Tunis and abroad, and by French diplomats in particular under who compel the bey to adopt a text which guarantees the protection of individual liberties. The charter, called Ahd Al Aman, draws from the Ottoman tanzimat as well as European constitutions.