Her Name was Elissar

by Raffi Gostanian


Legend has it that Tunisia was founded in the ninth century BC by a woman. Her name was Elissar (also known as Elissa, or Alyssar). The legend goes roughly like this:

According to the Greek historian Timaeus, King Belus of the Phoenician Empire of Tyre (modern-day Lebanon) nominated both his son Pygmalion and his daughter Elissar to be his heirs. Pygmalion, however, was a tyrant; he usurped the throne, killing his sister’s husband and forcing her to flee.

Elissar and her people landed first in Cyprus, and then on the north coast of Africa, in what is known today as Tunisia. Upon their arrival, she asked the Berber ruler Larbus if she could buy some land for her people to build a city. He replied that she could buy as much land as she could cover with the skin of an ox. She instructed her people to cut the skin into very thin strips. They laid all of the strips out to mark the borders, which gave them a very large piece of land. Elissar and her people built a city on the land around 814 BC and named it Carthage. 

Carthage would grow during the next six-hundred years and transform itself from a small city-state into a very prosperous and powerful empire which eventually, through the Punic Wars, became the only existential threat to the Roman Empire.

One cannot speak of Elissar without speaking of her love for Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the son of the goddess Venus. Perhaps the best account of their tragic love story appears in Virgil's epic The Aeneid. When Troy fell, Aeneas narrowly escaped with his men and embarked upon a long journey. They would eventually become the progenitors of Rome. During their journey, a storm diverted them to Carthage. 

It is here where Elissar and Aeneas met and fell in love. However, King Iarbas, the son of Jupiter, also coveted Elissar. When word of their love affair came to his attention, he appealed to his father. Jupiter dispatched Mercury to send Aeneas on his way, and the pious Aeneas obeyed. Mercury appealed to Aeneas' sense of adventure, beckoning him to prepare his fleet.

Elissar could not bear the thought of a life without her lover. Her sister Anna built her a pyre to burn all that reminded her of Aeneas. When Elissar saw Aeneas' fleet leaving she cursed him and his men, proclaiming endless hate between Carthage and the descendants of Troy, foreshadowing the Punic Wars. She then threw herself on Aeneas' sword and died on the pyre. From their ships, Aeneas and his crew saw the glow of Elissar's burning funeral pyre and could only guess as to what had happened.

Elissar's sacrifice served as a rallying cry to the people of Carthage, and continues to reverberate throughout history.


Carthage has awoken once again. Whereas self-immolation previously stoked the fires of ancient Carthaginian imperial expansion, in modern times it has ignited the flames of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution. In 2010, Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire to protest the harassment and humiliation carried out by police officers. Little did he know that his fire would spread throughout the Arab World and bring down dictators. 

Today, Tunisia is taking the lead again in North Africa and the Middle East. In September 2017, the Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi announced that women now have the freedom to choose their spouse; until now, a non-Muslim man who wished to marry a Tunisian Muslim woman had to convert to Islam and submit a certificate of his conversion as proof. This ban has finally been lifted, an unprecedented reform in the Muslim and Arab world.

This comes as another milestone in a country where women have been pushing for and gaining both political and social rights. In July, for example, the Tunisian parliament introduced a new law abolishing a clause which had allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims. The law also changed the age of consent from 13 to 16, criminalized sexual harassment and marital rape, and made wage and work discrimination against women punishable by a fine of 2,000 Tunisian dinars (around $817).

These were not easy accomplishments when Islamists (represented largely by Ennahda party) won the majority of parliament seats in the 2013 election. But, female members of the party have been voting in favor of equal rights and liberties, challenging the centuries-old Islamic social order.

Ennhada realized that the same people who brought it to power can vote against it if the revolution’s goals are not met, and so it adapted a more flexible and moderate rhetoric, understanding that it needed to form a coalition with other parties to remain in politics. An unofficial troika was formed in 2014 between Ennahda, Ettakatol, and the Congress for the Republic (CPR), which would lead the peaceful transition of power and eventually be granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

However, while the Jasmine Revolution was busy overcoming its domestic hurdles, international ones were lying in wait for her.


After confiscating and nationalizing companies owned by the ousted authoritarian president Bin Ali, the new Tunisian government needed to recapitalize its financial institutions to be able to lend money again. In 2015, the parliament approved the international recapitalization of three big state-owned banks which make up about forty percent of the economy. The International Monetary Fund quickly agreed, in June 2016, to release the first tranche of a loan worth $320 million. Tunisia accepted the deal.

When the second tranche of another $350 million loan was due (in as early as December of 2016), the IMF froze the payment due to what it judged as lack of progress in reforms. In April, the IMF sent a delegation to study the reforms and recommend its one-size-fits-all economic policy: privatization.

Instead of recapitalizing the banks, the IMF recommended that the Tunisian government sell its shares of these banks, and hand over control to the invisible hand of the market. Their justification is predictable: the deficit and how to bring it down to an agreeable percentage of growth.

Furthermore, the IMF has urged the new government to abandon their idea of strengthening the public sector. Instead of providing a vision of economic policy similar to the New Deal of the 1930’s, which bailed the United States out of the Great Depression, the government of Tunisia has to cut public spending, layoff ten of thousands of public sector jobs (a number chosen by the IMF), and sell a number of companies and enterprises confiscated from former President Ben Ali’s family, such as telecommunication companies, media outlets, and other service sector companies.

Tunisia has been dragging its feet in implementing these recommendations, but for how long can it withstand the pressure of the IMF? We will know in the months to come.

In mythology, Aeneas was the opportunist who enjoyed the love of Elissar, only to leave, pursuing fortune elsewhere with little regard for her well-being. The capriciousness of the international business community, in its dealings with post-revolutionary Tunisia, draw parallels between myth and reality. Elissar's dying words brought years of strife between Carthage and Rome. Let us hope that this international disregard for Tunisia's reforms does not invoke a similar curse.

Photo courtesy of Kristína Kliská

Caitlyn Garcia