Bizerte or Benzert (Arabic: بنزرت Binzart, Berber: Benzert, Italian: Biserta), is the capital city of Bizerte Governorate in Tunisia and the northernmost city in Africa. It has a population of 230,879 (2009 census).
Bizerte is known as the oldest and most European city in Tunisia. It was founded around 1000 BC by Phoenicians from Tyre. It is also known as the last town to remain under French control after the rest of the country won its independence from France.
Initially a small Phoenician harbour, the city came under the influence of Carthage after the defeat of Agathocles during the Punic Wars. The city was then occupied by the Romans, under the name of Hippo Diarrhytus or Hippo Zarrytus.
Bizerte was successively conquered by the Arabs in 647 (who gave the city its current name), by the troops of Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire in 1535, and then by the Turks in 1574. The city then became a corsair harbour and struggled against the French and the Venetians.
With the occupation of Tunisia in 1881, France gained control of Bizerte and built a large naval harbour in the city.
In 1924, after the French government officially recognised the Soviet Union (USSR), the western military fleet of White Russia that had been kept in the port of Bizerte was returned to the Soviet government. The ships never moved from the port and finally were sold there as scrap metal.
In March 1939, towards the end of the Spanish Civil War, Spanish Republican Navy Commander Miguel Buiza ordered the evacuation of the bulk of the Republican fleet. Three cruisers, eight destroyers and two submarines left Cartagena harbor and reached Bizerte where they where impounded by the French authorities.
During the Second World War, Bizerte was occupied by the German Army and was retaken by American troops on 7 May 1943. During the fighting between the Allied forces and the German Army, many of the city inhabitants fled to the countryside or Tunis. The city had suffered significant damage during the battle.
Due to Bizerte’s strategic location on the Mediterranean, France wanted to retain its naval base there. France accordingly kept control of the city even after Tunisia gained its independence in 1956. The city was blockaded in 1961 by the Tunisian Army and Navy, and then attacked. France responded by dropping 7,000 paratroopers and sending in three warships. The three day battle resulted in 700 dead and 1,200 wounded amongst the Tunisians (who included civilian volunteers) at the cost of 24 dead and 100 wounded amongst the French forces.
The French military finally abandoned Bizerte on 15 October 1963.