Kairouan (1988)

Back to index

Tunisia 1906. Great Mosque of Kairouan.

Founded in 670, Kairouan flourished under the Aghlabid dynasty in the 9th century. Despite the transfer of the political capital to Tunis in the 12th century, Kairouan remained the Maghreb's principal holy city. Its rich architectural heritage includes the Great Mosque, with its marble and porphyry columns, and the 9th-century Mosque of the Three Gates. 
  • Tunisia 1906. Sidi Oqba, the Great Mosque of Kairouan. 

The name Kairouan means "camp" in Arabic. The Great Mosque of Kairouan takes the general form of a rectangle with sides of 242, 229, 410 and 406 feet. This enormous space contains a prayer hall, a courtyard and a soaring minaret. 

Surrounding this sacred area is an enclosing wall reinforced by projecting buttresses and two stone towers and pierced by nine doorways. The marble-paved courtyard is flanked by three porticoes made up of long naves whose roofs are supported by arches. 

These arches are in turn supported by dozens of lovely marble columns which various Arab rulers and builders removed from more ancient Roman and Byzantine sites. 

The minaret is three stories tall, 103 feet high by 34 feet wide, with its lower stories composed of stone blocks taken from classical Roman buildings. This minaret, built from 724 to 728 AD, is the oldest standing minaret in the world and is widely recognized as one of the greatest gems of Islamic architecture. The prayer hall, built in the 9th century, is 123 feet deep and 230 feet wide. 

  • Tunisia 1998. Sidi Oqba, the Great Mosque of Kairouan. 

Commenting on the interior of the Prayer Hall, the Islamic historian Paul Sebag (The Great Mosque of Kairouan) says: "It is decorated with extreme richness. All of the resources of Islamic ornamentation, carved or painted, have been lavished here on marble, stone, pottery, or wood. This ornamentation borrows its elements from the vegetable world, from geometry, and from epigraphy. Its flora inherited from the Hellenistic tradition the acanthus, the vine, and even the palm tree; it was enriched by oriental plants such as the lotus and the homa, but above all it evolved an imaginary and idealized plant world made up of rinceaux and tresses, of palmettes and fleruons, all of extreme elegance and grace. The geometrical ornamentation of pagans, Christians, and Berbers was extended and refined before being used for the creation of surprising and strange new figures. 

Arabic writing lends itself here to the fantasy of the calligrapher and reveals its incomparable qualities as decoration. These elements are juxtaposed and mingled to compose a decor which is enchanting...... 

Moving forward with slow steps through the half-light in which the sanctuary swims, we suddenly find that the stones, when ordered by an inspired mind, can attain to sublime poetry and move us profoundly." 

  • Tunisia 1948. Detail of a decoration in the Great Mosque of Kairouan. 

Located in remote regions of Tunisia, often upon lofty and nearly inaccessible peaks, are small domed tombs (marabouts) of popular Islamic saints. Maraboutism, or the worship of saints, began under the Hafsides Dynasty (13th - 16th centuries) and evolved into a thriving devotional cult. 

Originally warrior monks or sages living in fortified monasteries, the Marabouts functioned as healers and spiritual advisors for local people whose religious practices involved a mix of Islamic beliefs and ancient pagan rituals. The marabout tombs, also called Zawiyas, are the scene of annual pilgrimages and are especially popular with women. Musical ceremonies, singing and dancing, and vibrant sessions of prayer characterize these pilgrimage festivals. 
  • Tunisia 1959. Camel camp in front of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. 

Tunisia 1959. Camel camp in front of the Great Mosque of Kairouan.

Old chronicles describe the region as completely deserted, covered with impenetrable thickets, and being distant from trade routes. In spite of the apparent inhospitable surroundings as a long term settlement site, the city soon gained reputation as the greatest Muslim city in North Africa and the 4th holiest city of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). 

Sources and links:

Other World Heritage Sites in Tunisia (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Tunisia section for further information about the individual properties.  

Back to index

Revised 20 jul 2006  
Copyright 1999 Heindorffhus 
All Rights Reserved