KAIROUAN – An intellectual center

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Historical records relate that in 670 AD the Arab conqueror, Uqba ibn Nafi crossed the deserts of Egypt and began the first Muslim conquest of the Maghreb region of North Africa. Establishing military posts at regular intervals along his route, Uqba ibn Nafi came to the site of present day Kairouan and there decided to encamp his soldiers for some days (Kairouan, also spelled Qayrawan, means “camp” in Arabic).

Old chronicles describe the region as completely deserted, covered with impenetrable thickets, and being distant from trade routes. Apparently inhospitable as a long term settlement site, why then did this temporary military camp soon become the greatest Muslim city in North Africa and the 4th holiest city of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem).

To answer this question we must look beyond historical records to the earliest legends of the site. Here we find mention of an incident that occurred during the initial encampment of Uqba ibn Nafi, an incident which, because of its miraculous nature, most history books have chosen to ignore. The legend tells of warrior’s horse that stumbled on a golden goblet buried in the sands. This goblet was recognized as one that had mysteriously disappeared from Mecca some years before. When the goblet was dug from the desert sand, a spring miraculously appeared and the waters of this spring were said to issue from the same source that supplies the sacred Zamzam well in Mecca. The power of these three miracles – the mysteriously lost and then found Meccan goblet, the miraculous gushing forth of the spring, and the source of that spring – exercised a magnetic effect upon the early North African Islamic people and thereby established the site of Kairouan as a pilgrimage destination for ages to come.

By 698, following several more military campaigns in the Maghreb, the Arabs had driven the Byzantines from their garrisons in Carthage and become masters of the provinces of North Africa, called by them Ifriqiya. The town of Kairouan became the capital of this vast province. Governors were appointed to the province by the Ommayyad and Abassid caliphs (ruling from Damascus and Baghdad), and they exercised their rule from Kairouan. This tradition was continued over the centuries by the Aghlabid emirs (9th century), the Fatamid caliphs (10th century), and the Zirid emirs (11th century). During these centuries, the city became one of the most important cultural centers in the Arab world, witnessing a flowering of sciences, literature and the arts. Agriculture was favored by the execution of sizable irrigation projects and an active increase in trade with the surrounding regions added to the general prosperity. Kairouan grew in size and beauty and no where was this more evident than in the construction and continuing elaboration of its Great Mosque.

From the 11th century onward, however, Kairouan ceased to be the capital of Arab Ifriqiya. Tunis, Tlemcen, Fez, Marrakech and other North African cities usurped its political and economic prominence. Slowly the ancient city shrunk in size until it covered scarcely a third of the area occupied by the metropolis of the Aghlabids, the Fatamids, and the Zirids. Yet, as a holy city, Kairouan grew in importance with the passing centuries and its splendid mosque became a magnet for pilgrims from Muslim territories throughout Northern and Saharan Africa.

Seventh-century North Africa was not the easiest place to establish a new city. It required battling Byzantines; convincing Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa, to accept centralized Muslim rule; and persuading Middle Eastern merchants to move to North Africa. So, in 670 CE, conquering general Sidi Okba constructed a Friday Mosque (masjid-i jami` or jami`) in what was becoming Kairouan in modern day Tunisia. A Friday Mosque is used for communal prayers on the Muslim holy day, Friday. The mosque was a critical addition, communicating that Kairouan would become a cosmopolitan metropolis under strong Muslim control, an important distinction at this time and place.

Known as the Great Mosque of Kairouan, it is an early example of a hypostyle mosque that also reflects how pre-Islamic and eastern Islamic art and motifs were incorporated into the religious architecture of Islamic North Africa. The aesthetics signified the Great Mosque and Kairouan, and, thus, its patrons, were just as important as the religious structures, cities, and rulers of other empires in this region, and that Kairouan was part of the burgeoning Islamic empire.

The Aghlabids

During the eighth century, Sidi Okba’s mosque was rebuilt at least twice as Kairouan prospered. However, the mosque we see today is essentially ninth century. The Aghlabids (800-909 C.E.) were the semi-independent rulers of much of North Africa. In 836, Prince Ziyadat Allah I tore down most of the earlier mudbrick structure and rebuilt it in more permanent stone, brick, and wood. The prayer hall or sanctuary is supported by rows of columns and there is an open courtyard, that are characteristic of a hypostyle plan.

In the late ninth century, another Aghlabid ruler embellished the courtyard entrance to the prayer space and added a dome over the central arches and portal. The dome emphasizes the placement of the mihrab, or prayer niche (below), which is on the same central axis and also under a cupola to signify its importance.

The dome is an architectural element borrowed from Roman and Byzantine architecture. The small windows in the drum of the dome above the mihrab space let natural light into what was an otherwise dim interior. Rays fall around the most significant area of the mosque, the mihrab. The drum rests on squinches, small arches decorated with shell over rosette designs similar to examples in Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad Islamic art. The stone dome is constructed of twenty four ribs that each have a small corbel at their base, so the dome looks like a cut cantaloupe, according to the architectural historian K. A. C. Creswell.


Other architectural elements link the Great Mosque of Kairouan with earlier and contemporary Islamic religious structures and pre-Islamic buildings. They also show the joint religious and secular importance of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Like other hypostyle mosques, such as the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the mosque of Kairouan is roughly rectangular. Wider aisles leading to the mihrab and along the qibla wall give it a T-plan. The sanctuary roof and courtyard porticos are supported by repurposed Roman and Byzantine columns and capitals.

The lower portion of the mihrab is decorated with openwork marble panels in floral and geometric vine designs. Though the excessively decorated mihrab is unique, the panels are from the Syrian area. Around the mihrab are lustre tiles from Iraq. They also feature stylized floral patterns like Byzantine and eastern Islamic examples.

Since it was used for Friday prayer, the mosque has a ninth-century minbar, a narrow wooden pulpit where the weekly sermon was delivered. It is said to be the oldest surviving wooden minbar. Like Christian pulpits, the minbar made the prayer leader more visible and audible. Because a ruler’s legitimacy could rest upon the mention of his name during the sermon, the minbar served both religious and secular purposes. The minbar is made from teak imported from Asia, an expensive material exemplifying Kairouan’s commercial reach. The side of the minbar closest to the mihrab is composed of elaborately carved latticework with vegetal, floral, and geometric designs evocative of those used in Byzantine and Umayyad architecture.

The minaret dates from the early ninth century, or at least its lower portion does. 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.

So in addition to functioning as a place to call for prayer, the minaret identifies the mosque’s presence and location in the city while helping to define the city’s religious identity. As it was placed just off the mihrab axis, it also affirmed the mihrab’s importance.

The mosque continued to be modified after the Aghlabids, showing that it remained religiously and socially significant even as Kairouan fell into decline. A Zirid, al-Mu‘izz ibn Badis (ruled 1016-62 CE), commissioned a wooden maqsura, an enclosed space within a mosque that was reserved for the ruler and his associates. The maqsura is assembled from cutwork wooden screens topped with bands of carved abstracted vegetal motifs set into geometric frames, kufic-style script inscriptions, and merlons, which look like the crenellations a top a fortress wall. Maqsuras are said to indicate political instability in a society. They remove a ruler from the rest of the worshippers. So, the enclosure, along with its inscription, protected the lives and affirmed the status of persons allowed inside.

In the thirteenth century, the Hafsids gave the mosque a more fortified look when they added buttresses to support falling exterior walls, a practice continued in later centuries. In 1294, Caliph al-Mustansir restored the courtyard and added monumental portals, such as Bab al-Ma on the east and the domed Bab Lalla Rejana on the west. Additional gates were constructed in later centuries. Carved stone panels inside the mosque and on the exterior acted like billboards advertising which patron was responsible for construction and restoration.

An intellectual center

The Great Mosque was literally and figuratively at the center of Kairouan activity, growth, and prestige. Though the mosque is now near the northwest city ramparts established in the eleventh century, when Sidi Okba founded Kairouan, it was probably closer to the center of town, near what was the governor’s residence and the main thoroughfare, a symbolically prominent and physical visible part of the city. By the mid-tenth century, Kairouan became a thriving settlement with marketplaces, agriculture imported from surrounding towns, cisterns supplying water, and textile and ceramic manufacturing areas. It was a political capital, a pilgrimage city, and intellectual center, particularly for the Maliki school of Sunni Islam and the sciences. The Great Mosque had fifteen thoroughfares leading from it into a city that may have had a circular layout like Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire during Kairouan’s heyday. As a Friday Mosque, it was one of if not the largest buildings in town.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan was a public structure, set along roads that served a city with a vibrant commercial, educational, and religious life. As such, it assumed the important function of representing a cosmopolitan and urbane Kairouan, one of the first cities organized under Muslim rule in North Africa. Even today, the Great Mosque of Kairouan reflects the time and place in which it was built.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia, is an archetypal example of the hypostyle mosque. The mosque was built in the ninth century by Ziyadat Allah, the third ruler of the Aghlabid dynasty, an offshoot of the Abbasid Empire. It is a large, rectangular stone mosque with a hypostyle (supported by columns) hall and a large inner sahn (courtyard). The three-tiered minaret is in a style known as the Syrian bell-tower, and may have originally been based on the form of ancient Roman lighthouses. The interior of the mosque features the forest of columns that has come to define the hypostyle type.

The mosque was built on a former Byzantine site, and the architects repurposed older materials, such as the columns—a decision that was both practical and a powerful assertion of the Islamic conquest of Byzantine lands. Many early mosques like this one made use of older architectural materials (called spolia), in a similarly symbolic way.

On right hand side of mosque’s mihrab is the maqsura, a special area reserved for the ruler found in some, but not all, mosques. This mosque’s maqsura is the earliest extant example, and its minbar (pulpit) is the earliest dated minbar known to scholars. Both are carved from teak wood that was imported from Southeast Asia. This prized wood was shipped from Thailand to Baghdad where it was carved, then carried on camel back from Iraq to Tunisia, in a remarkable display of medieval global commerce.

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.”

The great French novelist Guy de Maupassant, visiting Kairouan in 1889, was also enchanted by the Great Mosque. He penned the following words: (La Vie Errante):

“I know of three religious buildings in the world that have given me the unexpected and shattering emotion that was aroused in me by this barbaric and astonishing monument: Mont Saint-Michel, Saint Mark’s in Venice, and the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. These three are reasoned, studied, and admirable work of great architects sure of their effects, pious of course, but artistic first, inspired as much or more by their love of line, of form, and of decoration, as by their love of God. But at Kairouan it is something else. A race of fanatics, nomads scarcely able to build walls, coming to a land covered with ruins left by their predecessors, picked up here and there whatever seemed most beautiful to them, and, in their own turn, with these debris all of one style and order, raised, under the guidance of heaven, a dwelling for their God, made of pieces torn from crumbling towns, but as perfect as the purest conceptions of the greatest workers in stone.”