Fourth holiest city of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), Kairouan is an important religious pilgrimage site and, for history lovers, one of Tunisia's star tourist attractions. This bustling city is jam-packed with some of the country's best examples of Islamic architecture, from grand mosques and tombs with ornate decoration to the Medina back alleys lined with candy-coloured houses.
Kairouan is also a major shopping destination and is famous for the quality of its carpets. When all the craning your neck at mosque minarets and admiring gorgeous tile work gets too much, it's time to hit the souks for a bit of bargaining with the town's many craftsmen.
Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Kairouan
The Great Mosque of Kairouan
The Great Mosque of Kairouan stands in the northeast corner of the Medina, its massive minaret incorporated into the town walls. This is the oldest and most important Islamic building in North Africa and was originally built by Oqba ibn Nafi, the Arab commander who founded Kairouan in AD 672. Many of Tunisia's other major mosques, including the Great Mosque of Sousse, took their inspiration from Kairouan's Great Mosque architecture.
The mosque covers a mammoth area 135 m long by 80 m wide with a vast inner courtyard surrounded on three sides by double-aisled colonnades of antique columns. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the prayer hall but the doors are often kept open so you can have a peek inside.
Keirouan's Medina (old town) is the most atmospheric and best preserved in Tunisia, the tightly packed alleyways giving a taste of the Arab empires. Unlike the prettified old towns of Hammamet and Djerba, the old town here is the real deal. The Medina is surrounded by a 3.5 km long circuit of brick walls reinforced by numerous towers built by the Husseinites in the early 18th century.
Inside the walls, lanes ramble in a maze of directions. The best way to explore is simply to chuck away the map and wander. As well as being home to most of Kairouan's tourist sightseeing draws, the narrow roads lined with colourful, paint-peeling houses are attractions themselves. You could spend hours here just soaking up the old town's beautiful architecture. Even if you're short on time, don't miss spending a few hours just walking around.
Mosque of the Barber
The Barber's Mosque, also called Zaouia Sidi Sahbi, is not to be missed on a Medina visit. The complex includes a mausoleum, mosque and madrassa (Islamic school of learning), and was built between 1629 and 1692 over the tomb of one of Muhammad's (the prophet of Islam) companions who died in AD 685. According to legend Sidi Sahab always carried a few hairs from Muhammad's beard out of reverence for the Prophet, hence the mosque's name.
The complex is notable for its magnificent tile decoration, much of which dates only from the 19th century. You enter through a forecourt, on the left of which are the imam's lodgings, guest-rooms and ablution fountains. Opposite the entrance is the minaret. The forecourt also gives access to the madrassa, laid out round a small courtyard, the prayer hall beyond it and (by way of a passage adjoining the minaret) another colonnaded courtyard, off which opens the tomb of Sidi Sahab (not open to the public).
Mosque of Three Doors
One of the oldest buildings in Kairouan, the Mosque of the Three Doors (Mosquée des Trois Portes or Djemaa Tleta Bibane) was founded in AD 866 by an Andalusian scholar. Its most notable feature is the facade with three doorways, from which it takes its name. There are two friezes of Kufic inscriptions, the lower of which dates to 1440. The minaret also dates from this year.
The Aghlabid basins
To the north of the Medina, beyond the Avenue de la République, are the Aghlabid Basins that supplied water for the Aghlabid palace, which once sat on the site of Kairouan's present-day cemetery. The water was brought by aqueduct from Djebel Cherichera, 36 km away. The smaller basin was a settling tank from which the water flowed to the larger one that had a capacity of 50,000 cu m. In the centre of the larger pool is the base of a pavilion where the Aghlabid rulers used to relax. The pools were restored in 1969. and another pool has been discovered just to the west.
Zaouia Sidi Abid el Ghariani
This ornate tomb, dedicated to a holy man who lived in Kairouan during the 14th century, is notable for its fine wood, stucco ceiling and sumptuously decorated inner courtyard. The tile work decorating the walls here is breathtakingly beautiful and has been extremely well preserved. Anyone interested in traditional Arabic decoration and artistry will enjoy a visit here.
The Medina's souk quarter was built mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries and is still occupied by the traditional craftsmen of Kairouan. It's an interesting place to poke about, even if you're not a shopper, as you can see many of the craftsmen busy at work in their workshops. To reach the souk, head down Rue Ali Belhaouane. After passing the El Bey Mosque on your right and the El Maalek Mosque on your left, Bab el Tounès (Tunis Gate) comes into sight. The souk streets all ramble off from here.
A blue door marks the entrance to Bir Barouta, a 17th century well on the upper floor of the building. According to legend, an underground channel connects the well with the Zemzem spring in Mecca. A camel, attached to the pulley-system, draws up the water from the well by walking around the well. Due to the legend, believers come to drink this holy water. But for many visitors the sight of the camel, destined to trudge around the well endlessly, is an unhappy spectacle.
Kairouan's bustling New Town area has its main axis on Boulevard Habib Bourguiba, a busy pedestrian street lined by coffeehouses and souvenir shops that leads in a straight line to Bab ech Chouhada (Porte des Martyres), built in 1772. Originally this gate was known as Bab el Jalladin (Gate of the Leather dealers). It provides access into the Medina. Stones recycled from Roman sites have been built into the inner side of the gateway. In front of the gate is Place Muhammad el Bejaoui (Place des Martyrs).
Lalla Rihana Gate and cemetery
A large cemetery with some interesting tombs dominates the east side of Kairouan's Great Mosque. The Lalla Rihana Gate (named after a local holy woman) sits on the eastern side of the mosque, projecting from the mammoth mosque walls. It is a square structure in Hispano-Mauresque style, built in 1294.
Zaouia Sidi Amor Abbada
The Mosque of the Sabres (also known as the Zaouia Sidi Amor Abbada) was built in 1860 as the tomb of a local blacksmith, also revered as a holy man. With its five ribbed domes, the zaouia is one of the principle pilgrim shrines in the city. Round the tomb are examples of the craftsman's skill; sabres, stirrups, anchors, and chests are all on display together with wooden tablets inscribed with the holy man's prophesies.
Raqqada Museum of Islamic art
The museum contains a large collection of Korans of superb calligraphy as well as manuscripts and documents belonging to the Library of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. One of the gems of this collection is an extract of the Koran on blue parchment written in golden ink, dating back to the 10th century. One of the rooms of the Museum contains a rich collection of gold and silver coins, pottery, and glassware.
Set in a beautiful park, the interesting Museum of Islamic Art in Reqqada is housed in a presidential palace built in 1970. The exhibits include finds from Kairouan, the Aghlabid residences at Reqqada and Al Abbasiya, and other towns in the region. A special highlight introduces the excavations 6 km away at Sabra Mansourya (a circular palace built by Caliph El Mansour in the middle of the 10th century).
In the entrance hall are a model of the Sidi Oqba Mosque and a reproduction of its mihrab. In other rooms are old prints with views of local towns, coins of the various dynasties (Aghlabids, Fatimids, Zirids), old Koranic inscriptions (including one on a gazelle skin dyed blue), a variety of pottery and funerary stelae with inscriptions. The exhibits are labelled only in Arabic, but it is well worth a visit.
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Kairouan is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was founded by the Arabs around 670. In the period of Caliph Mu'awiya (reigned 661-680), it became an important centre for Sunni Islamic scholarship and Quranic learning, and thus attracting a large number of Muslims from various parts of the world, next only to Mecca and Medina. The holy Mosque of Uqba is situated in the city.
The foundation of Kairouan dates to about the year 670 when the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi of Amir Muauia selected a site in the middle of a dense forest, then infested with wild beasts and reptiles, as the location of a military post for the conquest of the West. Formerly, the city of Kamounia was located where Kairouan now stands. It had housed a Byzantine garrison before the Arab conquest, and stood far from the sea - safe from the continued attacks of the Berbers who had fiercely resisted the Arab invasion. Berber resistance continued, led first by Kusaila, whose troops killed Uqba at Biskra about fifteen years after the establishment of the military post, and then by a Berber woman called Al-Kahina who was killed and her army defeated in 702. Subsequently, there occurred a mass conversion of the Berbers to Islam. Kharijites or Islamic "outsiders" who formed an egalitarian and puritanical sect appeared and are still present on the island of Djerba. In 745, Kharijite Berbers captured Kairouan, which was already at that time a developed city with luxuriant gardens and olive groves.
Power struggles continued until Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab recaptured Kairouan at the end of the 8th century. In 800 Caliph Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad confirmed Ibrahim as Emir and hereditary ruler of Ifriqiya. Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab founded the Aghlabid dynasty which ruled Ifriqiya between 800 and 909. The new Emirs embellished Kairouan and made it their capital. It soon became famous for its wealth and prosperity, reaching the levels of Basra and Kufa and giving Tunisia one of its golden ages long sought[by whom?] after the glorious days of Carthage.
The Aghlabites built the great mosque and established in it a university that was a centre of education both in Islamic thought and in the secular sciences. Its role can be compared to that of the University of Paris in the Middle Ages. In the 9th century, the city became a brilliant focus of Arab and Islamic cultures attracting scholars from all over the Islamic World. In that period Imam Sahnun and Asad ibn al-Furat made of Kairouan a temple of knowledge and a magnificent centre of diffusion of Islamic sciences. The Aghlabids also built palaces, fortifications and fine waterworks of which only the pools remain. From Kairouan envoys from Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire returned with glowing reports of the Aghlabites palaces, libraries and gardens – and from the crippling taxation imposed to pay for their drunkenness and sundry debaucheries. The Aghlabite also pacified the country and conquered Sicily in 827.
In 893, through the mission of Abdullah al Mahdi, the Kutama Berbers from the west of the country started the movement of the Shiite Fatimids. The year 909 saw the overthrow of the Sunni Aghlabites who ruled Ifriqiya and the establishment of the Shiite Fatimid dynasty. During the rule of the Fatimids, Kairouan was neglected and lost its importance: the new rulers resided first in Raqqada but soon moved their capital to the newly built Al Mahdiyah on the coast of modern Tunisia. After succeeding in extending their rule over all of central Maghreb, an area consisting of the modern countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, they eventually moved east to Egypt to found Cairo making it the capital of their vast Caliphate and leaving the Zirids as their vassals in Ifriqiya. Governing again from Kairouan, the Zirids led the country through another artistic, commercial and agricultural heyday. Schools and universities flourished, overseas trade in local manufactures and farm produce ran high and the courts of the Zirids rulers were centres of refinement that eclipsed those of their European contemporaries.
When the Zirids declared their independence from Cairo and their conversion to Sunni Islam in 1045 by giving allegiance to Baghdad, the Fatimid Caliph Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah sent as punishment hordes of troublesome Arab tribes (Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym) to invade Ifriqiya. These invaders so utterly destroyed Kairouan in 1057 that it never regained its former importance and their influx was a major factor in the spread of nomadism in areas where agriculture had previously been dominant. Some 1,700 years of intermittent but continual progress was undone within a decade as in most part of the country the land was laid to waste for nearly two centuries. In the 13th century under the prosperous Hafsids dynasty that ruled Ifriqiya, the city started to emerge from its ruins. It is only under the Husainid Dynasty that Kairouan started to find an honorable place in the country and throughout the Islamic world. In 1881, Kairouan was taken by the French, after which non-Muslims were allowed access to the city.
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