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Built in 670 AD, at the time of the founding of Kairouan, Oqba bin Nafi’s original edifice of the Great Mosque was rebuilt in 695, extended in 743, replaced in 774 and in 836. The present Aghlabite structure was restored thoroughly in 1025, 1294, 1618 and 1970 (for the city’s 1300th anniversary). It is not only one of the most historically hybrid mosques in Africa, it is also the oldest and most revered, a masterpiece of Maghreb architecture.
If harmony, austerity and a sense of volume are the hallmarks of Islamic art, then the Great Mosque is a perfect example. It is an architecture of great power, relieved by a minutiae of intricate and exquisite detail best illustrated by the panels of the Minbars, or pulpits, sculpted in wood in the 11th century. It’s different from the style you will see when travel barcelona. Thirty plaques of tiles with metallic reflections, brought from Baghdad in the ninth century, surround the mirhab, or niche facing Mecca, which is sculpted from marble. Innumerable decorative details offset the simplicity of the structure, including a wealth of carved marble and wood, paintings and ceramics.
The magnificent prayer room of the Great Mosque, with its 17 naves, has a forest of columns, reputedly at least 400, taken from Roman Carthage and Sousse. Others are Byzantine and Aghlabite; some are made of marble, other of porphyry. There are columns inscribed with Christian crosses, and columns you must squeeze between if you are not to be judged too fat for Paradise. Their capitals are Roman, Byzantine or Arab and since 1970 some are Tunisian too, from the marble craftsmen of DarChaaban.
In the doors and ceilings, some of the 1,100-year-old wood remains and a splendid staircase leads to the pulpit behind which one finds the maqcoura, a small room enclosed by carved wood, where the calif performs his religious duties. The maqcoura and mirhab are among the most ancient and beautiful to be found in all the Muslim world. Across the courtyard is the 115-ft minaret from which the faithful have been called since the 11th century. Five times a day, the muezzin climbs the 128 steps of the Syrian-styled structure, which consists of three towers superimposed on each other, to give the signal for prayer to the other minarets of the city.
Painstaking restoration work carried out over the last dozen years or so means the mosque has now lost its blinding unreal whiteness which travellers such as Paul Klee painted or Montherlant wrote about. Plaster has been laid bare and sensitive renovation done to render the walls and cupolas to their original condition: the grey and ochre colours of the stones and clay.
You should not leave the area without a visit to the museum. The most stunning relics are the Islamic stellae or funerary headstones, dating from the tent) century and engraved with coufique writing. There are also pieces of gold and silver from the treasure of Abou Yazid, who in 953 took possession of Kairouan.
Don’t forget to examine the splendid parchments of gazelle skin and the magnificent wrought arms. The high degree of artistic perfection and learning reached by the Arab-Muslim civilisation in Tunisia in the Middle Ages is evident in the collection of illuminated manuscripts, tooled leather bindings and delicate cut-glass vases. From a later date come the exquisite illuminated Korans.
Travellers in the Middle Ages expressed astonishment at the prosperity of Kairouan in the middle of the desert and at the luxurious life led by the princely families in their suburbs of Sabra-Mansuria, built two kilometres southwest of the city for the Fatimites and Zirites. Archaeological work at Rekad and Abbasiya since the 1960s has excavated the Aghlabite equivalent of palace life, revealing splendid palatia’ dwellings, fountains and – of course – mosques, replete with Arab mosaics.
The Aghlabite pools, restored in 1969, are worth a visit too. This immense reservoir, El Madjel el-Kebir, was constructed thanks to one Abou Ibrahim Ahmed to provide the city with drinking water. The main structure is a polygon of 48 sides, 128 metres in diameter, with a smaller pool for decanting water. The spectacle of this beautiful liquid mirror vibrating in the evening light has caused more than one Islamic poet to take up his pen.
Among the many festivals celebrated in Kairouan, the Mouled, or anniversary of the Prophet’s birthday, is the most important. Special cakes called makroudh, made of semolina, dates and honey, are prepared. Another traditional food prepared at this time and sold in the streets is the acida, a thick milk dish mixed with grilled barley, on which honey or sugar is poured and then oil. It is then decorated with dried fruits and nuts such as almonds, pistachios and pine kernels. Delicious!
The Mouled, celebrated during February according to the movement of the lunar calendar, is undoubtedly the best time to visit Kairouan. The mosques are lit and regular prayers are chanted, including the lecture of the sica naba wiya, or the eulogy of the Prophet. Dense crowds of pilgrims pour into the city, the souks are entirely hung with rugs and a lot of money changes hands, while outside the city gates the festivities spread too. Kairouan is famous throughout the desert regions for its embroidered saddles and at this festival the Zlass people come with their splendid Arab horses to entertain the crowds with equestrian displays.