Cultural Tunisia Arab States Gouvernorat De Kairouan

With the Great Mosque, the Mosque of the Three Doors, the Basin of the Aghlabids, and the other numerous archaeological remains, Kairouan bears exceptional witness to the civilization of the first centuries of the Hegira in Ifriqiya. The Great Mosque served as a model for several other Maghreban mosques, particularly for its decorative motifs, which are unique. Kairouan is, moreover, one of the holy cities and spiritual capitals of Islam. Next to the Great Mosque, the first place of worship founded in the Maghreb only 38 years after the death of the Prophet, is the Zawiya of Sidi Sahab where the remains of Abu Djama, one of Mahomet's companions, are kept.

The establishment of the garrison at al-Kayrawan by Oqba Ibn Nafìi in year 50 of the Hegira (AD 670) marked a decisive step in the history of the Islamic conversion of Ifriqa.

Replacing a temporary encampment, Kairouan became an essential element in the conquest because of its key position, midway between the coast threatened by the return of the Byzantine fleets and the mountains controlled by the Berbers, who took Kairouan in 688. But the city remained the capital of Ifriqiya, the seat of the governor representing the authority of the Umayyad caliphs in Damascus and later the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad.

When the Aghlabid emirs became practically independent from the Abbasids (800-909), Kairouan became a true capital city. The Great Mosque was rebuilt by the Emir Ziyadat Allah I in 836 and again in 862-63 by the Emir Abou Ibrahim Ahmad, who also had certain spectacular urban projects carried out. These included the Basin of the Aghlabids filled by water brought through a 36 km aqueduct from the Cherichera Djebel. During a period of civil and religious peace, the Aglabids relinquished the governor's palace and emirs had residences built a short distance south of Kairouan at Al-Abbassiya and Raqqada.

Under the rule of the Shiite imam Fatimid Obaid Allah (910-34), Kairouan at first declined somewhat in importance. The new capital Mahdia, founded in 916, was better suited to the imam's expansionist policy directed towards the Orient. However, the Fatimids returned to Kairouan, and the transfer of the Fatimid caliphate to Cairo in 972 put an end to the two-capital situation.

After the 10th century, Kairouan no longer directly participated in the major events shaping world history. The city had many religious and political problems: it was invaded and sacked by the Hilalians in 1057 and Tunis became a real centre of political power as well as one of the most populated cities in Africa. However, it never succeeded in stripping Kairouan of its status as the holy city of the Maghreb, a position it still enjoys throughout the Islamic world.

The considerable weight of history is still palpable in the medina, which is surrounded by more than 3 km of walls with its gates (Bab el Tounes, Bab el Khoukha, Bab ech Chouhada): its skyline is punctuated by the minarets and the cupolas of its mosques and zawiyas, and it has preserved its network of winding streets and courtyard houses. Very few small windows or arched doorways are cut in the exterior walls, but inner walls have larger openings that give on to the central courtyard. However, certain remarkable monuments dating from the early centuries of the Hegira need to be carefully distinguished from the profusion of more recent or remodelled religious edifices.

In their present form, these buildings date for the most part from the last three centuries. The immense majority of houses and souks in the ancient honeycomb of passageways, where a number of wells and fountains are still to be found, form a traditional and coherent urban fabric.