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The Great Mosque of Kairouan - A Monument to Islam

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

The Great Mosque of Kairouan is a mosque situated in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Kairouan, Tunisia and is one of the most impressive and largest Islamic monuments in North Africa. It is one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world, and is a model for all later mosques in the Maghreb.

First stablished by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi in the year 50 AH (670AD/CE) at the founding of the city of Kairouan, extensive works under the Aghlabids two centuries later (9th Cent.AD/CE) gave the mosque its present aspect.

The structure is part of an expansive complex, the mosque itself covering 10,800 square meters (115,660 square feet). Within, there is a prayer room with 17 naves supported by carved columns, as well as the finely decorated mihrab, a special niche indicating the direction of Mecca, outfitted in marble panels and luster tiles covered in floral patterns. There is also what is said to be the oldest surviving minbar - a finely carved wooden pulpit of Asian teak.

Outside, there is a decorated flagstone courtyard and a towering, three-story minaret, reminiscent of Roman lighthouses. At 32 meters (104 feet), it remains one of the city’s highest structures. The mosque’s architecture reflects features of pre-Islamic and Eastern Islamic art, as well as later Roman and Byzantine influences.

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 Uqba ibn Nafi' (also known as 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.

The fame of the Mosque of Uqba and of the other holy sites at Kairouan helped the city to develop and expand. The university, consisting of scholars who taught in the mosque, was a centre of education both in Islamic thought and in the secular sciences. Its role at the time can be compared to that of the University of Paris in the Middle Ages. With the decline of the city from the mid-11th century, the centre of intellectual thought moved to the University of Ez-Zitouna in Tunis.

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.

Even today, the Great Mosque of Kairouan reflects the time and place in which it was built.


Sources : Wikipedia, Khan Academy, Atlas Obscura

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