Kairouan: The fourth holiest city for Muslims
Living cities that date back to early medieval times are not really uncommon in early civilizational belts such as much of Asia and north Africa. However, only in a handful of them history is preserved in its authenticity through centuries. Kairouan, also known as Al-Qairawan in Arabic, is a rare example in this regard.
This city in north-eastern Tunisia, which, according to the UNESCO, “Founded in 670, Kairouan flourished under the Aghlabid dynasty in the 9th century”. It has conserved, without alteration, its urban fabric with its morphology and its architectural and architectonic components. All these elements bear witness to the Universal Value of the property and contribute to its integrity. Having considered and scrutinised carefully several such criteria, the UNESCO has marked it as ‘world heritage site’!
Kairouan during 9th Century
Not only in terms of historical and archaeological considerations, Kairouan’s position in Islam can hardly be overstated. Encyclopaedia Britannica informs us that if traditional sources are to be believed the city was founded by Uqbah ibn-Nafi, a companion of prophet Muhammad himself in 670. It served as an important camp from which “the offensive was launched that resulted in the Islamic political and religious subjugation of the Maghrib (northwest Africa)”. It became the capital of the Maghrib around 800 CE. And well into the 11 century Kairouan was known across the globe as “one of the great administrative, commercial, religious, and intellectual centres of Islam”. No wonder for more than a millennium it has been considered to the fourth holiest city for Muslims. Only after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Great Mosque of Kairouan
The stunning monument, located at the heart of Kairouan. In this history and the Islamic tradition converge as the Great Mosque. According to the UNESCO, “The Great Mosque, rebuilt in the 9th century. It is not only one of the major monuments of Islam but also a universal architectural masterpiece.” The mosque is located over an area of 97,000 Sq.Ft. It is not only one of the oldest but also one of the largest mosques in the Maghrib. Besides being huge in size, the mosque is also a stunning example of the early-medieval architectural beauty.
The mihrab of the mosque, for example, is a marvel in terms of its harmonious composition and ornamentation. Dating back to 863 CE it is one of the rarest examples of concave mihrab. Again, the beautifully carved minbar, i.e. the pulpit from which the Imam offers his sermons. It not only dates back to the mid-ninth century, but is made of teak wood imported from far off India.
Attraction for tourists
For centuries the Great Mosque’s library has been a treasure trove of a mix of knowledge and art. One of the finest examples of Islamic calligraphy, the famous Blue Mosque was originally in the collection of this library. It is now displayed in the Raqqada National Museum of Islamic Art.
Besides the Great Mosque, there are two other mosques. One said to be of the 7th century, while the other of late 17th century. There are a couple of huge early medieval reservoirs and more than anything else, the ‘souk’ of the tradition bazaar within four walls, makes Kairouan a paradise for tourists interested in history and Islamic culture.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)