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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 11 of 30: Kairouan - the Spiritual and Religious Capital of Tunisia

photo by MAW

Minaret of Great Mosque

We spent three nights in Kairouan stopping in the Kasbah, which has been turned into a very nice hotel with a lot of style. We were given a large, comfortable room with a balcony overlooking the courtyard with a swimming pool. Evening meals and breakfast were self service buffets. There was a good range of choice of salads and hot food (all labeled) in the evening with the usual selection of Tunisian cakes and biscuits with blancmange and flans. There was plenty of choice at breakfast with a selection of cold meats and cheese with a variety of breads and cakes as well as omelets to order. It is an excellent base to explore the Medina. The only downside is that it is close to a small mosque and the first call to morning prayers starts at 4:45am.




The city was founded by Okba ibn Nafi, a companion of Mohamed in 671AD. He halted here with his army and found a golden cup on the ground which he had lost in the Holy Well in Mecca. Picking up the cup, water sprang from the ground and he believed this was connected to the Holy well at Mecca.

The city stands isolated in a depression and was a reasonably secure and central base for the new rulers, between the seaborne threats of the Mediterranean and the mountainous homes of rebellious Berbers.

In the 8thC the city developed as a centre of Islamic learning and laid down the basis for Islamic law. Infidels needed a permit to enter the city. It is the spiritual and religious capital of Tunisia and the fourth most important pilgrimage centre after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

In the 9thC it was the base of the local Aghlabid dynasty who were responsible for building the basins to the north west of the city. After their fall it had a long complicated history (see Footprint Tunisia for all the details...) It is now a centre of traditional carpet manufacture and tourists are likely to be subjected to the hard sell if they go near the carpet shops.

We spent a day around the Medina and tourist attractions.

The Medina is one of the best preserved in Tunisia and streets are broader than elsewhere. It was used in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to double as Cairo. We could visualize Magnus wandering around and wanting to know if any one spoke English, ancient Greek...

It is surrounded by impregnable walls 7km long with monumental gates. The original walls built in 762AD were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. They are reinforced with 20 round towers and four gateways. The best preserved section of the walls is around Bab Tunis and Bab ech-Chouhada. Inside is a maze of streets full of shops and workshops producing copper pots, leatherwork, carpets, perfumes, clothes, jewelry, hats...

Av 7 Novembre (Av Ali Belhouane) is the main route through Medina between Bab Tunis and Bab ech-Chouhada. It is a wide street lined with shops and stalls spilling out onto the pavement selling everything from Alegua baskets, incense, clothes, crockery, carpets. There are a lot of mosques and some splendid gateways. Watch out for people wanting to show you the Mosque and carpet shop. (Zaouia Sidi el Ghariana is not in the place marked on some maps which is a carpet shop.)

We began the morning at the APPC ticket office at the Aghlabid Pools to buy a joint ticket for all the Kairouan attractions. There is a small gift shop by entrance and Tunisian cafe on first floor with staff outside exhorting everyone to go inside. It is a steep climb up the stairs to the top of the building for views over the pools. The stairs are fairly narrow and not pleasant if going the opposite way to a bus load of people so try and time your visit first thing in the morning before the coaches arrive. From the top there are views down onto four of the Pools. There is no access to the pools from here. The only entrance is by the western gate, next to the children's play area/funfair with a small train, dodgem cars, cafes etc.

The pools were built in the 9thC by the Aghlabids and were restored in 1969. Unlike other major towns of the time that lay on or near rivers, or near abundant sources of water, the supply of drinking water in Kairouan was a source of constant concern. Water was brought by an aqueduct from Djebel Cherichera, 36km away. Sixteen pools were built to store water which entered a smaller settling basin before flowing into the larger pools. The pools ensured that even during times of drought, there was enough water to irrigate the fields around Kairouan so they could supply enough grain and water for the town. Unfortunately the pools were also a major health risk as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Inside the Medina, our first stop was Zaouia Sidi El Ghariana. This is the burial place of a 13thC saint. It was built in the 14thC and has been recently restored. A tiled entrance leads into a courtyard with tiled walls with white carved stucco above. There is a painted wood ceiling under first floor balcony. We could not shake off a "guide" with dodgy English who began to explain about the local medersa (Muslim school) and took us into a room with the tomb behind wooden railings, covered with a green cloth. He pointed to a stone in the floor and said another saint was buried there and then put out his hand for payment. I said I had no money. Michael only had a small coin left from buying bread. He said he had no money and showed this (worth about 8p) to the guide who regarded it as beneath his dignity to accept.

Just down the road is what is described as the "House Of The Bey" which is now a carpet shop. He had four wives and the house had 70 rooms. We were shown round the shop while our driver disappeared to have a cup of tea and talk to the rest of the staff. Through the doorway is the Summer Music room with a highly decorated wood painted ceiling, set out with small chairs and tables for tea. Beyond is the smaller, snugger winter music room with an attractive painted cupola above. There is a balcony above where the musicians played. Beyond this is the central courtyard with more tiles and painted ceilings with the rooms of the four wives above. Apparently the Bey would sleep with each in turn but had Fridays off... Carpets of all sizes and patterns hang from the walls. Beyond is the grand reception room.

A woman was sitting on the floor at a loom knotting a traditional carpet. Working in blocks across the carpet, she took a few strands at a time and knotted the wool round them and cut it off. Each family makes the same design of carpet and learns the designs by heart. Weavers usually work two to three hours a day at home and a carpet can take two to three months to make. The best wool carpets can have up to 90,000 knots per sqm. Silk carpets have 250,000 and are very expensive.

We were shown examples of Kalim carpets which are "embroidered" and are patterned on both sides. These are a lot thinner and used as general purpose rugs. Then the hard sell began. We were shown examples of 2x1m carpets for 240TD, "only £110" and told they would cost at least £300 to buy in UK. We said we were not interested and were promptly shown the door.

We then headed to the Mosque Of The Three Doors, which is closed to non Muslims but on the tourist itinerary because it has an elaborate facade with three doorways topped by a frieze with kufic (early Arabic) script and flora reliefs. Men used one door, women another and children the third. This is in the area of the weavers. We could hear the clack of the looms and went into one workshop to watch blankets being woven.

Next stop was Bir Barouta in a domed building in the centre of the Medina which looks a bit like a Mosque. It was built to surround the Holy Well of Okba ibn Nafi. A blindfolded camel decorated with scarves by women wanting a baby, plods round turning a large wooden wheel used to raise the water. He is controlled by man hitting a stick on the floor to give instructions, stop, start. A second smaller wheel with jugs is used to pour water into cups for tourists to drink, for an obligatory tip. We were the only people there and it wasn’t as tacky as I feared. There is little space and would be bloody if busy.

We finished off in the Great Mosque. Most tourists visit this first after the Aghlabid Pools so it was fairly quiet when we arrived. It is the oldest, largest and most important mosque in the country. It was founded in 671AD by Okba ibn Nafi and rebuilt in the 9thC. It is surrounded by a huge wall with no windows and few doorways.

There is a small ticket desk with a room behind containing the library. It leads to the massive courtyard surrounded by covered arcade which provides shade. The Minaret is at one end and the Prayer Hall at the other. A central drain in the courtyard collects water in underground cisterns. There are several wells covered with stone slabs which have deep groves made from ropes pulling up water. Wooden steps take tourist up to admire the sundial on a marble column which indicated the times of prayers.

The arcade outside the Prayer Hall is wider and the roof is supported by marble pillars, all different, recycled from Roman sites. They support two rows of brick arches with a small cupola in the middle. Very decorative doorways made of palm trees open into the Prayer Hall. Non Muslims are not allowed in although the central doorway is left open so they can see in. Rows of green and red marble pillars support the roof hung with large chandeliers. Rugs are laid out on the floor and round the base of the pillars. At the far end is the mihrab tiled with the original 9thC tiles with the wooden minibar beside it. Wooden panels on the left screen off the women’s area who use a separate doorway.

Our final stop was the Zaouia Sidi Sahbi. This is the burial place of Abou Djama el Balaoui, one of Mohammed's companions. He always carried three hairs from Prophet's beard and was called the "Barber." The original tomb was 7thC but most of the building is 17thC when accommodation for pilgrims, a medersa and mosque were added.

From the outside it is a very plain brick building with the top of the minaret peeping out above the walls and a white painted mausoleum at one end. A doorway leads into a large courtyard with decorative tiles and carved white stucco and minaret in one corner. A small doorway in the corner by the minaret leads into a passageway with a tiled vestibule and more carved stucco. At the far end is a small room with carved stucco and a small cupola with small pieces of colored glass. In the sunlight these cast colored patterns on the walls. This leads into a smaller courtyard with pillars, tiles and stucco. Round it are rooms where male children are brought to be circumcised. The tomb is on the opposite wall and only Muslims allowed in. We peered through the doorway to see the tomb covered with green cloth.

A wooden doorway leads into the Court of the Medersa, which is lined with small study rooms and a Prayer Hall on one side. Next to it, the tiled entrance hall had niches below a tiled shelf for shoes.

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