Today, we will introduce you to the city of Kairouan, known for its Great Mosque and once a prominent Ottoman city, taking its name directly from its founding purpose. We hope you enjoy the read!
The North African City of Kairouan
Located in North Africa, Kairouan was established on a vast steppe in the Ifriqiya region. According to accounts, it was built at a distance of one hundred miles from Tunis and thirty-six miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Despite its proximity to the Mediterranean, it is not a coastal city. Kairouan’s location remains the same as it was in history. Today, it lies within the boundaries of the Republic of Tunisia, approximately 156 kilometers south of the capital, Tunis, with a population of around one hundred and fifty thousand.
Meaning Behind the Name Kairouan
The name Kairouan is directly related to the city’s founding purpose. The name “Kairouan” is the Arabicized form of the Persian word “Karîvân/kârbân/kârvân,” which originally meant “army” or “camp.” The term “Kayrevan/Kayruvan” evolved from this word. “Kayrevan” has been used in both Persian and Arabic for caravan or camp since ancient times. It is believed that the Berber name “Tikirwan” is derived from the Arabic name.
Conquest by the Umayyad Caliphate
With the appointment of Uqba ibn Nafi as governor by Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, North Africa became part of the Islamic territory. In 670, Nafi established Kairouan as a military base to ensure the permanence of Islam. Uqba ibn Nafi initially prepared the city’s urban plan and completed the establishment of the city within approximately five years. He first built a mosque and a government palace and then settled Arab and Berber tribes in the area. Later, Uqba ordered the construction of protective walls to defend the city against attacks.
The establishment of Kairouan yielded positive results in terms of preserving the region, converting the Berber inhabitants to Islam, and later moving the provincial center to Kairouan. Throughout its history, the city has been a host to various civilizations such as the Aghlabids, Fatimids, Zirids, Almohads, Banu Ghaniya, and Hafsids. In 1534, the city was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire under Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha’s administration and remained protected until the French occupation in 1881. With Tunisia gaining its independence in 1956, Kairouan became one of the country’s main cities.
Scholarly Life in Kairouan
Established as a military camp, Kairouan gradually became a center for teaching Islam. During the city’s foundation, the Arabic language, Quranic sciences, and Hadith were taught to new converts by the companions of the Prophet. The local population, successful in pursuing knowledge, played a crucial role in spreading Islam.
The generation of Tabi’un became the successors of the scholarly work in Kairouan, tirelessly striving to teach subjects needed by Muslims in all aspects of life. As a result of these efforts, Kairouan produced numerous scholars, poets, physicians, and philosophers. Sahnun ibn Sa’id, Ishaq ibn Imran, Ibn Abi Zayd, Ibn Sharif al-Kairouani, and Ali ibn Abd al-Ghani al-Husri are some of the scholars who emerged from Kairouan. Students came from various cities in Al-Andalus and Sicily to study in Kairouan, aiming to disseminate the knowledge and philosophy they acquired back in their homelands.
Ethnic Elements in Kairouan
The indigenous people of North Africa are considered to be the Berbers. There is no consensus on the origins and arrival of the Berbers. Before the advent of Islam, they worshiped certain animals and idols as sacred. Initially, they lived in caves and later started building huts and houses. Before the Muslims, the Byzantine Romans ruled North Africa, and they did not establish any connections with the Berbers. The community that the Muslims had to fight the most after the Berbers was the Romans.
Although Arabs were familiar with the region before the establishment of Kairouan, they settled here after the city was founded. Arab tribes such as the Mudar, Rabia, and Kahtan settled in the region. Before the Islamic conquest, another community that lived in this area was the Jews. The Jews, who lived as a minority, had their own neighborhoods and markets. They continued to live under Islamic rule as long as they fulfilled their obligations.
North Africa’s Oldest Place of Worship: Kairouan Great Mosque
The Kairouan Great Mosque was initially built by Uqba ibn Nafi in 670 and underwent renovations in 726-728 to take its current form. Representing the most ancient carved façade of Islamic art, this structure is also known as the ‘Sidi Uqba Mosque.’ Over time, the additions and alterations made to the mosque did not significantly alter its original form.
The mosque, the city’s most important monument, is situated at the northeastern corner of the walls surrounding Kairouan, which was the first settlement. With its tall walls, Sidi Uqba Mosque gives the impression of a fortress from the outside. However, due to the narrowing walls from south to north, the mosque does not have a regular rectangular plan. The mosque’s robust minaret consists of three stacked square towers. This minaret is significant as a model for other minarets built in North Africa. Additionally, the oldest known mihrab in a niche form, along with a minaret and pulpit, can be found in the Sidi Uqba Mosque.
The Three-Door Mosque
According to its inscription, the mosque, built in 253 AH/866 CE by Banisi ibn Hayrun, is also known as the Muhammet Bin Hayrun Mosque. The small-sized mosque, constructed in a square shape, does not have a courtyard. The mosque’s façade features a three-door arrangement, with the central door being larger than the others. This three-door arrangement, stemming from ancient tradition, transitioned into Islamic architecture and was first seen in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Inscriptions are arranged in bands above the doors. The qibla wall of the mosque features a mihrab consisting of a horseshoe-arched niche and alcoves on its sides, providing a dynamic appearance.
Ottoman City Kairouan
As soon as the Ottomans took control of Kairouan in 1534, urbanization efforts began. The traces of Ottoman art identity can still be seen in various religious, commercial, and social structures. The “külliye,” which was absent in previous periods, is the most significant influence of the Ottomans on the city’s urban fabric. This allowed various structures such as a mosque, madrasa, zawiya, inn, bath, fountain, and market to be integrated into the city plan.
The Ottomans established a central area that catered to social, economic, religious, cultural, and commercial needs. The complexes formed around the zawiya-madrasa axis were concentrated in the city center. El-Garyeniyya Zawiya and Madrasa, El-Uhaysiyya Zawiya, El-Sahabiyya Zawiya, Muhammad Bey Complex, Hüseyin B. Ali Türkî Madrasa, Eş-Şerif El-‘Avani Zawiya are significant architectural and social structures built by the Ottoman Empire in Kairouan. Most of these Ottoman works have survived to this day and are still in use.
UNESCO World Heritage
The Kairouan Great Mosque, which has served as a model for many Maghreb mosques, the Three-Door Mosque representing the oldest carved façade of Islamic art, and Kairouan with its winding streets and courtyard houses, have been recognized as a universal value and accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although some structures have been renovated over time, the city’s urban fabric, especially its monuments, is still preserved today.