Great Mosque of Zaytuna
In the Medina, Tunis, Tunisia
Hegira 248 / AD 863
The slave Fathallah under the direction of the Abbasid caliph, al-Nasir.
The Aghlabid amir Abu Ibrahim Ahmad and the Abbasid caliph al-Must‘in Billah.
Still extant at the building are pieces of wall and a corner tower in rough stone dating from the 3rd / 9th century. The history of the building is rich and complex. Some sources attribute it to Abdallah ibn al-Habhab (116 / 734), but evidence suggests that the builder was Hassan ibn Nu'man.
Investigations have confirmed that the Great Mosque at Tunis was built on the remains of a Christian basilica, which lends weight to the legend recounted by Ibn Abi Dinar. The mosque was entirely rebuilt by the Aghlabid amirs in 248 / 863. An inscription written on the base of the dome of the mihrab says that Fathallah, slave of the Abbasid caliph al-Nasir, directed the works.
The Zaytuna building was an important defensive post facing the sea. Two control towers at the northeast and southeast corners remain intact.
The Zaytuna Mosque is of the same type as those at Córdoba and Kairouan; a vast courtyard leading to a stone-pillared hall with a roof supported on wooden beams. The roof spans an area of 1,344 sq m. Around 160 columns and ancient capitals divide the mosque into 15 naves and 6 bays. It is clear that the ancient material comes from the ruins of Carthage.
The central nave and the transverse nave of the transept are wider than the others (4.80 m instead of 3 m). They cross at right angles in front of a mihrab, forming a T-shape. The mihrab has a fluted dome and an octagonal tambour with a square base. It bears an inscription attributing it to the Abbasid caliph al-Must'in.
A circular gallery was added to the trapezoidal courtyard in the AH 4th / AD 10th century. As a result the narthex has obscured the AH 3rd-/ AD 9th-century kufic inscription which is still on the façade behind the gallery. The entrance dome is highly ornate, with alternate courses of ochre stone and red brick. The profusion of niches covering the square base and the octagonal tambour is typical of Fatimid art.
Though the narthex rests on ancient columns and capitals, the other three galleries are supported on columns with composite marble capitals imported direct from Italy during works carried out by the minister Khaznadar in the mid-19th century.
The square minaret rises from the northwest corner of the courtyard. Built in 1894, it is 43 m-high and imitates the decoration of the Almohad minaret of the Kasbah Mosque with its limestone strap-work on a background of ochre sandstone.
Twelve doors open onto the suqs. Two are noteworthy; the imam door, on the qibla wall, framed with a Roman lintel and piers of carved marble; and a western door with a date inscription. The east façade is flanked by a courtyard with colonnades and Hafsid capitals.
Situated in the heart of the medina, the ‘Olive Tree’ mosque is the largest and most venerable sanctuary in Tunis, having been founded at the same time as the city itself. The building has a rich and complex history, with most of the monument built by the Aghlabid prince Abu Ibrahim Ahmed. Extended and refitted on several occasions, the Zaytuna is an imposing structure. The hanging portico was erected in the AH 7th / AD 13th century overlooking the dried fruits suk and it consists of elegant horseshoe arches on columns and Hafsid-style capitals, revealing beautiful painted wood ceilings.
Historical and literary sources and inscriptions.
Ben Achour, M. A., Djami al Zaytuna, al-ma lamu wa fidjaluhu (The Zaytuna Mosque, the monument and the men), Tunis, 1991.
Daoulatli, A., Al-Zaytouna, ashrat kurun min al-fann al-mi mari al tunusi (The Zaytuna, ten centuries of Tunisian architecture), Tunis, 1996.
Golvin, L., Essai sur l'architecture religieuse musulmane, t.3, Paris, 1974, pp.150–60.
Marçais, G., Architecture musulmane d'Occident, Paris, 1954, pp.22–4.
“Notes sur les coupoles de la Grande Zitouna de Tunis”, Revue de l'Occident musulman et la Mediterranee, 1966, pp.95–105.
Ifriqiya: Thirteen centuries of Art and Architecture in Tunisia, pp.84–6.
Mohamed Béji Ben Mami "Great Mosque of Zaytuna" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2023. 2023. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;tn;Mon01;1;en
Prepared by: Mohamed Béji Ben MamiMohamed Béji Ben Mami
Né le 27 janvier 1950 à Tunis, docteur en archéologie islamique, Mohamed Béji Ben Mami est directeur général de l'Institut national du patrimoine et vice-président de la Municipalité de Tunis. Il a restauré, sauvegardé et mis en valeur plus d'une cinquantaine de monuments de la médina de Tunis, dirigé les fouilles de grands sites islamiques et organisé diverses expositions relatives à la civilisation arabo-islamique.
Depuis 1996, il est vice-président de l'Union des historiens arabes et représentant de l'Union des archéologues arabes de Tunisie.
Mohamed Béji Ben Mami a pris part à divers congrès internationaux et publié plusieurs articles et ouvrages, parmi lesquels Tourbet el-Bey (Tunis, 2004) et Les médersas de la médina de Tunis (Tunis, 2005).
Copyedited by: Margot Cortez
Translation by: David Ash
Translation copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez
Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.
True to its ethos of connecting people through the arts, MWNF has provided Amanda with valuable opportunities for discovery and learning, increased her editorial experience, and connected her with publishers and institutions all over the world. More recently, the projects she has worked on include MWNF’s Sharing History Virtual Museum and Exhibition series, Vitra Design Museum’s Victor Papanek and Objects of Desire, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s online publication 2 or 3 Tigers and its volume Race, Nation, Class.
MWNF Working Number: TN 01
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