Great Mosque of Kairouan
In the Medina, Kairouan, Tunisia
Hegira 221 / AD 836
Ziyadat Allah I.
The Great Mosque at Kairouan inherited the site of the first Muslim oratory in the Maghreb, which was built by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi in 50 (670). After renovations conducted by Hasan ibn Nu'man in 84 (703), enlargements under the governor Bichr ibn Safwan (103–9 / 722–8), and another renovation under Yazid ibn Hatim in 155 (772), the mosque was totally rebuilt by the Aghlabid prince Ziyadat Allah I in 221 (836), when it assumed its current dimensions.
Built on a rectangular plan 125 m long by 75 m wide, the edifice consists of a courtyard and a pillared hall 137 m x 37 m divided into 17 naves and 8 bays. The meeting of the central nave with the bay along the qibla wall forms a square area in front of the mihrab. Above this square rises a fluted dome mounted on carved stone squinches. These are decorated with scalloped and polyfoil rosette motifs inspired by the Umayyad repertoire. The great number of columns and ancient capitals in the prayer hall and in the galleries around the courtyard constitute the largest collection of Roman and Byzantine capitals in any Muslim monument or museum. In the wooden roof of the prayer hall some fine beams have been preserved, in spite of successive restorations in the AH 8th and 9th centuries (AD 14th and 15th). Dating back to the AH 3rd / AD 9th century, they are decorated in the Greek manner with spear-shaped fruit wrapped in symmetrical palm-leaves.
The mihrab, which dates from the period of Abu Ibrahim Ahmed (AH 247 / AD 862), is covered by a painted wooden half-dome with foliate scrolls and five-lobed leaves. The niche has 28 panels of pierced or chased marble. This elaborate decoration contrasts with the surround of the niche which is covered in a chequer work of lustre ceramic tiles dating from the AH 3rd / AD 9th century and is probably of Iraqi origin.
The minbar, also from the 3rd century AH (9th AD), is the oldest Muslim preacher's chair that we possess. It is made of more than 300 pieces of Indian teak. The wood-carving combines Byzantine and Mesopotamian influences. To the right of the minbar, the maqsura, another precious wooden piece dating back to al-Mu 'izz
ibn Badis (5th century AH / 11th AD), has rich calligraphy in flowery kufic.
The courtyard is surrounded by galleries and has a fluted dome at the centre of the narthex. This is the work of Abu Ibrahim Ahmed (247 AH / 862 AD). Opposite this, in the centre of the north side, the minaret rises to a height of 32 m. Built on a square base it is built in three stages and capped with a fluted dome. Its robust proportions are reminiscent of some Roman lighthouses or Syrian bell-towers. The external wall is just as strong, with many towers and bastions, held up with wide buttresses. There are several gates with porches. Given its size and the authenticity of its architectural and decorative elements, The Great Mosque at Kairouan represents one of the most prestigious places of worship in Islam.
Erected on the site of the first Islamic oratory built in the Maghreb by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi, the Great Mosque of Kairouan was later renovated by Hassan ibn Nu’man before being entirely rebuilt by the Aghlabid prince Ziyadat Allah I.
It is the oldest and most prestigious place of worship in the Muslim West, and was used as the architectural model for most of the mosques built in Ifriqiya before the arrival of the Ottomans. With its variety of forms and the wealth of its decorative repertoire, which combines Byzantine and Mesopotamian influences, it embodies most facets of the Kairouanese school.
Historical and epigraphic sources; al-Bakri, Description de l'Afrique septentrionale; Ibn Khaldun, Histoire des Berberes.
Golvin, L., Essai sur l'architecture religieuse musulmane, t.3, Paris, 1974, pp. 133–49.
Lezine, A., Architecture de l'Ifriqiya, recherches sur les monuments Aghlabides, Paris, 1966, pp.11–52.
Maoudoud, K., Kairouan, Tunis, 1991, pp.20–31.
Marçais, G., Manuel d'art musulman, Paris, 1926–7, pp.15–32.
Marçais, G., Architecture musulmane d'Occident, Paris, 1954, pp.9–22.
Ifriqiya: Thirteen centuries of Art and Architecture in Tunisia, pp.159–62.
Mohamed Béji Ben Mami "Great Mosque of Kairouan" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2023. 2023. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;isl;tn;mon01;2;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 02
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Abbasids | Abbasid Ceramics Arabic Calligraphy | Monumental Calligraphy The Abbasids | The Aghlabids: Shield of the Abbasid Dynasty
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