Kairouan’s Great Mosque

The Mosque of Uqba also known as the Great Mosque of Kairouan is one of the most important mosques in Tunisia.

Built by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi from 670 A.D. (the year 50 according to the Islamic calendar) at the founding of the city of Kairouan, the mosque is spread over a surface area of 9,000 square metres and is considered as the oldest place of worship in the western Islamic world, as well as a model for all later mosques in the Maghreb. The Great Mosque of Kairouan is certainly one of the most impressive and largest islamic monuments in North Africa, its perimeter is almost equal to 415 metres (1,361 feet). This space contains a hypostyle prayer hall, a huge marble-paved courtyard and a massive minaret. In addition to its spiritual prestige, the Mosque of Uqba is universally reputed as a masterpiece of both architecture and Islamic art.

Under the Aghlabids, the fame of the Mosque of Uqba and of the other holy sites at Kairouan helped the city to develop and repopulate little by little. The university, consisting of scholars who met in the mosque, was a centre of education both in Islamic thought and in the secular sciences. Its role can be compared to that of the University of Paris in the Middle Ages. With the decline of the city, the centre of intellectual thought moved to the University of Ez-Zitouna in Tunis.

Description

The Mosque of Uqba greatly resembles an imposing fortress, a consequence of the 1.9 metre thick stones that were used to build its walls and its ramparts, in addition to its towers and the solid buttresses that support and strengthen the walls. The mosque takes the form of an irregular quadrilateral, which is wider on the side of the main entrance (138 metres) than on the opposite side (128 metres) and thinner on the side of the minaret (71 metres) than on the opposite side (77 metres).

The courtyard is accessible via six lateral doorways and forms a rectangle (approximately 65 metres x 50 metres in size) surrounded by double galleries supported by columns made variously of marble, granite or porphyry and which were taken from ancient Roman and Byzantine monuments (primarily from Carthage), as were those in the prayer hall. Near to the centre of the courtyard, there is a rainwater collector, which filters the water before allowing it to pass into the cistern located underneath the courtyard, and a sundial.

The minaret, which serves both as a watchtower and to call the faithful to prayer, is made of three tiers with a total height of 31.5 metres, thereby dominating the urban landscape of Kairouan. It is built on a square base that is 10.5 metres long on each side. The mosque’s minaret, which was begun by the Umayyad governor Bishr Ibn Safouan around 725 and completed by the Aghlabid sovereigns in the 9th century, is the oldest standing minaret in the world.


The prayer hall, which is accessible via 17 carved wooden doors, is divided into 17 naves and eight bays including more than 400 white marble, red porphyry and blue granite columns similar to those in the courtyard. The minbar, which dates to the 9th century, making it the oldest pulpit in the Islamic world, is made of around 300 pieces of sculpted teak. To the right of it is the maksoura, a delicately chiseled cedar wood enclosure which allows dignitaries to be separated from other visitors. The mihrab marking the direction of Mecca is clad with twenty-eight carved marble panels decorated with a great variety of vegetal and geometric motifs, among them the stylized vine leaf in its different forms, shells inside an arched shape, braids, vegetal motifs rolled up around a central axis and the floweret. This elaborate decoration combines Byzantine, Umayyad and Abbasid influences. The upper part of the mihrab is carefully adorned with 139 luster ceramic tiles dating from the second half of the 9th century, all the tiles are 21 cm square and 1 cm thick. The Kairouan mihrab collection, which is one of the most remarkable specimens of lusterware ceramics, probably came from Mesopotamia ( possibly Baghdad, Basra or Samarra ) as attested by the Arab author Ibn Nagi (dead in 1031) and confirmed by physicochemical analyses. From an aesthetic and ornamental point of view, the precious facade of the mihrab is considered as one of the most harmonious compositions in Muslim art.

About the large number of columns, a legend says that it is not possible to count the columns of the Mosque of Uqba without going blind.