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Built by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi from 670 AD (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 it is one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world, as well as a model for all later mosques in the Maghreb.[1] The Great Mosque of Kairouan is one of the most impressive and largest Islamic monuments in North Africa,[2] its perimeter is almost equal to 405 metres (1,328 feet). Under the Aghlabids (9th century), huge works gave the mosque its present aspect.[7] The fame of the Mosque of Uqba and of the other holy sites at Kairouan helped the city to develop and repopulate increasingly.
But because of the specific nature of the land, crossed by several tributaries of the wadis, the urban development of the city stretched southwards. At the foundation of Kairouan in 670, the Arab general and conqueror Uqba Ibn Nafi (himself the founder of the city) chose the site of his mosque in the center of the city, near the headquarters of the governor.
Under the rule of Aghlabid sovereigns, Kairouan was at its apogee, and the mosque profited from this period of stability and prosperity. The current state of the mosque can be traced back to the reign of Aghlabidsa€”no element is earlier than the ninth century besides the mihraba€”except for some partial restorations and a few later additions made in 1025 during the reign of Zirids,[27] 1248 and 1293-1294 under the reign of Hafsids,[28] 1618 at the time of mouradites beys,[29] in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Several centuries after its founding, the Great Mosque of Kairouan is the subject of numerous descriptions by Arab historians and geographers in the Middle Ages. A« He built in the mosque of Kairouan the cupola that rises over the entrance to the central nave, together with the two colonnades which flank it from both sides, and the galleries were paved by him.
Among the Western travelers, poets and writers who visited Kairouan, some of them leave impressions and testimonies sometimes tinged with emotion or admiration on the mosque. A« The Great Mosque is dedicated to Uqba, where there is a famous college where we will study the remotest corners of this kingdom : are taught reading and writing of Arabic grammar, laws and religion. A« Is there a more beautiful than this still preserved old tower, the minaret, in Islamic architecture ? Today, the enclosure of the Great Mosque of Kairouan is pierced by nine gates (six opening on the courtyard, two opening on the prayer hall and a ninth allows access to the maqsura) some of them, such as Bab Al-Ma (Gate of water) located on the western facade, are preceded by salient porches flanked by buttresses and surmounted by ribbed domes based on square tholobate which are porting squinches with three vaults.[12][37] However, Arab geographers and historians of the Middle Ages Al-Muqaddasi and Al-Bakri reported the existence, around the tenth and eleventh centuries, of about ten gates named differently from today. The portico on the south side of the courtyard, near the prayer hall, includes in its middle a large dressed stone pointed horseshoe arch which rests on ancient columns of white veined marble with Corinthian capitals. The combination formed by the courtyard and the galleries that surround it covers an immense area whose dimensions are about 90 meters long and 72 meters in width.[44] The northern part of the courtyard is paved with flagstones while the rest of the floor is almost entirely composed of white marble slabs. The door giving access to the minaret is framed by a lintel and jambs made of recycled carved friezes of antique origin.[49] There are stone blocks from the Roman period that bear Latin inscriptions.
The interior includes a staircase of 129 steps, surmounted by a barrel vault, which gives access to the terraces and the first tier of the minaret.
The Mosque has several domes, the largest being over the mihrab and the entrance to the prayer hall from the courtyard.
The prayer hall is located on the southern side of the courtyard ; and is accessed by 17 carved wooden doors. The central nave, a sort of triumphal alley which leads to the mihrab,[62] is significantly higher and wider than the other sixteen aisles of the prayer hall.
In the prayer hall, the 414 columns of marble, granite or porphyry[68] (among more than 500 columns in the whole mosque),[69] taken from ancient sites in the country such as SbeA?tla, Carthage, Hadrumetum and Chemtou,[59] support the horseshoe arches.
The covering of the prayer hall consists of painted ceilings decorated with vegetal motifs and two domes : one raised at the beginning of the central nave and the other in front of the mihrab. The painted ceilings are a unique ensemble of planks, beams and brackets, illustrating almost thousand years of the history of painting on wood in Tunisia. The boards painted under the Hafsid period (during the thirteenth century) offers a floral decor consists of white and blue arches entwined with lobed green.
The mihrab, which indicates the Qibla (direction of Mecca), in front of which stands the imam during the prayer, is located in the middle of the southern wall of the prayer hall.
The mosque's mihrab, whose decor is a remarkable witness of Muslim art in the early centuries of Islam, is distinguished by its harmonious composition and the quality of its ornaments. It is surrounded at its upper part by 139 lusterware tiles (with a metallic sheen), each one is 21.1 centimeters square and they are arranged on the diagonal in a chessboard pattern.


The wall of the mihrab is covered with 28 panels of white marble, carved and pierced, which have a wide variety of plant and geometric patterns including the stylized grape leaf, the flower and the shell.
The maqsura, located near the minbar, consists of a fence bounding a private enclosure that allows the sovereign and his senior officials to follow the solemn prayer of Friday without mingling with the faithful. The library is near located, accessible by a door which the jambs and the lintel are carved in marble, adorned with a frieze of floral decoration. The Mosque of Uqba, one of the few religious buildings of Islam has remained intact almost all of its architectural and decorative elements, is due to the richness of its repertoire which is a veritable museum of Islamic decorative art and architecture. From the library of the mosque comes a large collection of calligraphic scrolls and manuscripts, the oldest dating back to the second half of the ninth century. Among the finest works of this series, the pages of the Blue Qur'an, currently exhibited at Raqqada National Museum of Islamic Art, from a famous Qur'an in the second half of the fourth century of the Hegira (the tenth century) most of which is preserved in Tunisia and the rest scattered in museums and private collections worldwide. Other works of art such as the crowns of light (circular chandeliers) made in cast bronze, dating from the Fatimid-Zirid period (around tenth-early eleventh century), originally belonged to the furniture of the mosque. At the time of its greatest splendor, between the ninth and eleventh centuries AD, Kairouan was one of the greatest centers of Islamic civilization and its reputation as a hotbed of scholarship covered the entire Maghreb. In addition to studies on the deepening of religious thought and Maliki jurisprudence, the mosque also hosted various courses in secular subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine and botany. This vast space contains a hypostyle prayer hall, a huge marble-paved courtyard and a massive square minaret. Then there are the upheavals of Kairouan following Hilalian's invasions in 449 AH (or 1057 AD) and which led to the decline of the city. More than a defensive role, the buttresses and towers full serve more to enhance the stability of the mosque built on a soil subject to compaction.[13] Although a seemingly harsh, the external facades, punctuated with powerful buttresses and towering porches, some of which are surmounted by cupolas, give to the sanctuary a striking aspect characterized by majestic sobriety.
Around 690, shortly after its construction, the mosque was destroyed[15] during the occupation of Kairouan by the Berbers, originally conducted by Kusaila.
The stories concern mainly the different phases of construction and expansion of the sanctuary, and the successive contributions of many princes to the interior decoration (mihrab, minbar, ceilings, etc.).
In the history of Art, its three-storey minaret is considered such a masterpiece and a model among the most prestigious monuments of Muslim architecture.
This reflects the fact that, unlike the rest of the mosque, the enclosure has undergone significant changes to ensure the stability of the building (adding many buttresses). This porch of seven meters high is topped with a square base upon which rests a semi-spherical ribbed dome ; the latter is ribbed with sharp-edged ribs. Near its center is an horizontal sundial, bearing an inscription in naskhi engraved on the marble dating from 1258 AH (which corresponds to the year 1843) and which is accessed by a little staircase ; it determines the time of prayers. It consists of three tapering levels, the last of which is topped with a small ribbed dome that was most probably built later than the rest of the tower.[48] The first and second stories are surmounted by rounded merlons which are pierced by arrowslits. Their use probably dates to the work done under the Umayyad governor Bishr ibn Safwan in about 725 AD, and they have been reused at the base of the tower.[49] The greater part of the minaret dates from the time of the Aghlabid princes in the ninth century.
The courtyard facade (or south facade) of the tower is pierced with windows that provide light and ventilation,[51] while the other three facadesa€”facing north, east and westa€”are pierced with small openings in the form of arrowslits.[47] The minaret, in its present aspect, dates largely from the early ninth century, about 836 AD. The dome of the mihrab is based on an octagonal drum with slightly concave sides, raised on a square base, decorated on each of its three southern, Easter and western faces with five flat-bottomed niches surmounted by five semi-circular arches,[24][57] the niche in the middle is cut by a lobed oculus enrolled in a circular frame. Wooden brackets offer a wide variety of style and decor in the shape of a crow or a grasshopper with wings or fixed, they are characterized by a setting that combines floral painted or carved, with grooves.
It is formed by an oven-shaped niche framed by two marble columns and topped by a painted wooden half-cupola. Divided into two groups, they are dated from the beginning of the second half of the ninth century but it is not determined with certainty whether they were made in Baghdad or in Kairouan by a Baghdadi artisan, the controversy over the origin of this precious collection agitates the specialists. Behind the openwork hint, there is an oldest niche on which several assumptions were formulated.


Jewel of the art of woodwork produced during the reign of the Zirid prince Al-Muizz ibn Badis and dated from the first half of the eleventh century, it is considered the oldest still in place in the Islamic world. Most of the works on which rests the reputation of the mosque are still conserved in situ while a certain number of them have joined the collections of the Raqqada National Museum of Islamic Art ; Raqqada is located about ten kilometers southwest of Kairouan.
Featuring kufic character suras are written in gold on vellum dyed with indigo, they are distinguished by a compact graph with no marks for vowels.
These polycandelons, now scattered in various Tunisian museums including Raqqada, consist of three chains supporting a perforated brass plate, which has a central circular ring around which radiate 18 equidistant poles connected by many horseshoe arches and equipped for each of two landmarks flared. During this period, the Great Mosque of Kairouan was both a place of prayer and a center for teaching Islamic sciences under the Maliki current.
The transmission of knowledge was assured by prominent scholars and theologians which included Sahnun ibn Sa'id and Asad ibn al-Furat, eminent jurists who contributed greatly to the dissemination of the Maliki thought, Ishaq ibn Imran and Ibn al-Jazzar in medicine, Abu Sahl al-Kairouani and Abd al-Monim al-Kindi in mathematics. For all these reasons, the mosque (which occupies the same place since its founding in 670) is not any more situated in the center of the medina, and is thereby positioned on the extremity, near the walls. Among the authors who have written on the subject and whose stories have survived[31] are Al-Bakri (Andalusian geographer and historian who died in 1094 and who devoted a sufficiently detailed account of the history of the mosque in his book Description of Septentrional Africa), Al-Nuwayri (historian who died in Egypt, 1332) and Ibn Nagi (scholar and historian of Kairouan who died around 1435). The rainwater collector or impluvium, probably the work of the Muradid Bey Mohamed Bey al-Mouradi (1686a€“1696), is an ingenious system that ensures the capture (with the slightly sloping surface of the courtyard) then filtering stormwater at a central basin furnished with horseshoe arches sculpted in white marble.[45] Freed from its impurities, the water flows into an underground cistern supported by seven meters high pillars.
According to the German archaeologist Christian Ewert, the special arrangement of reused columns and capitals surrounding the mihrab obeys to a well-defined program and would draw symbolically the plan of the Dome of the Rock.[71] The shafts of the columns are carved in marble of different colors and different backgrounds. The oldest boards date back to the Aghlabid period (ninth century) and are decorated with scrolls and rosettes on a red background consists of squares with concave sides in which are inscribed four-petaled flowers in green and blue, and those performed by the Zirid Dynasty (eleventh century) are characterized by inscriptions in black kufic writing with gold rim and the uprights of the letters end with lobed florets, all on a brown background adorned with simple floral patterns.
These tiles are mainly decorated with floral and plant motifs (stylized flowers, palm leaves and asymmetrical leaves on bottom hatch and checkered) belong to two series : one polychrome characterized by a greater richness of tones ranging from light gold to light, dark or ocher yellow, and from brick-red to brown lacquer, the other monochrome is a beautiful luster that goes from smoked gold to green gold.
If one refers to the story of Al-Bakri, an Andalusian historian and geographer of the eleventh century, it is the mihrab which would be done by Uqba Ibn Nafi, the founder of Kairouan, whereas Lucien Golvin shares the view that it is not an old mihrab but hardly a begun construction which may serve to support marble panels and either goes back to work of Ziadet Allah I (817-838) or to those of Abul Ibrahim around the years 862-863.[79] Above the marble cladding, the mihrab niche is crowned with a half dome-shaped vault made of manchineel bentwood. The upper edge of the minbar ramp is adorned with a rich and graceful vegetal decoration composed of alternately arranged foliated scrolls, each one containing a spread vine-leaf and a cluster of grapes.
The beginning of each surah is indicated by a band consisting of a golden stylized leafy foliage, dotted with red and blue, while the verses are separated by silver rosettes. The three chains, connected by a suspension ring, are each fixed to the plate by an almond-shaped finial.
One may conceivably compare its role to that of the University of Paris during the Middle Ages.
Those in white marble come from Italy,[59] some shafts located in the area of the mihrab are in red Porphyry imported from Egypt,[72] while those made of greenish or pink marble are from quarries of Chemtou, in the north-west of current Tunisia.[59] Although the shafts are of varying heights, the columns are ingeniously arranged to support fallen arches harmoniously. The coating around them is decorated with blue plant motifs dating from the eighteenth century or the first half of the nineteenth century. Other scrolls and calligraphic Qur'ans, as that known as the Hadinah's Qur'an, copied and illuminated by the calligrapher Ali ibn Ahmad al-Warraq for the governess of the Zirid prince Al-Muizz ibn Badis at about 1020 AD, were also in the library before being transferred to Raqqada museum. Their edges, obtained from the lower parts of ancient cored columns,[46] support the string grooves back the buckets. The horseshoe arch of the mihrab, stilted and broken at the top, rest on two columns of red marble with yellow veins, which surmounted with Byzantine style capitals that carry two crossbeams carved with floral patterns, each one is decorated with a Kufic inscription in relief. Although more than eleven centuries of existence, all panels, with the exception of nine, are originals and are in a good state of conservation, the fineness of the execution of the minbar makes it a great masterpiece of Islamic wood carving referring to Paul Sebag.[83] This old chair of the ninth century is still in its original location, next to the mihrab. This collection is a unique source for studying the history and evolution of calligraphy of medieval manuscripts in the Maghreb, covering the period from the ninth to the eleventh century.



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