Kairouan is one of the holy cities of Islam. Its Great Mosque is also considered an architectural masterpiece, which has influenced the style of other mosques in the Maghreb.
It has been said that seven pilgrimages to the Great Mosque of Kairouan is considered the equivalent of one pilgrimage to Mecca. Today, many consider the city as the fourth holiest in Islam.
Kairouan was founded in ca. 670 as a post in the Arab conquest of the west. Its heyday came with the Aghlabid dynasty that ruled between 800 and 909. The Aghlabids built the great mosque and established in it a university that was a centre of education both in Islamic thought and in the secular sciences. Other notable monuments of that period include the Mosque of the Three Doors and the Basin of the Aghlabids.
Map of KairouanLoad map
I visited Kairouan on a half-day trip from Sousse by louage, the typical Tunisian minibus share taxi. The 60km distance is easily covered within an hour and a ticket costs only 5 Tunisian dinars (1.70 EUR). It was a scorching day, but still I managed to see all of Kairouan’s significant sights on foot – I walked the streets for 10km in total. With about 140,000 inhabitants, it is a fairly large city, located in a semi-arid region. Fortunately, there are many mini-markets where you can stop for a cool drink.
I started at the Aghlabid Basins, 1 of the 3 locations that make up this WHS. This is already quite a trek from the louage station. The Basins, large water reservoirs from the 9th century, were built outside the city walls and are fed by an aqueduct. I entered from the side, where the gate was open; the official entrance wasn’t and there were no tickets checked or sold. Local boys were using the reservoirs for swimming, although with plastic garbage floating in them this didn't look inviting. Still, I found the monumentality of the reservoirs quite impressive – the largest is 128m in diameter. Later I heard from the guide in Dougga that more basins have been found recently.
I then continued to location #2, the Zaouia of Sidi Sahib which shelters the remains of a companion of the Prophet. It is a white, domed building just inside the city walls. I found it closed for entrance, but there’s another Zaouia, that of Sidi Abid Al Ghariani, deeper into the medina. Here I was allowed in, even without a ticket. After a reception room with benches covered by green, blue, and yellow tiles, you enter a courtyard with black-and-white arches. It opens up to several rooms, including the one where the tomb is. That one has a pretty wooden ceiling with multiple layers of ornamentation.
The Great Mosque I left for last, and here I could finally buy the 12 dinar entrance ticket that covers 6 sites in Kairouan. Its ancient origins (in an Arab-Muslim context, so from the 7th century onwards) and theological schools gave the city holy status. Kairouan’s current inhabitants don’t seem to be overly pious, nor was the mosque busy. The ambiance was more museum-like than religious, although it must be said that as a non-Muslim I was not allowed into the prayer halls (who knows what happens there).
What you can admire in the porticoes around the courtyard are ‘better’ remains of Carthage than at the current archaeological site itself. The Punic-Roman city was one of the sources for the rows of columns in various marbles and granite. Also, stones with inscriptions in Latin were reused, upside-down, to construct the walls.
In between these main sights, I enjoyed strolling through the quiet medina. Overall, I found the hassle factor higher than in the medinas of Tunis or Sousse, where it was barely existent. It consisted of harmless “Hey, where are you from?”-calls and invitations to visit carpet shops. Still, I found the medina in Kairouan the best of the 3. The streets here are wider than in the medinas of Tunis or Sousse. Many of the white buildings have light-blue colour accents, such as doors or towers.
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I might have caught Kairouan on a bad day. I went on a Friday and everything was closed. The town was mostly deserted and I had no idea what to do, so I went with a guy offering me a guided tour. This proofed to be more interesting, than walking on my own and was a rather pleasant experience, apart from the last stop with the obligatory carpet shop (I specifically negotiated not to visit before starting the tour). With most shops and restaurants closed and almost no people, it felt rather weird to wander around the streets. I would also not be able to see the outstanding value of this town, compared to other medinas in the country I saw. I’d say it’s one of these places that due to proximity to the other WHS is a must for the real hunters, but can easily be skipped if you only go for the country’s highlights.
The town can be reached rather easy by car. Expect some narrow roads on the way if you come from the coast. I did it on an easy half day trip from Port El Kantaoui, spending the rest of the day at the beach. You could easily combine the day trip with Sousse and/or el Jem, if you have limited time resources.
Since it is practically impossible for Westerners to visit the holy sites of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Kairouan is the closest most people can get to an introduction to the history of one of the world's major religions. Kairouan is easy to visit from the tourist regions of the coast and certainly makes for a worthwhile trip, if only to see the really impressive Great Mosque.
Kairouan is the fourth holiest city in Islam, (although I have just done a little research and this may be a tad controversial!) and it is said that travelling there 7 times is the equivalent of travelling to Mecca. The most impressive site is the great Mosque with its powerful if austere minaret and columns taken from Carthage! Also impressive is the facade of the Mosque of Three Doors! Near the medina entrance is the mosque containing the well that the city was founded around which is supposedly linked to the Zamzam well in Mecca and is a site of Pilgrimage, I found it a bit odd as there was a blinkered camel turning the well in a very small space, but there are some amusing pictures of the camel going up and down the stairs that reach the site.
Kairouan is easy to get to from Sousse, either by bus or Louagge which I would recommend more as on the bus we got picked up by a tout for one of Kairouan's many famous Carpet shops before we even arrived, and it is best to get picked up by one outside the great Mosque as their views are much better, and they will tell you their carpets are better too!!!
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