The Sidi Oqba Mosque, or Great Mosque, is the oldest and most impressive Muslim place of worship in North Africa and is Islam’s fourth holiest site after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The founder of Kairouan, Uqba ibn Nafi, built a small mosque on the site in AD 670. As the city thrived, the mosque was rebuilt and enlarged several times: in 703, again in 774, in 836, and 863. It reached its current dimensions by the end of the 9th centuny, but its design and ornamentation continued to evolve up to the 19th century.
UQBA IBN NAFI AND KAIROUAN
At the time of the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632, Muslims only ruled Arabia. However, by 750, the Arab Muslims had achieved one of the most spectacular conquests in history, ruling over the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. In 670, the Muslim leader Uqba ibn Nafi crossed the desert from Egypt as part of the conquest of North Africa. Establishing military posts along the way, he stopped to camp at the location of modern-day Kairouan. Legend tells of a golden cup being discovered in the sand, which was recognized as one that had disappeared from Mecca several years previously. When the cup was picked up, a spring emerged from the ground which, it was declared, was supplied by the same source as that of the holy Zem-Zem well in Mecca. Uqba founded his capital and swept on to conquer Morocco
ISLAM’S FOURTH HOLIEST CITY
Kairouan grew in importance to become the capital of the Aghlabid dynasty in the 9th century. When the Fatimids took power in 909, they moved their capital elsewhere. By the 11th century, Kairouan’s political and economic power had been surpassed by other cities, but it never lost its holy status. As a religious center it continued to grow in prominence, with the mosque proving a powerful magnet for pilgrims from Muslim territories throughout northern and Saharan Africa. Today, Kairouan is Islam’s fourth holiest city. Pilgrims come to drink the waters of the holy spring and to visit the Great Mosque.
INSIDE THE PRAYER HALL
Entrance to the prayer hall at the southern end of the courtyard is through a set of beautiful, finely carved wooden doors dating from the 19th century. Inside is a rectangular, domed chamber with arched aisles. The imam leads the prayers from the minbar, a marvelous pulpit sculpted out of wood from Baghdad and thought to be one of the oldest in the Arab world. Behind the mihrab (dome) at the end of the central aisle are 9th-century tiles, also from Baghdad, surrounding carved marble panels. A carved wooden screen, the maqsura, dating from the 11th century, stands nearby and many Kairouan carpets cover the floor.
Entrance to the Courtyard
Six gates are set into the wall surrounding the courtyard. The main entrance is through a gate surmounted by a dome.
The courtyard slopes down toward its center, where there is a latticed plate shielding a cistern. The plate has a decorative function but also prevents the water, which drains into the cistern, from becoming polluted.
Built between 724 and 728, this imposing square minaret is one of the oldest surviving towers of its kind, and is the oldest part of the Great Mosque. It rises in three sections, each diminishing in size, and is topped by a dome. The lower stories are built from blocks taken from Roman buildings. There are 129 steps leading up to the minaret’s highest point.
Surrounding the courtyard on three sides are cloisters giving shade and protection from the elements.
Entrance to the Mosque
There are two entrances to the prayer hall from the road. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter, but they may look in through the open doors.
Most of the 400-odd marble and granite columns that support the roof of the prayer hall were taken from Roman and Byzantine sites elsewhere. Some, however, were carved by local craftsmen.
Set a top a stepped plinth in the courtyard, this indicates the times of prayer.
These provide the water – drawn from the cistern – for ritual ablutions.
The richly decorated mosque contains some rare examples of ceramic decorative features. Plant motifs and geometric forms are popular.
The exterior of the mosque’s dome shows the position of the 9th-century tiled mihrab (a niche that indicates the direction of Mecca).
The minbar, or pulpit, is made out of teak. It was commissioned by the Aghlabid emir, Abu Ibrahim, and built in around 863.
This hall is divided into 17 long naves divided by arcades. The two wider naves form a ‘T’ shape.
Kairouan is a carpet-making center, a tradition going back hundreds of years, and it is renowned for the quality of its rugs. However, the large rug in the Great Mosque’s prayer hall was a gift from Saudi Arabia.
670: The city of Kairouari is founded by Uqfca ibn Nafi, who constructs a smal mosque.
836: The Great Mosque is renovated and enlarged under the Aghlabids and takes the appearance of the building seen today.
Mid-800s: The Great Mosque becomes a site for Islamic pilgrimage.
1988: Kairouan is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.