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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture


City in Tunisia. It was founded in 670 by ῾Uqba ibn Nafi῾, the Arab conqueror of North Africa, on the site of a ruined Roman or Byzantine town; the site, slightly elevated above the great interior plain, afforded protection from surprise attacks and floods. In the 9th century Kairouan was the capital of the semi-independent Aghlabid dynasty (r. 800–909) and the most important city between the Nile and the Atlantic. Under the Fatimids (r. 909–72) the capital was shifted first to Mahdiya on the coast and then in 947–8 back to the suburb of Sabra–al-Mansuriyya.

In 1054–5 Kairouan was sacked by the Hilali tribe of Bedouin and the town reduced to ruins. Its decline was further exacerbated by the growing importance of Tunis in Mediterranean maritime trade. Under the relative peace established by the Hafsids, the city recovered somewhat, and many hospices (Arab. zāwiya) were built to accommodate the growing number of local Sufi saints (marabouts). The zāwiya of Sidi Sahib, for example, was constructed in the 14th century over the tomb of Abu Zama῾a al-Balawi, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. The present buildings were reconstructed by Hammuda Pasha in the 17th century and were restored in the 19th. The arcaded portico adorned with glazed tiles and carved stucco is particularly fine. The zāwiya of Sidi ῾Amur ῾Abbada, known as the mosque of the Sabers because of the weapons stored within, was erected c.1860. Its five cupolas show the continuation of local forms. The building houses the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions.

The most important building in Kairouan is the Great Mosque, known also as the mosque of Sidi ῾Uqba after its founder (for illustrations see Architecture, fig. 7, Mihrab and Woodwork, fig. 3) The original mosque, a simple building of sun-dried brick, was rebuilt several times. In 836 it was demolished and rebuilt in its present form by the Aghlabid ruler Ziyadat Allah I (r. 817–38). Additional work was completed in 862 in the reign of Abu Ibrahim Ahmad. The mosque is a roughly rectangular structure with maximum interior dimensions of 122×70 m; it has a court surrounded by arcades and a hypo style prayer-hall occupying about one-third of the surface area. The prayer-hall, which has 17 aisles perpendicular to the qibla wall, has domes at either end of the wider central aisle. One stands over the bay in front of the mihrab, and the other abuts the courtyard. The colonnades of the central aisle were doubled in the later 9th century to strengthen the building. The mihrab itself is decorated with carved marble panels and surrounded by luster tiles (see Mihrab, color pl. 2:XVI, fig. 1), and the carved wooden minbar is the oldest such pulpit preserved in Islam. To the right of the minbar the magnificent wooden Maqsura, or enclosure for the sovereign, was added by the Zirid ruler al-Mu῾izz ibn Badis (r. 1016–62). The three-story minaret opposite the prayer-hall was modeled on the lighthouse at Salakta (anc. Sullecthum) nearby. The mosque was restored by the Hafsids (r. 1228–1534), who rebuilt the court arcades and added the eastern entrance known as the Bab Lalla Rihana (1294; see Architecture, fig. 42); and again in the 17th and 18th centuries by the beys of Tunis, who remodeled the ceilings. The mosque was a center of orthodoxy in western Islamic lands, and the city seems to have been important for the production of Koran manuscripts. The prestige of the mosque made it a model for others at Tunis and Mahdia, for example.

Another Aghlabid building is the mosque of the Three Doors (Tleta Biban; 866; for illustration see Aghlabid), a small structure (9.05×8.60 m) of nine domes arranged in a square with no courtyard. The finely carved stone façade is decorated with floral and geometric motifs and an elegant kufic inscription stating that it was ordered by Muhammad ibn Khayrun al-Ma῾afari, the Andalusian. In 1440–41 a small minaret was added to the left side of the façade. The interior has been entirely rebuilt.

Several satellite towns were built around Kairouan under the Aghlabids. Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab (r. 800–12) founded a new residential quarter, al-῾Abbasiyya, which he modeled on Baghdad, but little remains of the site. Ibrahim II (r. 875–902) built another royal suburb at Raqqada to the south of Kairouan, where there are remains of a large brick palace, cisterns and a trapezoidal lake (182×171 m) used for water-tournaments. To the north of the city two other cisterns, fed by an extensive system of aqueducts (see fig.), were built by Abu Ibrahim Ahmad (r. 856–63). The larger is a 48-sided polygon (diam. 128 m) that originally had a pavilion in the center; the smaller (diam. 37.4 m), 17-sided settling tank lies to one side. A third satellite city, known as Sabra–al-Mansuriyya, was built in 947–8 by the Fatimid caliph al-Mansur. It too had palaces, gardens and extensive waterworks. A palace at Raqqada, constructed for President Habib Bourguiba in 1970, has been converted into the National Museum of Islamic Art.


Kairouan, Aghlabid basins outside of the city, 9th century; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

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Kairouan is an important center of carpet manufacture, and Kairouan carpets have been imitated throughout Tunisia. Although Tunisia has long been known for the production of fine woolens, the industry was probably inspired by carpets imported from Anatolia in the 18th century. Their designs usually consist of an elongated hexagonal medallion within a central field surrounded by borders. In the early 20th century the traditional palette, characterized by a striking red, began to be replaced with shades of undyed wool.


  • Enc. Islam/2: “ḳayrawān”
  • G. Marçais: Coupole et plafonds de la Grande Mosquée de Kairouan (Paris, 1925)
  • G. Marçais: Les Faïences à reflets métalliques de la Grande Mosquée de Kairouan (Paris, 1928)
  • K. A. C. Creswell: Early Muslim Architecture, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1932–40/vol. i R and enlarged 1969)
  • G. Marçais and L. Poinssot: Objets kairouanais: IXe au XIIIe siècle: Reliures, verreries, cuivres et bronzes, bijoux, 2 vols. (Tunis, 1948–52)
  • B. Roy and L. Poinssot: Inscriptions arabes de Kairouan, 2 vols. (Paris, 1950–58)
  • M. Solignac: “Recherches sur les installations hydrauliques de Kairouan et des steppes tunisiennes du VIIe au XIe siècle (  J.C.),” An. Inst. Etud. Orient. U. Alger, x (1952), pp. 5–273; xi (1953), pp. 60–170
  • G. Marçais: L’Architecture musulmane d’occident (Paris, 1954)
  • P. Sebag: La Grande Mosquée de Kairouan (Zurich, 1963; Eng. trans. by R. Howard, New York, 1965)
  • A. Lézine: Architecture de l’Ifriqiya: Recherches sur les monuments aghlabides (Paris, 1966)
  • L. Golvin: “Le Mihrab de Kairouan,” Kst Orients, v (1968), pp. 1–38
  • G. Kircher: “Die Moschee des Muhammad ibn Hairun in Qairawan,” Mitt. Dt. Archäol. Inst.: Abt. Kairo, xxvi (1970), pp. 141–68
  • I. Reswick: Traditional Textiles of Tunisia and Related North African Weavings (Los Angeles, 1985)
  • C. Ewert: “Die Dekorelemente der Lüsterfliesen am Miḥrāb der Hauptmoschee von Qairawān (Tunesien): Eine Studie zu ostislamischen Einflüssen im westislamischen Bauschmuck,” Madrid. Mitt., xlii (2002), pp. 243, 431
  • O. Bobin and others: “Where Did the Lustre Tiles of the Sidi Oqba Mosque (AD 836–63) in Kairouan Come From?,” Archaeometry, xlv, suppl. 4 (2003), pp. 569–77
  • E. Voguet: “L’Inventaire des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque de la grande mosquée de Kairouan (693/1293–4),” Arabica, l/4 (2003), pp. 532–44
  • K. Boussora and S. Mazouz: “The Use of the Golden Section in the Great Mosque at Kairouan,” Nexus Network J., vi/1 (2004), pp. 7–16
  • P. Cressier: “Chronique d’archéologie: Première campagne de fouilles à Ṣabra al-Manṣūriya (Kairouan, Tunisie),” Mél. Casa Velázquez, xxxiv/1 (2004), pp. 401–9
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