Holy Kairouan - a wonderfully different world

Kairouan Travel Blog

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In the heart of the medina, we found a little café with a table outside for a breakfast bite. The guy helping us spoke English well and his brother is working as a chef in Virginia. We had a local join us for breakfast as Rob decided to throw meat scraps to a scrawny stray cat. He was very appreciative and even gave us a meow.


We spent the morning wandering the different souks of the medina. We stopped to watch a man who was working a design into a copper plate. He had a shop filled with his work and that of his father’s. He had designs with Arabic inscriptions, Islamic geometric designs, etched and painted designs, and hammered, raised designs. He had designs in silver or copper with some using mixed metal combinations or painted.

He has been working the metal for 45 years. He started when he was 13.


Next we walked to the food souk, outside the Bab Tunis (gate). There was lively music loudly playing as we surveyed the area. We decided to buy the CD to add to our world music collection. While in this area, we spotted an interesting sight, a man with his cart up on end and parked behind cars. He was resting, sitting underneath on its axle.


We entered the souk again and stopped at the rug stop shown in a picture in our travel guide. He had many different types and styles. Our favorites were locally made Kairouan rugs and the Berber and Bedouin nomad styles. We bought a rug that had been made by a tribesman and used as his roof.

This is the tradition among the tribes of the south. It is imperfect but, fascinating as it has sections of great detail, rare among this type. We had a bit of the local specialty (mint tea) while making our decision. We arrived at a fair price in the end.


Next, we visited a Kairouan oddity, the Bir Barouta is a well that was to have been dug in the 8th century but the building surrounding it is 17th century. The water is drawn by a blindfolded an muzzled camel that operates the wheels of the mechanism that draws water from the deep well into jugs attached to the wheel. Some believe that the well was found by Oqba ibn Nafi and is connected to Mecca. It’s said that if you drink the water that you will return to Kairouan, one day…..Rob refused.


As we were walking in a different area of the medina, Rob noticed a sign on a door that was something to do with being a state certified artisan outlet.

We saw people inside admiring pitchers in a design of the region. Upon entering we were warmly welcomed and encouraged to look around at the beautiful house. It has once belonged to a wealthy man with 4 wives. The man encouraged us to look at each of its many rooms and turned on the lights for us to marvel at them. The ceilings were adorned with details like in many mosques and the woodwork, intricately carved. There was even filigree work in some of the domes. Fancy colorful lighting adorned each room, also. Many of the rooms were several stories high with arcade viewing areas above the main floor. Throughout the house, there were many carpets rolled up and lining the walls. This was also, now used as a carpet showroom. The man made a soft sell and respectfully accepted our declining his offer to look.


We continued on our way towards the Grand Mosque.  Along the way a guy on a scoter stopped and said hello, mentioned he had seen us the evening before leaving the Hotel Splendid, and asked where we were going.

  When we told him the Grand Mosque he said it was closed, but his fiend had a house with roof views of it that was opened for “one day only”.  He had us follow him to a point, gave directions, and then he left us only to show up again.  When we arrived at his “friend’s house” it was a rug shop and after having gone to the very unimpressive roof views we had to sit through another rug sales pitch.   We politely declined purchasing a rug and left.  Outside the guy who brought us there requested money for his services.  We told him no and moved on.  Once we got to the Grand Mosque a man who was selling items on the street offered to take us to a roof view, which we could see definitely did look into the Grand Mosque courtyard.  We were weary after the last experience, but decided to go.  Once again we went through a rug shop to get to the roof.  We got some good shots and he even took a couple of us together.
  When we were exiting he wanted to show us rugs, but did not pressure us so we were able to leave peacefully.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan dates back to 670 CE and was built by the command of Arab Muslim general Oqba bin Nafi. Although it has been destroyed a couple of times, then rebuilt, today' structure rests much upon the original mosque.

The most extensive destruction came few years after the original construction, in 688 when it was destroyed in a rebellion. The present layout was created in the 9th century, but it is hard to establish which parts date back to this date. The base of the minaretis though to be some 100 years older than this.

Still, the columns of the prayer hall are even older, having been taken from Roman and Byzantine structures in Carthage and Hadrumetum (Sousse).

Standing inside the mosque' courtyard you will probably not be able to see that everything tilts, none of the corners are 90 degrees and the minaret does not stand on the axis running from the mihrab through the entrance to the prayer hall, rather about 8 metres to the right.

But it is believed that with the expansion of Islam, the many churches with their towers paved the ground for adding towers to minarets as well. Most seem to agree that the lowest storey of the minaret in Kairouan are the remains of the first real minaret in the world, dating back to 730, more than 100 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

After this we found the Ouled Farhane Cemetery outside the Grand Mosque.

  We sat on a wall for a bit and ate oatmeal bars and chatted.  A group of school children passed us and as many kids had done throughout our visit said “Bonjour”. 


Form here we headed to the Kasbah, which is now a five star hotel.  Moving on from there we made our way to the Zitouna Mosque.  It was a unique structure with buttresses. At this point we were getting pretty hungry so we headed off for the pizza place from the night before.  The pizza was like eating a frozen $0.99 pizza, but it satisfied our need. 


Next on the list was the Mosque of the three doors.

  Rob guided us towards it along the old city wall.  We entered through a different gate and plunged back into the labyrinth of buildings.  After going down a couple of wrong streets and getting help from one young guy and then 2 little girls with their toddler brother in tow we found the mosque.  We realized we had walked right past it earlier.  Since we are not Muslim we could not enter.  Outside a couple of young boys started quizzing us and doing the friendly thing, one tried to guess what language we spoke and went through a long list and never mentioned English.  We chatted for a couple minutes and then one of them started telling us in French to pay attention to his father’s shop.  We declined and moved on.


At this point we were tired and headed back to the room.

  Rob finished reading a book and I worked on the blog for the day before.  In preparation for the confusing streets and drive out the next day, Rob plotted out the course and we walked it.  We knew where the Carpet Museum was located and the right streets to take on round-abouts to get out of town.  We grabbed a quick bite and then headed back to the hotel to finish the blog and rest for our next day of African adventures.


rostovcat says:
It is very interesting, thank you. :)
Posted on: Jun 02, 2010
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photo by: maycek