Great Mosque, Kairouan Sidi Oqba Mosque
The Sidi Oqba Mosque, or Great Mosque, stands at the northeast corner of the Medina in Kairouan, its massive minaret incorporated in the town walls. The oldest and most important Islamic building in North Africa and the model for all later Moorish sacred architecture, it was originally built by Oqba ibn Nafi, the Arab commander who founded Kairouan, in 672. After being pulled down, rebuilt, altered and enlarged on various occasions it was given its present form about 836, in the reign of the Aghlabid ruler Ziyadet Allah. Since then it has been frequently renovated, notably in 1025, 1294, 1618 and 1968-73. It originally stood in the center of the town, but, as can be seen from the town plan, this has moved steadily southwestward.The mosque covers an area 135m/443ft long by 80m/262ft wide. The entrance, on the west side, with the midha (room for ablutions), leads into the inner courtyard, off which open a number of doorways. In the form of a slightly irregular rectangle, it is surrounded on three sides by double- aisled colonnades of antique columns. Under the marble-paved courtyard, which slopes down gradually towards the center, are cisterns for the storage of rainwater. At the north end is the minaret, at the south end the magnificent façade of the prayer hall. The vestibule, two bays deep, with a ribbed dome, dates from the ninth century.Seventeen carved wooden doors give admission to the seventeen-aisled prayer hall. The central aisle, which is wider than the others, leads straight to the mihrab (prayer niche) on the qibla wall, along which extends a wide aisle. The bay in front of the mihrab is crowned by a dome, one of the oldest stone-built domes in North Africa. The prayer hall, measuring 80m/260ft by 40m/130ft, is a forest of columns with beautiful shafts and capitals from ancient buildings, some from as far afield as Carthage and Hadrumetum (Sousse). Including those in the courtyard, the mosque contains a total of 414 columns.The mihrab marking the direction of Mecca (though later measurements have shown that it is 30° off the true line) is faced with fine faience tiles, given a metallic sheen by the addition of metal oxides to the glaze - a process not known in the west when the tiles were imported from Baghdad in 862. The rear wall is clad with 28 decorated marble slabs measuring 60cm/2ft by 45cm/18in. The round-headed arch over the mihrab is borne on marble columns. To the right of the mihrab is the wooden minbar (pulpit), decorated with the finest intarsia work, which also dates from the ninth century and is thus the oldest surviving minbar in the whole Islamic world. (There are a reproduction and photographs of it in the Islamic Museum: see below.) The maqsura (the screen behind which the ruler could participate in worship) is a masterpiece of carving (1022).Although non-Muslims have since 1972 been banned from entering the prayer hall, it may be possible to get a glimpse of the interior through an open door.
The 35m/115ft high minaret of the Sidi Oqba Mosque in Kairouan was built in 724-728, and is thus not only the oldest part of the building but the oldest minaret in North Africa. Its three successively smaller sections are decorated with crenellations, blind arcades and open arches. The third section carries the ribbed dome added in the 13th century, which to mark the importance of the mosque is topped by three copper spheres. A staircase of 128 steps leads up to the top; some of the steps are formed of early Christian gravestones, symbolizing the triumph of Islam over Christianity.
Map of Kairouan Attractions
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