Kairouan Tourist Attractions
Chief town of the governorate of KairouanSituation and characteristicsKairouan, the fourth holy city of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), situated in desolate steppe country on the western edge of the Sahel, has preserved its purely Arab and Muslim aspect intact into modern times, and the walled Medina with its great mosques and other sacred buildings is one of the finest and most visited sights in the whole of the Maghreb.
There is a busy market on Mondays.EconomyAs the chief Islamic center in North Africa Kairouan draws millions of pilgrims and is one of Tunisia's leading tourist centers. The fifth largest town in Tunisia, it is famed for the woven and knotted carpets made here, mainly by women and children and for a variety of other crafts (wood articles, brass and copperware, leather goods). Visitors can see and purchase a wide range of craft products in the showrooms of the government handicrafts Organization ONAT (Organization Nationale de l'Artisanat Tunisien).Kairouan itself has little water, and since its foundation supplies have had to be brought to the town from great distances. The surrounding plain, on the other hand, has a very high rainfall, mainly in winter. Dams have been built to the southwest of the town and on the Oued Zeroud, near Sidi Saad, and the water thus stored is used to irrigate the steppe country and meet the needs of agriculture, which takes the form of sheep-farming (there is a daily livestock market in Kairouan) and the growing of grain and fruit. The agricultural produce of the area is processed in a number of small factories.FantasiaA Fantasia (equestrian festival) is held annually in September at Sidi Ali ben Nasrallah.HistoryIn A.D. 671 Oqba ibn Nafi, commander of the Arab army which was thrusting into North Africa and since 670 governor of Ifriqiya, established his headquarters here in the middle of the steppe country. The site was chosen on strategic grounds, for there was neither a Roman nor any earlier settlement in this waterless area. It lay half way between Cap Bon and the Chott; the hills to the west provided protection from Berber raids, and the wide plain to the east offered security against surprise attacks by the Byzantines, who still controlled the coastal region.Kairouan then became the base from which the victorious Islamic forces advanced westward through North Africa and into Spain. Its great days were in the ninth century, when the Aghlabids made it their capital; but this heyday did not last long, for the leading role in North Africa passed to Mahdia after its foundation in 916 and to Cairo after its conquest by the Fatimids in 973. Its final decline began with a raid by the Beni Hilal nomads, who sacked and destroyed Kairouan in 1057, though sparing the religious buildings.In the 14th century the town was rebuilt by the Hafsids, and in the early 18th century it was extended by the Husseinites. Although Tunis was now the uncontested political capital of Tunisia, Kairouan retained its religious importance for the Muslims of North Africa; and seven pilgrimages to Kairouan are regarded as equivalent to the prescribed pilgrimage to Mecca.AccessKairouan lies at the intersection of a number of main roads, 155km/96mi southwest of Tunis (GP 3, Tunis-Kairouan), 97km/60mi southwest of Hammamet (GP 1, Hammamet-Sousse; at Enfidaville GP 2 to Kairouan), 53km/33mi west of Sousse (GP 12, Sousse-Kairouan) and 159km/99mi north of Gabès (42km/26mi on GP 1, Gabès-Sfax, then at La Skhira GP 2 to Kairouan).No rail connections (goods station only). Bus services to and from Tunis, Sousse, Maktar, Sbeitla, Gafsa, Gabès, Tozeur/Nefta and Le Kef; bus station (Gare Routière) on Sousse road.
The tourist information office is the best starting-point for a tour of the Medina in Kairouan. Here visitors must obtain tickets for admission to the principal sights including the Zaouia of Sidi Abid el Ghariani, the Sidi Oqba Mosque, the Aghlabid Basins and the Zaouia of Sidi Sahab. Although (as in other mosques in Tunisia) non-Moslems are not allowed to enter the prayer hall of the Sidi Oqba Mosque visitors should make a point of going into the beautiful inner courtyard (open daily, except Friday afternoon and public holidays, 8am-12.30pm and 4.30-5.30pm, in winter 8am-12.30pm and 2.45- 4.30pm). Other religious buildings are open daily 9am-6pm.Tickets covering visits to all the main sights must be obtained from the ONTT office; no tickets are issued at the individual buildings. When buying tickets visitors are required to sign a declaration (the "annex touristique") undertaking to respect the sacred buildings (to be suitably dressed, to avoid unnecessary noise or disturbance, not to smoke, not to enter the prayer hall in a mosque, etc.).
Kairouan's Medina (old town) is the best preserved in Tunisia. Some 1,000m/1,100yds long by 500m/550yds across, it is surrounded by a 3.5km/ 2mi long circuit of brick walls 10m/33ft high, reinforced by numerous towers (wall-walk open for part of the way). The present walls were built by the Husseinites in 1706-12 on the foundations of earlier walls dating from 1052, and have been frequently restored since then. On the north and west sides of the Medina are a number of old-established outer districts (Gueblia, Djeblia, Zlass); the new town lies to the south.
Zaouia of Sidi Abid el Ghariani
From Bab ech Chouhada the main street of the Medina in Kairouan, Rue Ali Belhaouane, runs straight ahead. A few yards along the second street on the right (Rue Sidi Ghariani) is the Zaouia of Sidi Abid el Ghariani, with the tomb of a holy man who lived in Kairouan in the 14th century. Notable features are the fine wood and stucco ceiling, the sumptuously decorated dome of the tomb and the inner courtyard with its beautiful arcades. This is due to become the headquarters of the Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina, which is concerned with the preservation and restoration of the old town. It is also planned to establish a museum of Arabic calligraphy, with a collection of inscribed gravestones of the ninth-11th centuries. Another 100 yards along the main street of the souk, at the old-established Cafe Halfaouine, Rue des Cuirs goes off on the right.
The main axis of the newer part of Kairouan, which is smaller than in other Tunisian towns, is the Boulevard Habib Bourguiba, a busy pedestrian street lined by coffee-houses and souvenir shops which leads in a straight line to Bab ech Chouhada (Porte des Martyrs; 1772), originally called Bab el Jalladin, the Gate of the Leather-Dealers, which leads into the Medina; stones from ancient buildings can be seen built into the inner side of the gateway. In front of the gate is the Place Mohammed el Bejaoui or Place des Martyrs, on the near side of which, to the right, can be found the tourist information office (ONTT).
A few yards along Rue des Cuirs in Kairouan is the blue entrance door of the Bir Barouta, a 17th century draw-well on the upper floor of the building. Here a dromedary, its eyes bound, provides the motive power for a water-wheel which raises water in pottery jars. Originally the water was collected here and distributed in conduits to houses in the town. According to legend the well is connected by an underground channel with the Zemzem spring in Mecca. This is now a rather unhappy spectacle laid on for the benefit of tourists in quest of Oriental atmosphere.
Mosque of the Three Doors
Beyond Bir Barouta is Rue de la Mosquée, which runs north to the Mosque of the Three Doors (Mosquée des Trois Portes, Djemaa Tleta Bibane), one of the oldest buildings in Kairouan, founded by a learned man from Andalusia in 866. Its most notable feature is the facade, with the three doorways from which it takes its name and two friezes of Kufic inscriptions, the lower of which is dated to 1440. The minaret also dates from 1440.
Rue Ali Belhaouane continues through the souk quarter of the old town of Kairouan, built mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries and still occupied by practitioners of traditional crafts. After passing the El Bey Mosque (on the right) and the El Maalek Mosque (on the left) it comes to Bab el Tounès (1771), the Tunis Gate. The other sights of old Kairouan are all within easy reach of Bab el Tounès. To the right, along the town walls, is the Kasbah (not open to the public). From here a street continues north along the inner side of the walls to the Sidi Oqba Mosque.
Lalla Rihana Gate
On the east side of the Sidi Oqba Mosque in Kairouan, leading directly into the prayer hall, is the Lalla Rihana Gate (named after a local holy woman), a square structure in Hispano-Mauresque style (1294) projecting from the massive mosque walls. There is a good view of the mosque and the Medina from the town walls opposite the minaret. 200m/220yds north of the Sidi Oqba Mosque, outside the town walls, is a large cemetery.
To the north of the Kasbah in Kairouan, beyond the Avenue de la République, are the Aghlabid Basins (restored 1969). These two pools (originally there were more) stored water for the Aghlabid palace which occupied the site of the present-day cemetery. The water was brought by an aqueduct from Djebel Cherichera, 36km/ 22mi away. The smaller basin (17-sided, 37m/121ft in diameter) was a settling tank, from which the water flowed into the larger one (48-sided, 128m/420ft in diameter, 10m/33ft deep), which had a capacity of 50,000cu.m/11 million gallons. In the center of the larger pool is the base of a pavilion in which the Aghlabid rulers used to relax.Another pool has been discovered farther to the west.
Mosque of the Sabres
Going south along Avenue Zama el Balaoui in Kairouan, turning left into Rue Sidi Gaid and in 150m/165yds taking a street on the right, we reach the Zaouia of Sidi Amor Abbada or Mosque of the Sabres (1860), the tomb of a local smith who is revered as a holy man. With its five ribbed domes, the zaouia is one of the principal pilgrim shrines in Kairouan. Round the tomb are examples of the craftsman's skill - sabres, stirrups, anchors, chests - together with his tobacco-pipe and wooden tablets inscribed with his prophecies.
Going west along Avenue de la République in Kairouan, we come in some 800m/0.5mi to the Zaouia of Sidi Sahab, also known as the Barber's Mosque, a complex including a mausoleum and a medersa which was built between 1629 and 1692 over the tomb of one of Mohammed's companions who died in 685. According to legend Sidi Sahab, out of reverence for the Prophet, always carried a few hairs from his beard: hence the name of the Barber's Mosque. (Sidi Sahab was not Mohammed's barber, who is buried in Gabès).The zaouia is notable for its magnificent decoration, much of which dates only from the 19th century. It is entered through a forecourt, on the left of which are the imam's lodgings, guest-rooms and ablution fountains. Opposite the entrance is the minaret. The forecourt also gives access to the medersa, laid out round a small courtyard, the prayer hall beyond it and (by way of a passage adjoining the minaret) another colonnaded courtyard, off which opens the tomb of Sidi Sahab (whose original name was Abu Djama el Balani). The tomb (not open to the public) has beautiful tiled decoration and a dome with stucco ornament.
10km/6mi southwest of Kairouan, on the Sfax road (GP 2), is Reqqada, once the residence of the Aghlabid ruler Ibrahim II (875-902). There are only scanty remains of his palace (a large basin, a smaller one, foundation walls).
The interesting Museum of Islamic Art (Musée National d'Art Islamique) in Reqqada is housed in a presidential palace built in 1970, set in a beautiful park.The exhibits include finds from Kairouan, the Aghlabid residences at Reqqada and Al Abbasiya and other towns in the region. A special exhibition is devoted to the excavations at Sabra Mansourya, 6km/4mi away (a circular palace built by Caliph El Mansour in the middle of the 10th century). In the entrance hall are a model of the Sidi Oqba Mosque and a reproduction of its mihrab. In other rooms are old prints with views of local towns, coins of the various dynasties (Aghlabids, Fatimids, Zirids), old Koranic inscriptions (including one on a gazelle skin dyed blue), a variety of pottery and funerary stelae with inscriptions. The exhibits are labeled only in Arabic but it is well worth a visit.
Sidi Ben Nasrallah
In this village northwest of Kairouan semi-nomadic Zlass tribesmen breed thoroughbred Arab horses. In summer they organize "fantasias" (equestrian games).
Map of Kairouan Attractions