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12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Kairouan

Fourth holiest city of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), Kairouan is an important religious pilgrimage site and, for history lovers, one of Tunisia's star tourist attractions. This bustling city is jam-packed with some of the country's best examples of Islamic architecture, from grand mosques and tombs with ornate decoration to the Medina back alleys lined with candy-coloured houses.

Kairouan is also a major shopping destination and is famous for the quality of its carpets. When all the craning your neck at mosque minarets and admiring gorgeous tile work gets too much, it's time to hit the souks for a bit of bargaining with the town's many craftsmen.

1 Medina

MedinaMedina

Keirouan's Medina (old town) is the most atmospheric and best preserved in Tunisia, the tightly packed alleyways giving a taste of the Arab empires. Unlike the prettified old towns of Hammamet and Djerba, the old town here is the real deal. The Medina is surrounded by a 3.5 km long circuit of brick walls reinforced by numerous towers built by the Husseinites in the early 18th century.

Inside the walls, lanes ramble in a maze of directions. The best way to explore is simply to chuck away the map and wander. As well as being home to most of Kairouan's tourist sightseeing draws, the narrow roads lined with colourful, paint-peeling houses are attractions themselves. You could spend hours here just soaking up the old town's beautiful architecture. Even if you're short on time, don't miss spending a few hours just walking around.

2 Great Mosque (Sidi Oqba Mosque)

Great Mosque (Sidi Oqba Mosque)Great Mosque (Sidi Oqba Mosque)

The Great Mosque of Kairouan stands in the northeast corner of the Medina, its massive minaret incorporated into the town walls. This is the oldest and most important Islamic building in North Africa and was originally built by Oqba ibn Nafi, the Arab commander who founded Kairouan in AD 672. Many of Tunisia's other major mosques, including the Great Mosque of Sousse, took their inspiration from Kairouan's Great Mosque architecture.

The mosque covers a mammoth area 135 m long by 80 m wide with a vast inner courtyard surrounded on three sides by double-aisled colonnades of antique columns. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the prayer hall but the doors are often kept open so you can have a peek inside.

3 Mosque of the Barber

Mosque of the BarberMosque of the Barber

The Barber's Mosque (also called the Zaouia of Sidi Sahab) is not to be missed on a Medina visit. The complex includes a mausoleum, mosque and madrassa (Islamic school of learning), and was built between 1629 and 1692 over the tomb of one of Muhammad's (the prophet of Islam) companions who died in AD 685. According to legend Sidi Sahab always carried a few hairs from Muhammad's beard out of reverence for the Prophet, hence the mosque's name.

The complex is notable for its magnificent tile decoration, much of which dates only from the 19th century. You enter 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 madrassa, 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 (not open to the public).

Location: Avenue de la République, Medina

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4 Mosque of Three Doors

Mosque of Three DoorsMosque of Three Doors

One of the oldest buildings in Kairouan, the Mosque of the Three Doors (Mosquée des Trois Portes or Djemaa Tleta Bibane) was founded in AD 866 by an Andalusian scholar. Its most notable feature is the facade with three doorways, from which it takes its name. There are two friezes of Kufic inscriptions, the lower of which dates to 1440. The minaret also dates from this year.

Location: Rue de la Mosquée, Medina

5 Aghlabid Basins

Aghlabid BasinsAghlabid Basins

To the north of the Medina, beyond the Avenue de la République, are the Aghlabid Basins that supplied water for the Aghlabid palace, which once sat on the site of Kairouan's present-day cemetery. The water was brought by aqueduct from Djebel Cherichera, 36 km away. The smaller basin was a settling tank from which the water flowed to the larger one that had a capacity of 50,000 cu m. In the centre of the larger pool is the base of a pavilion where the Aghlabid rulers used to relax. The pools were restored in 1969. and another pool has been discovered just to the west.

6 Zaouia of Sidi Abed el Ghariani

Zaouia of Sidi Abed el GharianiZaouia of Sidi Abed el Ghariani damian entwistle

This ornate tomb, dedicated to a holy man who lived in Kairouan during the 14th century, is notable for its fine wood, stucco ceiling and sumptuously decorated inner courtyard. The tile work decorating the walls here is breathtakingly beautiful and has been extremely well preserved. Anyone interested in traditional Arabic decoration and artistry will enjoy a visit here.

Location: Rue Sidi Ghariani, Medina

7 Souks

SouksSouks upyernoz

The Medina's souk quarter was built mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries and is still occupied by the traditional craftsmen of Kairouan. It's an interesting place to poke about, even if you're not a shopper, as you can see many of the craftsmen busy at work in their workshops. To reach the souk, head down Rue Ali Belhaouane. After passing the El Bey Mosque on your right and the El Maalek Mosque on your left, Bab el Tounès (Tunis Gate) comes into sight. The souk streets all ramble off from here.

8 Bir Barouta

A blue door marks the entrance to Bir Barouta, a 17th century well on the upper floor of the building. According to legend, an underground channel connects the well with the Zemzem spring in Mecca. A camel, attached to the pulley-system, draws up the water from the well by walking around the well. Due to the legend, believers come to drink this holy water. But for many visitors the sight of the camel, destined to trudge around the well endlessly, is an unhappy spectacle.

Location: Rue des Cuirs, Medina

9 New Town

New TownNew Town upyernoz

Kairouan's bustling New Town area has its main axis on Boulevard Habib Bourguiba, a busy pedestrian street lined by coffeehouses and souvenir shops that leads in a straight line to Bab ech Chouhada (Porte des Martyres), built in 1772. Originally this gate was known as Bab el Jalladin (Gate of the Leather dealers). It provides access into the Medina. Stones recycled from Roman sites have been built into the inner side of the gateway. In front of the gate is Place Muhammad el Bejaoui (Place des Martyrs).

10 Lalla Rihana Gate and cemetery

Lalla Rihana Gate and cemeteryLalla Rihana Gate and cemetery

A large cemetery with some interesting tombs dominates the east side of Kairouan's Great Mosque. The Lalla Rihana Gate (named after a local holy woman) sits on the eastern side of the mosque, projecting from the mammoth mosque walls. It is a square structure in Hispano-Mauresque style, built in 1294.

11 Zaouia Sidi Amor Abbada (Mosque of the Sabres)

Zaouia Sidi Amor Abbada (Mosque of the Sabres)Zaouia Sidi Amor Abbada (Mosque of the Sabres) damian entwistle

The Mosque of the Sabres (also known as the Zaouia Sidi Amor Abbada) was built in 1860 as the tomb of a local blacksmith, also revered as a holy man. With its five ribbed domes, the zaouia is one of the principle pilgrim shrines in the city. Round the tomb are examples of the craftsman's skill; sabres, stirrups, anchors, and chests are all on display together with wooden tablets inscribed with the holy man's prophesies.

Location: Rue Sidi Gaid, Medina

12 Islamic Museum

Islamic MuseumIslamic Museum Simon Blackley

Set in a beautiful park, the interesting Museum of Islamic Art in Reqqada is housed in a presidential palace built in 1970. The exhibits include finds from Kairouan, the Aghlabid residences at Reqqada and Al Abbasiya, and other towns in the region. A special highlight introduces the excavations 6 km away at Sabra Mansourya (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 labelled only in Arabic, but it is well worth a visit.

Location: Raqqada, 10 km southwest of Kairouan

History

In AD 671 Oqba ibn Nafi, commander of the Arab army, which was thrusting into North Africa, established his headquarters here in the middle of the steppe country. The site was chosen on strategic grounds, for there was neither Roman nor any earlier settlement in this waterless area. 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 9th 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 AD 916 and to Cairo after its conquest by the Fatimids in AD 973. The 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 Hafsids rebuilt the town, and in the early 18th century the Husseinites extended it. Although Tunis was now the uncontested political capital of Tunisia, Kairouan retained its religious importance for the Muslims of North Africa. Seven pilgrimages to Kairouan are regarded as equivalent to the prescribed pilgrimage to Mecca.

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