1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kairawan

KAIRAWAN (Kerouan), the “sacred” city of Tunisia, 36 m. S. by W. by rail from Susa, and about 80 m. due S. from the capital. Kairawān is built in an open plain a little west of a stream which flows south to the Sidi-el-Hani lake. Of the luxuriant gardens and olive groves mentioned in the early Arabic accounts of the place hardly a remnant is left. Kairawān, in shape an irregular oblong, is surrounded by a crenellated brick wall with towers and bastions and five gates. The city, however, spreads beyond the walls, chiefly to the south and west. Some of the finest treasures of Saracenic art in Tunisia are in Kairawān; but the city suffered greatly from the vulgarization which followed the Turkish conquest, and also from the blundering attempts of the French to restore buildings falling into ruin. The streets have been paved and planted with trees, but the town retains much of its Oriental aspect. The houses are built round a central courtyard, and present nothing but bare walls to the street. The chief buildings are the mosques, which are open to Christians, Kairawān being the only town in Tunisia where this privilege is granted.

In the northern quarter stands the great mosque founded by Sidi Okba ibn Nafi, and containing his shrine and the tombs of many rulers of Tunisia. To the outside it presents a heavy buttressed wall, with little of either grandeur or grace. It consists of three parts: a cloistered court, from which rises the massive and stately minaret, the maksura or mosque proper, and the vestibule. The maksura is a rectangular domed chamber divided by 296 marble and porphyry columns into 17 aisles, each aisle having 8 arches. The central aisle is wider than the others, the columns being arranged by threes. All the columns are Roman or Byzantine, and are the spoil of many ancient cities. Access to the central aisle is gained through a door of sculptured wood known as the Beautiful Gate. It has an inscription with the record of its construction. The walls are of painted plaster-work; the mimbar or pulpit is of carved wood, each panel bearing a different design. The court is surrounded by a double arcade with coupled columns. In all the mosque contains 439 columns, including two of alabaster given by one of the Byzantine emperors. To the Mahommedan mind the crowning distinction of the building is that through divine inspiration the founder was enabled to set it absolutely true to Mecca. The mosque of Sidi Okba is the prototype of many other notable mosques (see Mosque). Of greater external beauty than that of Sidi Okba is the mosque of the Three Gates. Cufic inscriptions on the façade record its erection in the 9th and its restoration in the 15th century A.D. Internally the mosque is a single chamber supported by sixteen Roman columns. One of the finest specimens of Moorish architecture in Kairawān is the zawia of Sidi Abid-el-Ghariani (d. c. A.D. 1400), one of the Almoravides, in whose family is the hereditary governorship of the city. The entrance, a door in a false arcade of black and white marble, leads into a court whose arches support an upper colonnade. The town contains many other notable buildings, but none of such importance as the mosque of the Companion (i.e. of the Prophet), outside the walls to the N.W. This mosque is specially sacred as possessing what are said to be three hairs of the Prophet’s beard, buried with the saint, who was one of the companions of Mahomet. (This legend gave rise to the report that the tomb contained the remains of Mahomet’s barber.) The mosque consists of several courts and chambers, and contains some beautiful stained glass. The court which forms the entrance to the shrine of the saint is richly adorned with tiles and plaster-work, and is surrounded by an arcade of white marble columns, supporting a painted wooden roof. The minaret is faced with tiles and is surmounted by a gilded crescent. The 19th-century mosque of Sidi Amar Abada, also outside the wall, is in the form of a cross and is crowned with seven cupolas. In the suburbs are huge cisterns, attributed to the 9th century, which still supply the city with water. The cemetery covers a large area and has thousands of Cufic and Arabic inscriptions.

Formerly famous for its carpets and its oil of roses, Kairawān is now known in northern Africa rather for copper vessels, articles in morocco leather, potash and saltpetre. The town has a population of about 20,000, including a few hundred Europeans.

Arab historians relate the foundation of Kairawān by Okba with miraculous circumstances (Tabari ii. 63; Yāqūt iv. 213). The date is variously given (see Weil, Gesch. d. Chalifen, i. 283 seq.); according to Tabari it must have been before 670. The legend says that Okba determined to found a city which should be a rallying-point for the followers of Mahomet in Africa. He led his companions into the desert, and having exhorted the serpents and wild beasts, in the name of the Prophet, to retire, he struck his spear into the ground exclaiming “Here is your Kairawān” (resting-place), so naming the city.[1] In the 8th century Kairawān was the capital of the province of Ifrikia governed by amirs appointed by the caliphs. Later it became the capital of the Aghlabite princes, thereafter following the fortunes of the successive rulers of the country (see Tunisia: History). After Mecca and Medina Kairawān is the most sacred city in the eyes of the Mahommedans of Africa, and constant pilgrimages are made to its shrines. Until the time of the French occupation no Christian was allowed to pass through the gates without a special permit from the bey, whilst Jews were altogether forbidden to approach the holy city. Contrary to expectation no opposition was offered by the citizens to the occupation of the place by the French troops in 1881. On that occasion the native troops hastened to the mosques to perform their devotions; they were followed by European soldiers, and the mosques having thus been “violated” have remained open ever since to non-Mahommedans.

See Murray’s Handbook to Algeria and Tunis, by Sir R. L. Playfair (1895); A. M. Broadley, The Last Punic War: Tunis Past and Present (1882) and H. Saladin, Tunis el Kairouan (1908).

  1. Though Okba founded his city in a desert place, excavations undertaken in 1908 revealed the existence of Roman ruins, including a temple of Saturn, in the neighbourhood.