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UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mosque of Oqba
Ancient cemetery and the Great Mosque.
State Party  Tunisia
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii, v, vi
Reference 499
Region** Arab States
Inscription history
Inscription 1988  (12th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

Kairouan (Arabic القيروان) (also known as Kirwan, Al Qayrawan, it is the capital of the Kairouan Governorate in Tunisia. It was founded by the Arabs in around 670 in the period of Caliph Mu'awiya and the original name was derived from Arabic kairuwân, from Persian Kâravân, meaning "military/civilian camp" (from Kâr, "war/military," and van/wan, "outpost"), "caravan", or "resting place" (see caravanserai).

After its establishment in the 7th century, it became an important center for Islamic and Quranic learning, and thus attracted a large number of Muslims from various parts of the world, next only to Mecca and Medina. The holy Mosque of Uqba is situated in the city.[1][2]

In 2003 the city had about 150,000 inhabitants. In 2009 Kairouan was the Islamic Cultural Capital.



Kairouan was founded in about the year 670 when the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi of Amir Muauia selected a site in the middle of a dense forest, then infested with wild beasts and reptiles, as the location of a military post for the conquest of the West. It was located far from the sea where it was safe from continued attacks of the Berbers who have fiercely resisted the Arab invasion. Berber resistance continued, led first by Kusaila whose troops killed Uqba at Biskra about fifteen years after the military post was established, and then by a Berber woman called Al-Kahina who was killed and her army defeated in 702. Subsequently, there was a mass conversion of the Berbers to Islam.Kharijites or Islamic ‘outsiders’ which formed an egalitarian and puritanical sect appeared and are still present on the island of Jerba. In 745 Kharijite Berbers captured Kairouan, which was already at that time a developed city with luxuriant gardens and olive groves.

Power struggles remained until Kairouan was recaptured by Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab at the end of the 8th century. In 800 Ibrahim was confirmed Emir and hereditary ruler of Ifriqiya by Caliph Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad. Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab founded the Aghlabid dynasty that ruled Ifriqiya between 800 and 909. The new Emirs embellished Kairouan and made it their capital which soon became famous for its wealth and prosperity reaching the levels of Basra and Kufa and giving Tunisia one of its golden ages long sought after the glorious days of Carthage.

The Aghlabites built the great mosque and established in it a university that was a centre of education both in Islamic thought and in the secular sciences. Its role can be compared to that of the University of Paris in the Middle Ages. In the 9th century the city became a brilliant focus of Arab and Islamic cultures attracting scholars from all over the Islamic World. In that period Imam Sahnun and Asad ibn al-Furat made of Kairouan a temple of knowledge and a magnificent center of diffusion of Islamic sciences. The Aghlabids also built palaces, fortifications and fine waterworks of which only the pools remain. From Kairouan envoys from Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire returned with glowing reports of the Aghlabites palaces, libraries and gardens – and from the crippling taxation imposed to pay for their drunkenness and sundry debaucheries. The Aghlabite also pacified the country and conquered Sicily in 827.

Gold coin of the Fatimid Calif al-Mahdi, minted in Kairouan in 912 CE.

In 893, through the mission of Ubaydalla Said, the Kutama Berbers from the west of the country started the movement of the Shiite Fatimids. The year 909 saw the overthrow of the Sunni Aghlabite that ruled Ifriqiya and the creation of the Shiite Fatimid dynasty. During the reign of the Fatimids, Kairouan was neglected and lost its importance as the new rulers resided first in Raqqada but soon moved their capital to the newly built Al Mahdiyah on the coast of modern Tunisia. After succeeding in extending their rule over all of central Maghreb, an area consisting of the modern countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, they eventually moved west to Egypt to found Cairo making it the capital of their vast Califate and leaving the Zirids as their vassals in Ifriqiya. Governing again from Kairouan, the Zirids led the country through another artistic, commercial and agricultural heyday. Schools and universities flourished, overseas trade in local manufactures and farm produce ran high and the courts of the Zirids rulers were centers of refinement that eclipsed those of their European contemporaries.

When the Zirids declared their independence from Cairo and their conversion to Sunni Islam in 1045 by giving allegiance to Baghdad, the Fatimid Caliph Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah sent as punishment hordes of troublesome Arab tribes (Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym) to invade Ifriqiya. These invaders so utterly destroyed Kairouan in 1057 that it never regained its former importance and their influx was a major factor in the spread of nomadism in areas where agriculture had previously been dominant. Some 1700 years of intermittent but continual progress was undone within a decade as in most part of the country the land was laid to waste for nearly two centuries. In the 13th century under the prosperous Hafsids dynasty that ruled Ifriqiya, the city started to emerge from its ruins. It is only under the Husainid Dynasty that Kairouan started to find an honorable place in the country and throughout the Islamic world. In 1881, Kairouan was taken by the French, after which non-Muslims were allowed access to the city. Recently Kairouan was proclaimed as Capital of Islamic Culture for 2009{{fact)).


The most important mosque in the city is the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba. Seven pilgrimages to this mosque is considered the equivalent of one pilgrimage to Mecca.[1] However, there is nothing to support this notion in the Qur'an or Authentic narrations of the Sunnah or any part of orthodox belief. After its establishment, Kairouan became an Islamic and Qur'anic learning center in North Africa. An article by Professor Kwesi Prah[3] describes how during the medieval period, Kairouan was considered the third holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina.[4]

Judaism, no longer prevalent in the city, has an illustrious history in Kairouan, particularly in the early Middle Ages. Rabbeinu Chushiel, his son Rabbeinu Chananel, and R. Nissim Ben Jacob (R. Nissim Gaon)were all from Kairouan and Rabbi Isaac Alfasi studied there, as did many other great rabbis. Kairouan was thus the first major center of Jewish learning outside of Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael.


Street scene, Kairouan

The souk (market place) of Kairouan is in the Medina quarter, which is surrounded by walls, from which the entrance gates can be seen in the distance. Products that are sold in the souk include carpets, vases and goods made of leather. As with merchants in most major Tunisian cities, Kairouan merchants rely on tourism for much of their income.

The city's other main site is the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba, which is said to largely consist of its original building materials. In fact most of the column stems and capitals were taken from ruins of earlier-period buildings, while others were produced locally. There are 414 columns in the mosque. Almost all were taken from the ruins of Carthage. Previously, it was forbidden to count them, on pain of blinding.[5]

Among Tunisians, Kairouan is known for its pastries (e.g., zlebia and makroudh).

During World War II a major military airfield was located near Kairouan, used first by the German Luftwaffe. It was attacked on numerous occasions and later used by the United States Army Air Force Twelfth Air Force as a transport field.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the street scenes in "Cairo" were filmed in Kairouan.


  1. ^ a b Europa Publications “General Survey: Holy Places” The Middle East and North Africa 2003, p. 147. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 1857431324. “The city is regarded as a holy place for Muslims.”
  2. ^ Hutchinson Encyclopedia 1996 Edition. Helicon Publishing Ltd, Oxford. 1996. pp. 572. ISBN 1-85986-107-5.  
  3. ^ Director, Centre for Advanced Study of African Societies, Cape Town, South Africa.
  4. ^ This was originally a paper submitted to the African Union (AU) Experts’ Meeting on a Strategic Geopolitic Vision of Afro-Arab Relations. AU Headquarters, Addis Ababa, 11–12 May 2004 Towards a Strategic Geopolitic Vision of Afro-Arab Relations. "By 670, the Arabs had taken Tunisia, and by 675, they had completed construction of Kairouan, the city that would become the premier Arab base in North Africa. Kairouan was later to become the third holiest city in Islam in the medieval period, after Mecca and Medina, because of its importance as the centre of the Islamic faith in the Maghrib".
  5. ^ Mooney, Julie (2004). Ripley's Believe It or Not! Encyclopedia of the Bizarre: Amazing, Strange, Inexplicable, Weird and All True!. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. p. 47. ISBN 1579123996.  

External links

Coordinates: 35°40′N 10°06′E / 35.667°N 10.1°E / 35.667; 10.1


Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Africa : North Africa : Tunisia : Kairouan
Minaret of the Great Mosque
Minaret of the Great Mosque

Kairouan is a city in Tunisia.

Arabic القيروان (also known as Kairwan, Kayrawan, Al Qayrawan) is a Muslim holy city which ranks fourth after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage. It is reputed that seven visits here are the equivilent of one to Mecca.It's large mosques and cultural history have seen it added to the UNESCO World Heritage List

  • Busses run to Kairouan from the major cities, Tunis, Sousse, Sfax

NB: Touts from the carpets shops have been known to board the bus a few km outside the city and befriend tourist to lure them into their shops, it is good to be aware of this fact

  • Louages run from many destinations into Kairouan, these are probably the best and most frequent way to get into the city.
  • Kairouan is not located on a train line.

The stations for both busses and Louagges are to the North West of the Medina. Though they may well drop you off at a Medina Gate if requested.

Get around

The Medina is best explored on foot, partially to absorb the atmosphere and partially because some areas are inaccessable to anything bigger. Many of the shops near the main mosque will tempt you in with views over the complex, expect to have a look around the shop on the way out, if you don't buy anything a small donation would be polite.

A typical Medina Street
A typical Medina Street
  • The Great Mosque is one of the finest Islamic buildings in North Africa and rewards closer inspection. Non Muslims are not permitted into the prayer hall, but the doors are open to allow you to view inside. Access to the main courtyard is available to all. The columns throughout the complex were taken from Carthage.
  • The Mosque of the Three Doors, has a one of the finest facades in Tunisia, though the interior is not open.
  • Medressas There are several of these Islamic Schools in the center of town that open up to visitors.
  • Bi'r Barouta, this Well is the place where the city was founded, it is reputedly linked to the ZamZam well in Mecca, it is one of the holiest sites in the city for Muslims.
  • Medina in general is a nice place to just wander around aimlessly, if it looks familiar it may well be as it was used in Raiders of the Lost Ark to double as Cairo.
  • Sit and enjoy a tea in a traditional tea house if the heat gets a little too much.
  • Carpets, Kairouan is particularly famous for its carpets and visiting a shop is an integral and sometimes unexpected part of visiting the city. Carpets are graded by their fineness, the number of knots in a square meter, with a normal weave from 10,000 to 40,000, fine weave from 65,000-90,000 and extra fine from 160,000 - 500,000. Silk carpets may be over 500,000 knots per square meter.
  • A speciality of Kairouan is the sticky pastry makrouhd, it can be found all through Tunisia.


There are a few nice Tea Houses on the road from the Main Gate into the centre of the city


Three Star

  • Amina, Route de Tunis GP 2, Tel : (77) 226 555 / 235 466, Fax : (77) 235 411.
  • Continental, Tel : (77) 231 135, Fax : (77) 229 900.
  • Splendid, Rue 9 Avril, Tel : (77) 230 041 / 227 522, Fax : (77) 230 829.

Two Star

  • Tunisia, Av. de la Republique, Tel : (77) 231 855, Fax : (77) 231 597.
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