Mosques of Kairouan, Tunisia

Fifteen hundred years ago, Kairouan was only a desert crossroads, a caravan stop in the sands of what is now Tunisia in North Africa. But this quickly changed. In fewer than 100 years following the death of Muhammad in A.D. 632, caravans from Saudi Arabia had spread his word of Islam from India to the Atlantic Ocean.

Okba Ben Nafi is credited with converting Kairouan to Islam and founding its Great Mosque in 670. Shortly thereafter, Kairouan became the religious center and capital of Tunisia. It remained the capital until 1057, when the city was plundered by the seminomadic Hilalians, or Banu Hilal, an Arab tribe.

Although no longer the capital of Tunisia, Kairouan remains the spiritual home of this country.

The story behind Kairouan’s rise to being, perhaps, Islam’s fourth-most-holy place — following Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem — is interesting.

As the story goes, the horse of one of Okba Ben Nafi’s warriors stumbled over a semiburied gold goblet in the Kairouan sand. When the goblet was lifted, a well mysteriously appeared. Its underground water supposedly originates from the same source as the water supplying the Zamzam Well in Mecca, hence the Islamic importance of Kairouan.

Due to Kairouan’s religious prominence, seven trips to Kairouan will reportedly exonerate the faithful from having to make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Great Mosque

Each Islamic country establishes whether nonbelievers may or may not enter their mosques. For example, my wife, Moreen, and I entered mosques throughout Iran but could not do so in the more liberal Oman.

When we visited Tunisia about seven years ago, we were permitted within the actual buildings but not in the sanctuary of each mosque proper, where the faithful pray facing the qibla wall (Mecca). Some say, though, that we could have entered the Great Mosque proper, as it was irremediably defiled by a French protectorate regiment bivouacked there in the 20th century to escape a plague.

The exterior walls of the Great Mosque are stark, basically built of bricks, marble and cedar wood. The grounds of this large, high-walled fortress compound are basically empty except for two cisterns, which are insignificant when compared with the mosque’s large, square-based, 35-meter-high minaret.

Reportedly, this minaret was the first in the Moslem world used to call the faithful for prayers. Prior to there being a minaret, a muezzin would walk the streets repeating this call over and over again. From this minaret, there is a great view of Kairouan and its 50 or so mosques, each with its own minaret.

Later, when wandering the interior area, Moreen and I found the large cedar doors of the prayer room open. Within, there seemed to be hundreds of support columns all bathed in an enhancing, dim-bluish light. These divided the room into 17 naves and eight bays and gave the room an almost dimensionless size. Rugs, ceramics and chandeliers further embellished this sight.

The prayer room is in dramatic contrast to the sterile remainder of the Great Mosque.

The Barber’s Mosque

The name of the beautiful Barber’s Mosque has nothing to do with a “barber” but with one of the Prophet’s earliest companions, Abou Zamaa El Balaoui, who died soon after arriving in Kairouan. His grave is venerated as that of a holy man, because he had been a friend of Muhammad and carried an amulet containing three hairs of the Prophet’s beard. Though it is commonly known as the Barber’s Mosque, its correct name is Zaouia of Sidi Sahab, which means “Monastery of the Companion.”

The mosque, as seen now, dates mainly from the 17th century and includes rooms for pilgrims plus a Koranic school, a minaret and a shrine built around Abou Zamaa El Balaoui’s tomb. The courtyard, which opens to his shrine, is filled with various offerings, e.g., rugs and decorative panels.

The Barber’s Mosque is equally as impressive as the Great Mosque but quite different. Whereas the Great Mosque is impressive with its massive solitude and blue interior hue, the Barber’s Mosque is more colorful, with the red favored by the Prophet and the green of Islam.

Plenty of sights

Many tours highlight Kairouan for it 1,500 rug-weaving looms, but Moreen and I remember Kairouan as the city of 50 mosques. The Grand Mosque and the Barber’s Mosque are two of the most interesting we’ve seen during our travels in Islamic areas.

In addition to seeing these mosques, we also recommend sampling more of Tunisia, a small country tucked between Algeria and Libya on the Mediterranean. Travelers should view the wonderful Bardo Museum in Tunis with its fantastic mosaics and walk among Tunisia’s numerous beautifully preserved Roman ruins. I’ll have more about these in future articles.


  • Kairouan was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list in 1988.
  • To view online some excellent color photographs of Kairouan, its mosques and the city’s environs, search for “Kairouan, Tunisia.”
  • Further tourist information is available via the Embassy of Tunisia, 1515 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005; phone 202/862-1850 or visit www.
  • Though currently there is no travel advisory for Tunisia, readers should always use caution, especially in these times, when visiting countries discussed in this column.

Update on IRAN

UNESCO has raised $3.4 million to restore the town of Bam, Iran, destroyed by an earthquake in December 2003. My July 2001 article highlighted Bam, which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Dec. 27, 2004.

Coming up

Let’s visit the Kurdish village of Egil in Turkey.