Kairouan Sidi Uqba Mosque
After leaving the military fastness of our garrison fort turned 5 star Hôtel La Kasbah, the Tunisian Olive Oil Trade Mission visited several historic sites in the holy city of Kairouan before an important olive oil meeting in the afternoon.
Kairouan is the fourth most holy city of Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, and the Great Mosque Sidi Uqba of Kairouan is at the center of its spiritual life. Original established in 670 CE, the mosque was rebuilt several times before taking on its current large configuration in the late 9th century. The minaret is over 3 stories high, and at more than 34 feet (10 meters) wide it is also quite imposing. The lower stories of this structure are built from giant blocks of stone taken from old Roman buildings, and it is the oldest standing minaret in the world. At the base of minaret you can observe that the builders could not read the Roman script, so placed one block upside down, reasoning that at least one of the two blocks shown would be correct. If you look carefully in photo #2 below you can see our guide pointing to the block on the left, which is indeed inverted.
Rainwater was collected and filtered into large cisterns below the courtyard, and access was made so that the faithful could draw water to perform ritual ablutions (wudhu) before prayer. These marble openings, about six feet across, are so used and ancient from ropes pulling water from below that deep grooves have been worn through on all sides. While they are no longer actively used, seeing them is a vivid reminder of the time that has passed here.
The interior of the prayer hall is rich with carving, carpets and columns. Of special note are the columns, which vary in fabrication, ornamentation, and even length, as they have been taken from ancient Roman and Byzantine monuments, primarily from Carthage to the north, and made to fit by the use of plinths. You can see the Imam walking between the third and fourth set of columns in the photo below.
The sky on the day of our visit was a brilliant cloudless blue, and at 11:30 the contrast between the bright courtyard and deep, dark, and richly layered prayer hall was significant. Spending time here was quite moving, and reminded me of how I felt when visiting Sultan Ahmed — The Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
The art and architecture, and the spiritual, historic and cultural significance of this place is broader than can be covered in this short essay. If interested, you can read more here about Kairouan’s Great Mosque, Sidi Uqba. The Wikipedia entry and gallery of photos is also quite nice.
We had to leave for our olive oil appointment before the call to prayer at noon, so our group did not have the chance to hear it. I’ve attached an MP3 of a call to prayer from The Freesound Project, and while it is not from the muezzin in the Kairouan Mosque, it is evocative and moving and will give you a sense of the experience. It is the call from the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and lasts about two minutes: 33937_ejaz215_Call_to_Prayer_from_the_Prophet_s_Mosque
Spirits full after our morning visiting the Great Mosque and other cultural places of interest, we make ready for lunch and then a visit to a large olive producer, which I’ll tell you about in my next post.