The Majestic Kairouan, City in Tunisia
By: Ruqyah Sweidan/Arab America Contributing Writer
Kairouan is a picturesque city located in the center of Tunisia in a plain at an almost equal distance from the sea and the mountain. It is one of the ancient Arab-Muslim bases of the region. The city served as capital of Ifriqiya for five hundred years, a center for the growing Arab-Muslim civilization.
Structures of the Great City
Kairouan was the location of the architectural and urban growth in the Muslim civilization in this part of North Africa. The site includes a medina, surrounding suburbs, the basins of the Aghlabids dynasty and the Zaouia of Sidi Sahabi, the mosque, madrasa and mausoleum compound. The medina comprises juxtaposed dwellings that are divided into quarters and separated by narrow and winding streets. The area is surrounded by ramparts, or boundary walls, that extend more than three kilometres. On the other hand, the suburbs have a straighter layout and are more rural.
The complex houses remarkable monuments including the Great Mosque, an architectural masterpiece after which later mosques in the region were modeled. The Mosque of the Three Doors is another breathtaking site that represents a sculpted facade of Muslim art. The Basins of the Aghlabids, moreover, are an open-air reservoir formed by two communicating cisterns that date back to the 9th century. These constitute one of the most beautiful hydraulic ensembles conceived to provide water to an ancient town. Finally, the Zaouia of Sidi Sahabi shelters the remains of Abu Zamaa Albalawi (670 AD), companion of the prophet Muhammad peace be upon him.
Background of the City
It is believed that Kairouan was founded in 670 by Uqbah ibn Nāfi, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, on the site of the Byzantine fortress of Kamouinia. The city was the starting point for the Islamic expansion into the rest of Northwest Africa. Kairouan subsequently became the capital of the region by 800. The Maliki school of Islam also emerged there. Subsequently, the town served as the political center of the Fāṭimid and Zīrid dynasties into the eleventh century. Hence, the multi-faceted city was an administrative, commercial, religious, and intellectual centers of Islam. Kairouan furthermore served as the site of a famous medical research center for both Jews and Muslims in the medieval period.
By the 11th century, Bedouin conflict split the unity of this city, and people turned to a more nomadic life. Later, when Tunis became capital of Tunisia, Kairouan was simply benefited as a market town for passing nomads an travelers. Today, the residents of Kairouan trades in grain and livestock that are raised in the surrounding region. It is a hub for fine carpet and handicrafts production. The town has even expanded with the establishment of a university and more diversified industry.
Tourism has also contributed to the conservation of the old city and the development of the town’s businesses. A road and railway link this charming old city with the rest of urban Tunisia. The old city of Kairouan has been a designated UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988. So, when it is once again safe to travel, make your way to this hidden gem and enjoy the magnificent sites!
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