Tunisia's Arab/Islamic Heritage
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Kairouan, Tunis, Mahdia – their very names bring to mind past ages of majesty and splendour. A reminder of Tunisia’s glorious days of yore, they are the legacy of the conquering early Arab armies in their first sweep westward from Egypt.
In the 7th century, with only a few men, the daring Arab general ‘Uqba ibn Nafi moved west and occupied the whole of the North African coast. As he advanced toward the Atlantic, ‘Uqba halted for a while the march of his small army, in 670 A.D., to lay the foundation of the first Arab city in North Africa. He chose a site on a desert plain, away from the Byzantine controlled coast, to establish Kairouan as a frontier-garrison town. For many years thereafter, this city was to be the capital of all the Maghrib (North Africa), Spain and later Sicily.
From its inception, Kairouan, whose name came into Arabic from the Persian word karwan (caravan), has been known as the citadel of Islam. Only outranked by Mecca, Madina and Jerusalem it is venerated as the 4th holy city in the Muslim world whose cultural and scholastic influence has, since the 9th century, extended to the fringes of Europe. Today, with its 100,000 inhabitants, it is the 4th largest city in Tunisia. A place where history comes alive, its 85 mosques and 101 tombs of holy men make it one of the most important religious-historic cities in the Islamic world.
Towering high above the many mosques that crowd the city is Masjid al-Kabir (the Great Mosque). Its cornerstone was laid in 670 A.D. by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi. As the first house of worship in North Africa, it has been revered as one of the most holy mosques in the world. Its style and aura of holiness have for centuries influenced other religious buildings throughout the western lands of Islam.
From a distance, the mosque appears like an enormous fortress. Its thick walls and massive 30 m (115 ft) high-minaret, topped by a domed pavilion reminds the onlooker that indeed, at one time, the mosque was the fortress of the faithful. The minaret, built in 836 A.D. is the oldest existing mosque turret in the world. The mosque itself was rebuilt in the same century by the emirs of the Aghlabites, under whose sway Kairouan reached its zenith. It is today, a masterpiece of that Dynasty’s art.
Inside there is a forest of 500 stone and marble pink and white columns in both the courtyard and the prayer room. The mihrab, inscribed with the ancient Arabic script without dots, was the first built in North Africa. A person standing near its minbar, which is an imposing piece of wood carving, and surveying the prayer room with its thicket of marble columns is imbued with a feeling of serenity and harmony.
Ranking perhaps a little less in fame but equal in beauty is the Mosque of the Barber, or as it is sometimes called, the Mosque of Sidi Saheb – named after a personal friend of the Prophet Muhammad. A jewel of religious architecture, it is built around three courtyards filled with marble columns and walls covered with beautiful stuccowork and ceramic tiles. At the rear of the mosque, Sidi Saheb, a revered holy man, is buried with a few hairs of the Prophet’s beard. From all corners of Tunisia people, especially women, come to seek his benediction.
After seeing these two gems of Arab/Islamic architecture, the other of the city’s mosques, intermingled with Koranic schools, can be overlooked, but the Aghlabite Pools, built in the 9th century to solve the town’s water problem, should not be missed.
The city, in the last few decades, has not expanded in the same fashion as other Tunisian urban centres. Hence, past traditions have not been lost. Today, in its maze of narrow streets, a tourist can walk through more than 12 centuries of history. The artisans working in their stalls have preserved many of the ancient handicrafts.
Exquisite articles are still produced from the hands of craftsmen steeped in tradition. Handmade brass and copper articles, woodcarvings and above all hand-knotted carpets are produced, as they were when they were made for the courts of the emirs and caliphs. Tourists who come on excursions from the country’s seacoast resorts, usually buy a few of these articles, then return the same day – a role seemingly set out for all members of package tours.
The second important Arab/Islamic urban centre is the city of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital. However, it was only when the small village, in Roman times known as Thunes, replaced Mahdia in 1060 A.D., which itself had replaced Kairouan, as Tunisia’s capital that the city became important in Islamic history.
The golden age of Tunis was between the 13th and 16th centuries under the Hafsid Dynasty when it reached its pinnacle of greatness. During their rule mosques, schools and majestic palaces crowded the city – some of which have survived until our times.
The most important mosque in the city, Jam’a al-Zitouna, was built a few decades after the Great mosque in Kairouan. Its construction was initiated in 732 and completed in 864 A.D. Today, the majesty of its minaret dominates the old city. The courtyard and prayer room with their majestic columns compare favourably with those of ‘Uqba’s mosque in Kairouan. From its inception, Jam’a al-Zitouna was an important Arab-Islamic university, which functioned until a few decades ago when its faculties were amalgamated with those of the University of Tunis. Surrounding the mosque is the ancient Medina with its colourful souks – a mecca for tourists. Within its walls are most of the historic buildings for which the city is famous.
Dar Hussein, a house decorated with rich-coloured tiles and plaster lacework; the mosque and tomb of the Ottoman Hammouda Pasha; Sidi Bou Krissan Museum, filled with medieval Arabic inscriptions; the Rachida, an Arab house where Moorish-Andalusian music is studied; Dar ben Abdallah, a colourful dwelling decorated with fine tiles and plaster filigree, housing a museum of folklore and popular art; and Dar el-Bey, the Arab style government house, are some of the city’s historic buildings which give the visitor a feeling of the nostalgic-enchantment of the Arabian Nights. For many tourists, to walk the enticing souks and to behold these Moorish style buildings is to live through a wonderful dream.
In the newer part of town there are other places of historic importance. The tiled and filigreed Moorish type Kouba in Belvedere Park and the Bardo Museum are places tha add to the intriguing fame of the city. The museum houses the finest Roman mosaic collection in the world and is set in an impressive Arab palace located in La Manouba – once the gardens of the Beys, the Ottoman rulers of Tunis.
To move from Tunis to Mahdia, another of Tunisia’s famous Islamic centres, is like moving back in time. This medieval Muslim town has jealously preserved its age-old customs and overflows with the aura of its former greatness. It owes its name to Al-Mahdi ‘Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi – an Arab ruler of the Fatimid Dynasty which held sway in Tunisia during the 10th century.
The Fatimids, a Shi’a sect in Islam, conquered most of North Africa and tried to convert the people to their religious belief. However, the mass of the population resisted the change. Hence, the dynasty was always at war. As befitting a warring administration, they built Mahdia as a warrior capital atop of an easily defended rocky peninsula. The city flourished until the Fatimids moved their capital in the latter part of the 10th century to Cairo in Egypt.
Today, very little remains of Mahdia’s famed past. From that era, the Great Mosque built by Al-Mahdi, which has been recently restored, and Skifa al-Kahla, once a fortress and now housing a traditional market, are the two most important remaining monuments. Nevertheless, this historic Islamic capital’s remains and the city’s golden beaches, with their ultramodern resorts, have regained for Mahdia some of its former importance and wealth.
North of Mahdia, other Tunisian cities with a celebrated Arab/Islamic past, are perhaps, more important to the modern day traveller. Nearby Sousse was occupied by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi during his initial advance through North Africa. In the following centuries it became an important Muslim urban centre, yet it never reached the stature of Kariouan, Tunis or Mahdia. Nevertheless, it made its notch in history as the embarkation point for the Arab conquest of Sicily.
From its Islamic past, the fortress-like Great Mosque built in the 9th century; the Ribat – a fortress built as a home for devout Muslims who followed the knightly codes of piety and bravery; and the Kasbah (old city), perfectly preserved within its ramparts; and the Khalef al-Fata Tower, from whose top one has a panoramic view of the city and its hinterland, are the most important remains. Today Tunisia’s 3rd largest city, Sousse is known as a jaunty and lively town, ringed luxurious and colourful resorts. Unmatched in their beauty, some are so large that they have streets and shops, appearing to be town’s unto themselves.
Barely over the horizon from Sousse to the southeast is Monastir, the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s late former president and founding father. The name of the city is derived from al-Munastir, the Arabic name for a large monastery built by the early Christians on the spot.
Through the centuries of religious wars between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa, Monastir was known as the fortress of Islam. Its Ribat, erected in the 9th century, was the first in a chain of a 1,000 Muslim fortresses built on the North African coast. Its crenulated ramparts warded off so many Christian attacks that it led to a saying in the Arab lands: “To be garrisoned for three days at Monastir opens the door to Paradise”.
The Ribat is still in perfect condition. Inside its museum are artefacts from the Islamic past, the most interesting being, an astrolabe designed in Cordova in 927 A.D. The Great Mosque, built in the 11th century, and the modern Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum-Mosque, built in 1963 are symbols of the city’s past and present Arab-Islamic heritage. Modern Monastir is a clean, picturesque and beautifully arranged town. Its wonderful setting between gardens and orchards makes it a place of colour and charm.
If one is not on a package tour, the best method to travel to Tunisia’s Arab/Islamic cities is to join an excursion offered in the large hotels at the resorts on the coast. Almost all who travels to these historic towns are thrilled with their labyrinths of narrow streets, edged by attractively tiled homes and craftsmen, busy at work.
The memory of the majestic architecture of the ancient mosques always linger, testifying to an Arab saying: ‘Nothing can be beautiful enough to glorify God’. With their austerity, simple decoration and sense of harmony, these houses of worship, along with the richly adorned palaces, are not easily erased from visitors’ minds.
The conquering Arabs and their later illustrious dynasties, the Turks and, above all, the Andalusian Muslims expelled from their paradise in Arab Spain, all had a hand in the creations of these historic, but living treasures. Surrounded by the walls of ancient cities, they, along with the colourful souks, offer modern visitors their thousand and one enchanted secrets.