Great Mosque of Kairouan

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The Great Mosque of Kairouan (جامع القيروان الأكبر), also known as the Mosque of Uqba (جامع عقبة بن نافع), is a historic mosque in the ancient town of Kairouan, Tunisia. It is one of the most impressive and largest Islamic monuments in North Africa.


Established by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi in the year 670 CE (circa 50 Hj.) at the founding of the city of Kairouan, the mosque occupies an area of over 9,000 square metres (97,000 sq ft). It is one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world, and is a model for all later mosques in the Maghreb. Its perimeter, of about 405 metres (1,329 ft), contains a hypostyle prayer hall, a marble-paved courtyard and a square minaret. In addition to its spiritual prestige, the Mosque of Uqba is one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture, notable among other things for the first Islamic use of the horseshoe arch.

Extensive works under the Aghlabids two centuries later (9th century CE) gave the mosque its present aspect. The fame of the Mosque of Uqba and of the other holy sites at Kairouan helped the city to develop and expand. The university, consisting of scholars who taught in the mosque, was a centre of education both in Islamic thought and in the secular sciences. Its role at the time can be compared to that of the University of Paris in the Middle Ages. With the decline of the city from the mid-11th century CE, the centre of intellectual thought moved to the University of Ez-Zitouna in Tunis.

Exterior Architecture

circa 670 CE

The minaret, which occupies the centre of the northern façade of the complex's enclosure, is 31.5 metres tall and is seated on a square base of 10.7 metres on each side. It is located inside the enclosure and does not have direct access from the outside. It consists of three tapering levels, the last of which is topped with a small ribbed dome that was most probably built later than the rest of the tower. The first and second stories are surmounted by rounded merlons which are pierced by arrowslits. The minaret served as a watchtower, as well as to call the faithful to prayer.

circa 670 CE

The courtyard is a vast trapezoidal area whose interior dimensions are approximately 67 by 52 metres. It is surrounded on all its four sides by a portico with double rows of arches, opened by slightly horseshoe arches supported by columns in various marbles, in granite or in porphyry, reused from Roman, Early Christian or Byzantine monuments particularly from Carthage. Access to the courtyard by six side entrances dating from the ninth and thirteenth centuries.

circa 670 CE

The Mosque has several domes, the largest being over the mihrab and the entrance to the prayer hall from the courtyard. The dome of the mihrab is based on an octagonal drum with slightly concave sides, raised on a square base, decorated on each of its three southern, Easter and western faces with five flat-bottomed niches surmounted by five semi-circular arches, the niche in the middle is cut by a lobed oculus enrolled in a circular frame. This dome, whose construction goes back to the first half of the ninth century (towards 836 CE), is one of the oldest and most remarkable domes in the western Islamic world.

Interior Architecture

circa 670 CE

Main Prayer Hall
The main prayer hall of the mosque is located on the southern side of the courtyard; and is accessed by 17 carved wooden doors. A portico with double row of arches precede the spacious prayer hall, which takes the shape of a rectangle of 70.6 metres in width and 37.5 metres' depth. The hypostyle hall is divided into 17 aisles of eight bays, the central nave is wider, as well as the bay along the wall of the qibla. They cross with right angle in front of the mihrab, this device, named "T shape", which is also found in two Iraqi mosques in Samarra (around 847 CE) has been adopted in many North African and Andalusian mosques where it became a feature.

circa 670 CE

The maqsura, located near the minbar, consists of a fence bounding a private enclosure that allows the sovereign and his senior officials to follow the solemn prayer of Friday without mingling with the faithful. Jewel of the art of woodwork produced during the reign of the Zirid prince al-Mu'izz ibn Badis and dated from the first half of the eleventh century, it is considered the oldest still in place in the Islamic world. It is a cedar wood fence finely sculpted and carved on three sides with various geometric motifs measuring 2.8 metres tall, eight metres long and six metres wide.


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