Among the holy cities of Islam, there is no doubt as to the three top contenders: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. However, when it comes to the fourth, opinions vary wildly. For many Muslims of North Africa, the Tunisian city of Kairouan is the unofficial runner up. Although this distinction is recognized only in the Maghreb region, and largely ignored by Muslims elsewhere, Kairouan’s great mosque is nevertheless one of western Islam’s most visited pilgrimage destinations. For many of the region’s devout Muslims who desire to go to Mecca but do not have the means, the Masjid Uqba is considered a viable alternative. Here pilgrims can go see the waters of a spring which, according to tradition, has its mystical source in distan Zamzam. Despite Kairouan’s long decline as a religious center, many thousands of devout Muslims from all over North Africa continue to make the pilgrimage here every year.
Tunisia, which juts out into the Mediterranean Sea close to Sicily, has always been one of the most strategic locations in North Africa. In pre-Roman times it was the site of the capital of the Carthaginian Empire, and later became the capital region of Rome’s African provinces, as well as an important early center of Christianity. When Muslim armies swept across North Africa in the 7th century, they established their own regional capital city at Kairouan in Tunisia. At first Kairouan was little more than a Muslim military base used to keep an eye on North Africa while the Islamic Caliphate consolidated its newly won territories in Egypt and Libya to the east.
However, a strange event occurred in the late 600s which would forever cement Kairouan’s importance as a religious center. According to local legend, a golden cup was discovered near the Muslim military camp. It was declared on the spot to be a goblet that had gone missing from Mecca years before, and when it was picked up, a spring flowed forth from the ground. The entire event was deemed miraculous by those present, and soon a mosque was under construction on the spot to commemorate the occasion. The military camp became a permanent settlement, and soon was a thriving commercial center. Within a few decades Kairouan had effectively become the political and religious capital of North Africa.
Over the next two centuries, Kairouan became the most important city in the Islamic world west of Egypt. Its great mosque was the largest in the region, and as the site of the miraculous spring, it became a popular stopover for pilgrims enroute to the east as well as a major pilgrimage destination in and of itself. This was especially true for the Umayyad Muslims coming from Spain, for whom the trek to Mecca through Abbasid territory was particularly perilous. Around the 11th century, North Africa began to break up into a number of smaller Islamic kingdoms, and Kairouan lost much of its influence.
The region’s decline accelerated when Kairouan was sacked by the Fatimids. Making matters worse, as pilgrimage traffic to Arabia grew increasingly seaborne, travelers began to detour around the land-locked city. However, many visitors continued to visit the city as a symbolic alternative to traveling to Mecca. Kairouan also continued to be one of North Africa’s preeminent centers of education and learning. Kairouan’s decline continued over the next five hundred years as it lost ground to the more strategically located city of Tunis. By the 16th century, Kairouan had become something of a backwater, although it always retained its religious importance. As an Islamic holy city, it was for many years off-limits to non-Muslims, but this restriction ended when Tunisia came under the control of the French. Today Kairouan remains Islam’s most sacred city in North Africa, and Tunisia’s legendary hospitality has led to a resurgence in interest in pilgrimages to the Great Mosque.
Kairouan’s long decline has had one interesting side benefit: much of the existing city has been preserved from the late Middle Ages, with many buildings dating as far back as the 15th century or earlier. The Great Mosque itself dates back to the 9th century, and despite numerous renovations over the years, it is one of the most intact mosques of its era. Parts of the minaret date back even further. By the time the Great Mosque achieved its final design, it was massive in scale, with a unique construction style by Islamic standards. The biggest and most notable difference is the square minaret, an adaption of Roman and Byzantine architecture forms. Kairouan’s mosque eventually became the prototype for many of the mosques in the Maghreb region.
Close to the Great Mosque is a site known as the Bir Barouta. It is an ancient well used by the citizens of Kairouan, still in use today. According to some traditions, this is the spot where the city’s famous spring flowed forth in the 7th century. Other traditions hold that the spring is located inside or underneath the mosque, and that the well is connected to this source by an underground aqueduct. Water is still drawn from the well by a camel-powered mechanism, and is considered sacred by many Muslims.
The large but unassuming sand-brick Masjid Uqba is located on the north side of the old city center of Kairouan, approximately 75 miles south of Tunis. Despite its religious importance to Muslims, the mosque regularly welcomes non-Muslim visitors. It is open Saturdays through Thursdays from 8:00am-2:00pm. As of this writing the Cost of Admission was not available. Web: www.islamickairouan.net (official tourism website).
Kairouan still lingers in memory of its glorious past, and the city and surrounding area is dotted with other sites of interest. After the Masjid Uqba, the next most popular religious site is the Mosque of the Three Doors. Kairouan is also home to one of the Marabout brotherhoods. The Mosque of Sidi Abid el Ghariani is the chief location of one of these brotherhoods and the location of the tomb of its founder. Similar sites can be found in the hills of the nearby countryside.