The Walled City of Kairouan in Tunisia is among the finest in Africa, rivaling the various casbahs of Morocco in size and magnificience and surpassing them historically. Once considered by many in North Africa to be the fourth holiest city in the Islamic world, Kairouan was an important political and religious center throughout much of the Middle Ages. Since its founding in the 7th century, Kairouan faced many military threats and witnessed many wars. As a result it boasts some of the oldest and strongest military fortifications in the Maghreb. Thanks to these powerful defenses, Kairouan enjoys one of the best preserved medieval city centers in the Muslim world. The Walled City of Kairouan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kairouan was among the first Muslim-established cities in North Africa. Founded in 670 AD, it was originally an advance military outpost from which the Caliphate eventually spread across the rest of Northwest Africa. In less than a century it was one of the largest and most important Islamic cities in the west. In the mid-8th century, the city was conquered by the Berbers who, though they had converted to Islam, resented foreign control. The loss of this vital outpost contributed in part to the collapse of the Umayyad Dynasty a few years later.
By 800 AD, Kairouan was retaken by the Caliphate, which was then ruled by the Abassids. It remained one of the Abassid’s chief cities in North Africa for the next century. It was during this time that the city’s great mosque was built. The mosque, which was believed to have a mystical connection to the Holy City of Mecca, was deemed to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, at least by the local populace. This distinction made Kairouan an important pilgrimage center and, by association, very wealthy.
Throughout the Middle Ages Kairouan witnessed wars, revolutions and civil strife. The city changed hands several times before being laid waste by the Fatimids in the 11th century. Although the mosque managed to survive, the city was all but a ruin for many years afterwards. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the Ottomans in the 1500s that Kairouan truly began to recover. It was under the direction of the sultans that the city was rebuilt and its magnificent wall constructed.
Thanks to a long, extended period of peace, Kairouan once again became one of the jewels of North Africa. More importantly, thanks to its inland location, it generally escaped the ravages of both European powers and Barbary pirates. By the time the French finally arrived at the end of the 19th century, the magnificent walls of Kairouan were militarily obsolete. However, the walls were kept in order to help preserve the ancient and sacred feel of the city and its mosque.
The Walls of Kairouan are among the most intact and best preserved in North Africa, a breach at the northwest corner which permits automobile access to the new city notwithstanding. The walls are intact and in excellent condition. Encompassing the old city, the they are unusually straight, especially on the northwest, northwest and southeast sides. The sand-colored bricks and stones evince various shades at different levels, with the result that the wall almost looks like a cutaway of rock in the American southwest.
The wall is pierced by regularly spaces round towers and crowned with rounded crenelated battlements. Unlike most city fortifications, the tower tops are uniform with the wall-top. A half-dozen gates provide access through the wall, mostly for pedestrians only. The city’s fortifications are completed by a small fortress along the northwestern wall.
The Walls of Kairouan circle the bulk of the city, about one hundred miles south of Tunis. The old city of Kairouan is an open site. However, access to the walls is restricted. No other visitor information was available at the time of this writing. Web: www.tourismtunisia.com (official website).
Like its counterparts in Algeria and Morocco, Tunisia was home to many smaller walled cities, or casbahs, dating back to the late Middle Ages and Ottoman eras. Probably the best of these is the Casbah of Tunis, located in the heart of the national capital, and the Casbah of Sousse, which is just a few miles from Kairouan on the Mediterranean Coast.