An atmosphere of centuries long gone floats through Kairouan. Time seems to have stood still over the old medieval cemetery at the base of the ramparts, or in the silent narrow streets and the souks covered by vaulted ceilings. In the labyrinth of the old town, you will feel the touching simplicity of the white washed houses, caressed by the sunlight of the South.
Countless mausoleum domes give Kairouan the air of a holy city. It was in effect the first capital of the Islamic Maghreb, and remains the symbol of the first presence of Islam in the region. Many revered sanctuaries are found here. That of Sidi Sahbi, surrounded by patios and brightened with multicoloured ceramic, is a charming and welcoming spot to visit. But they say that even the water of Kairouan is sacred: ask to drink a mouthful at the famous Bir Barouta well and you can rest assured your path will bring you back to Kairouan !
By visiting a few prestigious monuments and with a little imagination, you will get an idea of what Kairouan was like in the early Middle Ages: a great city of considerable influence. The Great Mosque appears taken straight out of ancient times with its minaret in the form of a lighthouse, its robust enclosure, its marble columns and its carved capitals. Inside, the arabesques of carved wood, the gold-flecked lusterware tiles are among the first examples of Islamic art in Tunisia.
The medieval city had enormous installations to supply its demand for water. Fifteen large circular basins surrounded it; one of them still remains. It is said that an emir had a pleasure pavilion built for himself in the middle of this great expanse of water. Read more: Tunisia’s sites declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
To complete your dive into the history of Kairouan, take a trip to Sousse, its former military port, and to Monastir, a neighbouring city.
Far removed from these ancient times, the medina of Kairouan is today inextricably linked to the carpet: here, it is the king of crafts. Do you prefer low-pile carpets (klims and mergoums) in warm colours and geometric Berber patterns? Or the thick knotted stitch carpets, the speciality of the city? Make your choice in the stalls of the souks, or visit a workshop to admire the work of the craftsmen and their skilled cuts with scissors.
Less well known: Kairouan, surrounded by steppes, is close to some very important natural sites. Among them, the mountain Jebel Serj conceals exceptional caves, and the vast sebkhas (saltwater depressions) are Ramsar Convention wetlands. Amateur cavers and birdwatchers take note!
Built in its current form in the 9th century, this mosque is one of the oldest in the world. Its hall of prayer brings together an extraordinary collection of Roman and Byzantine columns and capitals. Its arcades and its domes, its vast courtyard and its minaret make it a particularly imposing monument.
Sometimes nicknamed the “Mosque of the Barber”, this sanctuary honours the memory of Abou Zamaa, one of the fighters during the Maghreb conquest and longtime companion of the Prophet. The monument was built in the 17th century; it represents the synthesis between the local style and Andalusian and Ottoman influences.
This small mosque is exceptional for its age (9th century) and for its its facade, richly carved with inscriptions and foliage motifs. It is the oldest known such example in Islamic architecture.
This sanctuary would have been built in the 13th or 14th century. It is a beautiful example of the austere and elegant architecture of the Hafsid period: a courtyard paved with interlacing geometric patterns in marble, an arcade with black and white archstones, a pyramidal dome covered with green tiles...
Sidi Amor Abada was a megalomaniacal 19th century character adored by the population. His sancturay has no fewer than six domes in the traditional Kairouan style.
This Roman amphitheatre is one of the largest and best preserved in the world, declared a World Heritage Site. Wild beast combats would take place in the arena of this monument both imposing and harmonious. Read more.
It is completed by a museum and a perfectly reconstructed Roman villa.
Monastir is famous for its Ribat, an imposing fortress standing facing the sea. Superb viewing point from its lookout tower, and small museum. Read more.
Sousse is a major coastal resort and historical city. Its outstanding medina has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Read more.
The historical site of Makthar contains exceptional Roman relics. Burnished by the sun, the arch of Trajan, the arcades of the Great Baths, the colonnade of the “Schola des Juvenes” (headquarters of a youth organisation) are all beautiful. The site also contains monuments which speak to the pre-Roman history of the city: a mausoleum and megaliths that were used as collective burial grounds.
A city founded by veterans of the Roman army, Sbeïtla was the seat of a famous battle during the first Islamic expedition in the Maghreb: here they fought the Byzantine army of Gregory the Patrician in 647. Today, it is an impressive archaeological site. The superb capitol formed of three contiguous temples and numerous church ruins are notable sights.