In the city of Kairouan, you can discover the magnificent Great Mosque of Kairouan. This world-famous mosque is one of the most important in Tunisia and the holiest Islamic site anywhere in North Africa. Covering a huge 9,000 square metre area, it's an impressive sight. Everyone's welcome to take a tour around the expansive grounds and courtyard, and it's a great opportunity to learn all about its fascinating history, which stretches all the way back to 863 AD. You can team up a visit to the mosque with a look around the city of Kairouan itself. It's existed since 670 AD, when it was established by some of the first Muslim Arabs to arrive in North Africa. Today, this place is the fourth holiest city for the Muslim faith, an important pilgrimage destination, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Admire the architectureOtherwise known as Sidi Oqba Mosque, the Great Mosque of Kairouan is an imposing structure, featuring typically simple Aghlabid design. Step inside the marble-paved courtyard, though, and it's a different story. You'll find yourself in an expansive space with an arched colonnade running all around the inner courtyard. It was originally designed to catch water so that not a single drop was wasted. Look closely and you'll see that the paving slopes gently towards an ornate central draining hole, which sends rainwater down to the 9th century cisterns below. Over on the north-western side of the courtyard you'll see the square, three-tiered minaret (a slender tower with a balcony, where a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer). The lowest level dates back to 728 AD, and at its base you'll see two Roman slabs (one of which is upside down) featuring Latin inscriptions.
See the prayer hallMake your way to the southern end of the courtyard to find the prayer hall. Non-Muslim's aren't actually allowed to enter the prayer hall, but you can look through the doors to see the space in all its glory. The studded wooden doors are huge, and the carved panels that sit above them are particularly intricate. These date all the way back to 1829. It's an impressive space, featuring 17 aisles supported by 414 ancient columns, and a host of geometric and floral motifs carved in fine marble. The enormous pillars are originally Roman or Byzantine, and each of them is unique. They were actually brought here from Carthage and Hadrum ètum (Sousse), where they were salvaged after the fall of the cities. Over in the far end of the prayer hall are amazing tiles dating back to the 9th century. You'll need to look out for them as they're just behind the mihrab (which shows the direction of Mecca), sitting between two red marble columns. These tiles were brought here from Baghdad, as was the wood that adorns the minbar (the pulpit), which is an absolute masterpiece. Look inside and you'll see rugs covering the entire floor of the prayer hall. These amazing pieces are crafted by local female artisans, who consider these their gift to Allah.
Can everyone visit?Anyone can make the trip to the Great Mosque of Kairouan, regardless of your religion. It's worth noting, though, that non-Muslims aren't allowed to enter the prayer hall, but you can come and admire the breathtaking exterior architecture. The doors are also left wide open, so you can take a look at the magnificent interior for yourself.
Discover the best viewsThe Great Mosque of Kairouan is surrounded by the city's bustling Medina, along with many small stores. You can take a stroll around and soak up the atmosphere, and while you're there you can catch a glimpse of the mosque from a different angle. The rooftops of these shops have some of the best views, and if you buy something from them, you may be invited by the storekeeper to see them for yourself. If not, it's definitely worth asking if you can take a look.
How to get thereIf you have an interest in culture, it's well worth the trip to see the Great Mosque of Kairouan. There's no train to the city of Kairouan, but you can easily take a bus or louage from major cities and towns in Tunisia. Bear in mind that visitors must dress appropriately; robes are available at the entrance. Everyone can enter through the main gate on Rue Okba Ibn Nafaa. There are another eight gates around the mosque, but they're closed to non-Muslims.