Kairouan by Zakaria Enzminger

The Islamic conquests in 7th century, known in Arabic as the fatah, expanded the reach of Islam within the traditional area of the Middle East, but also to North Africa and Central Asia. It is in the modern day Tunisia that one of the most important cities in terms of its religious significance to Islam was established in 670 C.E. by the Arab conqueror Uqba ibn Nafi (Jayyusi, Holod, Petruccioli and Raymond, The City in the Islamic World, 126) on a previous Roman/Byzantine site on the central plain of Tunisia (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Physical map of Tunisia

The choice of its geographical location of Kairouan has been noted as a peculiarity, especially when considering the urban concentrations in the more fertile north, and along the coasts. Despite its position on an alluvial plain, Kairouan lacks the agricultural land needed for a large settlement, and the flat landscape offers little in the way of natural defense (Figure 2). However, it is necessary to understand the nature of new and inherited settlements during the Arab conquests. Unlike a city such as Damascus, Kairouan was considered a misr (pl. amsar), or a garrison city for the Arab soldiers in the region, and known to them as the Dar al-Hijra. Other amsar included Fustat in Egypt and Basra in Iraq, all potentially planned along similar patterns of organizations. This would have included a central district with the jami’ (congregational) mosque, the dar al-imara (the governor’s palace and center of administration), and others important dar’s located in the allotted areas of each tribal element of the army (Whitcomb, Archaeology of Islamic Cities, 13-17).

Figure 2: Emplacement of Kairouan

When viewing Kairouan as a misr, it is logical than to see its emplacement as tactically sound. The flat plains surrounding it offer an uninhibited view of the surroundings, critical to the predominantly mounted Arabs against the local Berber tribes, and perhaps appealing to a people used to the flat desert plains of Arabia. Also, its distance, around 50 km, from the coast afforded protection from the maritime threat of the Byzantines (Figure 2). It is worth considering that the old Roman province of Ifriqiya was highly urbanized, yet the leaders of the newly arrived conquerors chose not to settle in established sites such as Carthage as means of preventing any form of mingling, especially in terms of new converts to Islam. Considering these factors, and the geographical ease of access from the East to Kairouan, the city was perfectly located as a central location for further expansion westwards.

Kairouan became a fulcrum for Islam in North Africa, due to its origins as a misr, thus the site of one of the first established mosques in the area (Figure 3). This was later followed by a system of walls and other defenses.

Figure 3: Schematic of the Great Mosque in Kairouan

The Great Mosque of Sidi Uqba was host to a highly developed intellectual center, rivaling those of Baghdad and Cordoba. It attracted numerous pilgrims to the tomb of Sidi Sahab, an alleged companion of the Prophet. The building would have originally been constructed in simple mud brick, but was rebuilt many times, and finalized in the 9th century by the Aghlabid Dynasty (Despois, “Kairouan: Origine et Evolution d’une Ancienne Capital Musulmane, 167).

Kairouan represents a good example of an established misr which developed into a regional hub of Islamic North Africa. Its continued occupation by successive dynasties is a testament to its longevity, and the success of its continuity as an important center of a greater Islamic civilization.