Kairouan, in the northern-central part of Tunisia, is the home of the oldest mosque in Africa and as such is Islam's holiest city there, second only to Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Because of its historical, cultural, and religious significance, the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jongleur and I visited Kairouan on 23 and 31 May 2002. The first time we took a louage (shared taxi) from Monastir, leaving early in the morning so as to get there before the Great Mosque (the aforementioned oldest in Africa) closed. The drive is about an hour and a half, depending on how aggressive your louage driver is; your mileage may vary. The first time we went our driver was so smooth he kept a glass of mint tea on the dashboard the entire time and never spilled a drop; the last time we came back, our driver was younger and very enthusiastic, in other words almost killed us. He told us he was "champion du route," as if daring us to contradict him. I told him all the louage drivers in Tunisia were the champions and masters of the road, and he laughed like it was the funniest thing anyone had ever said, so that was either the right thing to say or terribly mispronounced. That was after the second time we saw Kairouan; it was the last stop in a two-day travel agency-organized tour to the southern part of Tunisia, visiting mountain and desert oases, riding camels (dromedaries, actually) and generally doing a lot of touristy stuff. The desert tour began and ended in Hammamet for everyone but me and Jongleur. We met it in El Jem and left after Kairouan to save some time and put in a lot more exciting louage travel.

Anyway, Kairouan was founded by Muslim Arab invaders in 671; its location in the central plains was strategic as the native Berbers living in the surrounding mountains had not yet been converted to Islam. After some fierce fighting, the Berbers adopted the invaders' religion and Kairouan was free to prosper as a trade center. Today it is home to holy places like the Great Mosque and several zaouias, which are a combination of mosque and mausoleum built in honor of a marabout (Islamic holy men). It is also home to a thriving medina, where what feels like hordes of vendors will aggressively try to sell you everything from food (including makroud, which are like very sweet and dense date newtons local to Kairouan) to ceramics, jewelry, and handwoven woolen mats and the more expensive carpets, made of wool and/or silk. Kairouan is famous as a carpet center, and there are many "musées de tapis" (so-called "carpet museums", which are actually stores). More about carpets in a bit, but first a quick summary of:

Things to See in Kairouan.

4.2 dinar buys you a ticket to all the major Kairouan tourist attractions, which include:

  • The Great Mosque, the oldest in North Africa and one of the few which non-Muslims are allowed to visit

  • Bir Barrouta, home of the saddest camel in the world: he is brought into a house before he grows too big to fit through the doors, where he is trained to walk in circles and pump water out of a well, and spends his entire life, until he dies and is cut into pieces to be removed.

  • The Aghlabite pools, two huge water reservoirs built in the 9th century with "hand tools and attitude", as Jongleur put it.

  • The Mosque of the Three Doors

  • the Zaouias of Abi Zamaa/Sidi Sahab, Sidi Abid, and Sidi Abada

  • the Rakkada Museum

We saw the Great Mosque, the Aghlabite Pools, and the mausoleum of Abi Zamaa/Sidi Sahab on 23 May 2002. The Great Mosque is amazing because it's so old and built partly out of Roman ruins. Non-Muslims are not allowed into the prayer hall, but the parts visible from outside are spectacular, as is the three-tiered minaret across the courtyard (also not open to the public, although we did see some very nice gentlemen in very important-looking uniforms climb it). The important thing to know about the Great Mosque and the mausoleums both is that shorts and sleeveless shirts/dresses are not allowed. This may sound obvious enough, but we saw plenty of tourists who were lent robes and blankets to cover themselves, and felt pretty good about having the sense to 1) dress decently and 2) protect ourselves from the sun.

The Aghlabite pools are, as mentioned, really impressive for their age and sheer enormity (the larger is 125 meters in diameter). But what's really funny about them is that they seem to be the place to bring a date if you're from Kairouan; there were a lot of locals smooching and snuggling in the park around it, and the guy at the gate just kind of snickered when we showed him our ticket, and it wasn't until later that we figured out why).

The Mausoleum/Mosque of Abi Zamaa, also called the mausoleum of Sidi Sahab or the Barber's Mosque, was built in honor of one of the companions of Mohammed, who carried three hairs of the Prophet's beard with him as a holy token. It is a phenomenal display of Islamic architecture, ornately decorated with beautiful tiles, carvings, and stained glass. We weren't sure exactly where it was okay for us nonbelievers to go, but many friendly visitors who seemed to know what they were doing us invited us into the open-roofed mausoleum itself, where we narrowly escaped a huge group of French tourists. (One of these guys was not only wrapped in a blanket to hide his bare legs but wearing one of those tacky "breasts of the world" t-shirts that depicts dozens of topless women. It was hard to believe anyone could be so blatantly ignorant, but easier to understand after our desert tour experiences with other French tourists.)

The Carpets of Kairouan

After the aforementioned desert tour and French tourists, we stopped off in Kairouan for a very expensive cup of tea. It went a little bit like this:

As mentioned before, there are lots of carpet stores in Kairouan. The ONAT (national artisanry/crafts guild office) is probably the only place in town with fixed, much less marked, prices on carpets and other crafts, so it's recommended as a place to get an idea of how much things cost, if not necessarily the best place to shop as the prices tend to be a little higher. There is an ONAT in most major cities in Tunisia, especially ones that attract a lot of tourists. Sales staff at the ONAT are considerably less in-your-face than the merchants in the medina, so that can be a welcome shopping atmosphere as well.

Although we'd gotten an idea of carpet prices in the ONAT of Sousse on 25 May 2002, we'd resolved to buy a carpet in Kairouan, since that's what it's famous for. We didn't shop around much, choosing a carpet store based on the recommendation of the tour guide who brought us to the desert and whom we left in Kairouan, as mentioned earlier. It turned out to be a really fun, if expensive, experience. Think of carpet shopping as being invited into someone's home for an intense conversation over a really expensive mint tea (hot, sweet, and intensely strong, kind of like the espresso of teas, only sometimes with toasted almonds or hazelnuts floating in it). The classiest carpet stores are almost exactly that; instead of being disguised as museums, they're set up in refurbished homes. Our carpet store was somewhere in between these two, but the sales staff was eager to show us dozens of carpets and mats, expanding and narrowing down the selection as we indicated our tastes (wool rather than silk, smallish since we didn't know where we were going to put it, hopefully in what seems to be a typically Kairouan blue), and price range (silk is the most expensive, woolen mats called kilim are the cheapest and most uniquely Tunisian; prices are generally per square meter and dependent on knot density: between 25x26 and 50x60 knots per square meter). They even found us someone who spoke English to bargain with (he told me later they'd actually recruited him from another store with the promise of a percentage of the sale, as if to apologize for driving the price up what seemed like a piddling amount to everyone involved). We decided to look at the kilims, and eventually settled on a beautiful black, brown, gray, and white mat about 1.5x1 meters in size. This clinched our decision to fly back to Amsterdam and drop off souvenirs and excess weight before continuing the rest of our journey; it spent the rest of our trip spread out on display on the guest bed in my grandparents' house, and now resides in our living room in Eugene.


Sources: our visits to Kairouan, 23 and 31 May 2002, various brochures and maps from the Kairouan tourism office (translations from French by me, so I apologize for any and all mistakes), and the Footprints guide to Tunisia by Anne and Keith McLachlan (I think the title is Tunisia Handbook with Libya but it's a bit confusing).

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