Away from the coast, in a landscape of steppes, Kairouan is a fascinating city still anchored in a distant past. One of Islam’s holy cities, it was the first capital of the Maghreb. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, it conceals several marvels: the medina, the venerable Great Mosque, the Aghlabid Basins, the stunning mausoleum of Sidi Saheb decorated with ceramic tiles… And of course it is impossible to forget the numerous workshops where the most famous knotted pile carpets in Tunisia are made.
What to see ?
Souks and domes
Delve into the medina through a monumental gate, between the displays of the little merchants of the souks. Explore the alleyways fringed by white façades and pale blue doors; and feel the timeless atmosphere. Climb the crenelated walls that surround the old town, and discover a constellation of white domes across the city. Stroll through the souks where the stalls compete with each other to display the most beautiful carpets, the pride of the city. During your stroll, step into the small building topped with a dome which protects a well they call Barrouta, extremely old and revered in local beliefs. Inside an antique system of wheels and buckets, powered by the circular motion of a camel, draws the water. Leave the old town and visit the Aghlabid Basins: in the 19th century, these vast reservoirs of water were part of an immense hydraulic system, exceptional at the time.
What to do ?
Mosques and museums
Visit the Great Mosque: non-Muslims are allowed to enter the courtyard and to observe the prayer hall, a majestic forest of arches and ancient columns. Visitors can also climb the minaret, inspired by the lighthouse of Alexandria. You will be in awe of the power and simplicity of this 9th century architecture. There could not be more contrast between that and the other great monument of Kairouan: the graceful Zaouïa Sidi Saheb or “Mosque of the Barber” where the large patios are decorated with brightly coloured tiles. Outside of the city, don’t miss the great museum of Raqqada: there you can see ceramics with metallic reflections, gold coins and pages of the Koran dating back to the first centuries in the city’s history. Other activities are possible in the region: hiking, caving and hunting in the mountain areas, or watching the crowds of birds gather on the saltwater lakes.
What to eat ?
Lamb or maqroudh
In the medina, take a seat in a small restaurant to taste simple and great value cuisine. Some well-reputed restaurants will serve you, according to your tastes, a generous helping of couscous or sought after international cuisine. You can also order Tunisian sheep-meat specialities such as mosli allouche, oven roasted lamb. But Kairouan’s famous speciality is the little diamond shaped sweet known as maqroudh. In it is found the timeless ingredients of Berber cuisine: semolina, olive oil and honey, to which dates from the oases of the South are added.
Where to sleep ?
Classic hotel or boutique accommodation
A number of hotels can be found in Kairouan, among them a luxury hotel with a swimming pool inside a restored ancient building, the kasbah (fortress) of the city. Unless you prefer a guesthouse inside the medina.
Holy city and ancient capital
Kairouan was founded in 670 AD, during the Arab conquest of Africa (ancient name for Tunisia). Under the reign of the Aghlabid emirs, in the 9th century it became one of the largest metropolises in the Mediterranean. It was at this time that the Great Mosque was built in its current form; one of the first great monuments of Islamic architecture, it has been the model for numerous mosques as far as Andalucia. The museum of Raqqada exhibits remarkable artifacts dating from this golden age which lasted for two centuries. In the following eras, Kairouan kept the special prestige of a holy city. Aside from its Great Mosque – the first founded in the Maghreb –, it is also home to the mausoleum of an ancient companion of the Prophet, Sidi Saheb; this magnificent building built in the 17th century, made up of several patios and rooms decorated with multicoloured ceramic panels, is known as the “Mosque of the Barber”.
The carpets of Kairouan
The story goes that in the 19th century, the daughter of an Ottoman governor would have been the first, in Kairouan, to weave a deep-pile carpet as an offering for one of the city’s mosques. After that, the tradition was continued, making Kairouan the carpet capital of Tunisia. In reality, since ancient times, all kinds of carpets have been made in Tunisia. The klims and mergoums are low-pile carpets, decorated with parallel stripes and Berber motifs, while the gtifs, thick carpets with brilliant colours, are put together in the South and the countryside. But the carpets in Kairouan have more in common with Oriental carpets. It can be determined through its central medallion surrounded by a garden of flowers and a frame of parallel bands. The most classic have a dominant crimson red, or alternatively the natural white and brown colours of sheep’s wool. Watch the artisans at work in a carpet workshop: you will be fascinated by their dexterity and by the marvelous designs forming beneath your eyes.
Kairouan is linked to the rest of the country by coach services and louages (shared taxis with fixed routes). The international airport at Monastir and Enfidha-Hammamet are both 65 km from Kairouan.
The main speciality of Kairouan is impossible to ignore: the carpet is present everywhere. The thick knotted pile carpets range from the classic Kairouan model to incredibly varied designs; the low pile carpets, covered with geometric motifs or little stylised figures – gazelle, people –, are lighter and less expensive. They come in all sizes, from the small chair mats to the large mergoum covering an entire room. Don’t miss bringing back other handicraft items from your trip (copper, pottery, leather…) and the little magroudh date sweets.