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Volume 18, Number 1January/February 1967

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The Fourth Holy City

The base for the Muslim conquest of the West… The capital of Africa for five centuries of Arab rule…

Written by John Anthony

The city of Kairouan has no neighbors. It stands alone, surrounded by the bled—the undefined hinterland in central Tunisia. Midway between sea and mountains, it is beyond the influence of both. The massive ochre walls rise straight from the featureless plain; above them swell the domes of a hundred mosques, and the sky is stabbed with the virile shape of minarets. A suburb of turban-shaped tombstones crowds beneath the walls, and herds of hobbled camels lurch across the prairie looking for grass. In isolation, Kairouan preserves its purity. As the shadow of night sweeps over the bled and the mountains of the Maghreb darken in the distance, a muezzin climbs the minaret of the Great Mosque and calls out over city and plain the pure, cold formula: There is no god but God. A caravan of pilgrims, perhaps carrying a corpse to be buried in holy ground, hurries to reach the city before dark. As the voice of the muezzin dies, the gates in the ramparts close.

When Sidi Oqba ibn Nafi arrived here only forty years after the Prophet's death, there was nothing but desert. Where he stopped, it is said, a spring of water broke miraculously from the ground at his feet. Stooping to drink, he picked out of the water a gold cup he had lost years ago in the holy fountain of Zemzem in Mecca. On this sign, he pitched his camp and founded the city. Kairouan—the name means caravanserai—remains the most Arab town in Tunisia. There was no Punic, Roman or Berber settlement here before, and nothing of importance was added by the Turks or the French. It was the base for the Muslim conquest of the West, and the capital of Africa for most of the five centuries of Arab rule. The inhabitants claim to be of pure Arab lineage. And it is one of the holiest cities of Islam. To the perhaps parochial Muslims of North Africa in fact the sanctity of Kairouan is second only to Mecca among all cities of the world. And they make frequent pilgrimages to the city, The pilgrims arrive on foot, by camel and horseback, in ramshackle buses or crowded taxis, a few in limousines driven by liveried chauffeurs. They pitch their tents outside the walls, or stay at a funduk—a hollow square of unfurnished cells for the people, round a big courtyard for their animals—or in a hospice attached to one of the mosques, or in one of many hotels. They visit each shrine and mosque and honor the saint or hero buried there. They drink water from the Well of Barouta that flows from Mecca. They squeeze between two pillars that winnow out the fat and self-indulgent from the portals of paradise. They gaze on the tomb of the Barber, which contains three hairs from Muhammad's beard.

For tourists who come to Kairouan, the procedure is equally cut and dried. You buy a ticket from the tourist office and are obliged to take a licensed guide. The mosques may be visited only at certain hours (between prayers) and the itinerary is always the same. One of the guides was old and angular and had a concave chest that made him rasp and wheeze. He was a true Kairouanese—"pur sang arabe" he said as if he were at stud—and threw the names and dates of conquests and dynasties, shrines and schisms at us, contemptuous of our ignorance of the capital of the world. I got fond of him, contempt, villainy and all, however, and asked for him every time until he died of whatever was gnawing inside his chest.

First, the Mosque of the Sabres, less than a century old but already a favorite with the simpler pilgrims and the simple-minded tourists. Sidi Amor, the marabout—a very holy man whose name is usually revered—who built it, was a blacksmith and something of a clown. He filled the mosque with gigantic furniture, fashioned by himself: a huge pipe wreathed with meaningless inscriptions (was he illiterate?), a sword stuck fast in its scabbard which each tourist is asked to try to pull. In the courtyard lie some heavy anchors brought by Sidi Amor from Porta Farina against the day Kairouan becomes a seaport. There are five tombs, in three of which lie the bones of Sidi Amor, his daughter, and a servant. The others are reserved for the final imam and a companion. This imam will draw the sword from the scabbard, complete the seventh dome of the mosque which is now open to the sky, and save Islam. Blue-gray pigeons wheel through the hole of the seventh dome and perch on the waiting tombs, and the beat of their wings resounds through the mosque like the sound of subdued laughter.

The next stop is the Mosque of the Three Doors: no legends, but a handsome 9th-century facade inscribed with arabesques, which was taken apart for the inclusion of a minaret in 1440 and put back stone by stone. Next, the Mosque of the Barber, which is what—the guide scolds us crossly—the ignorant insist on calling the tomb of Sidi Sahib, a companion of the Prophet who was buried with his most prized possession, three hairs from Muhammad's beard. The mosque stands outside the walls and looks like a miniature town itself, for a school, a hospice, retreat house, and various other connected buildings have grown up around it. Although the Prophet's Companion must have died in the 7th century, his shrine was refurbished in the 17th and has a rose-colored minaret, doors of Italian marble, and a vestibule in cool blue-green tiles and white stucco.

Why, I used to wonder, were the mosques in Kairouan the only mosques in Tunisia open to the infidel? Every Tunisian I asked had a different answer. That the mosques of Kairouan were profaned by the invading French army in 1881 and therefore no longer holy. That sacrileges had been committed elsewhere, but not here, so the mosques in other places were henceforth closed to non-Muslims. That the Kairouanese care only for money and gladly prostitute their shrines to attract tourists. Listening to the scornful old guide, I wondered if this were not the ultimate arrogance of Kairouan. Elsewhere we were physically excluded from the mystery. Here the barriers are down; we are permitted to share the holiness, enter it, stare at it, even touch it. And we expect a revelation. Is this it—the miraculous well, the huge sword and pipe, the winnowing pillars, the whiskers of the Prophet? The single eye of the guide glittered with mockery. You thought you were admitted to the mystery? Fools! You will not find it here.

Where then is the mystery to be found? Islam is perhaps the most historical of the world's great religions, linked as it is with the history of a certain people in a certain country at a certain time. Mecca is inaccessible. Perhaps the history of Kairouan, itself an important chapter in the history of Islam, will provide a.clue. Apart from the resemblance to Arabia, symbolized by the gold cup, the site of Kairouan had several practical advantages when Sidi Oqba arrived there from the sands of Libya in A.D. 670. The Arabs faced two enemies, the Byzantines and the Berbers. The unprepossessing site was out of reach of the Byzantine fleet on the coast, and it commanded the mountains where the Berber forces lodged. It was also near the intersection of the main caravan routes, both to the north and to the west. The Berbers at first welcomed the new invaders against the Byzantines, and many joined the ranks of Islam. But Sidi Oqba treated them as a subject people, even when they were converted, and severely punished any who apostatized. The Berbers thereupon repudiated the alliance and began fighting the invaders, alone or in conjunction with the Byzantines. The Arab governor of Egypt, displeased with the results of Oqba's policy, sent his freedman Dinar to relieve him. Dinar took Oqba prisoner and abandoned Kairouan. He made peace with the great Berber chief Kusaila and was therefore able to occupy the country as far westward as Tlemsin.

Ten years later Sidi Oqba was reinstated by the Caliph himself. He threw Dinar in chains and re-established his old base at Kairouan. Kusaila quickly deserted the Arabs and withdrew into the mountains. Leading Dinar in chains, Oqba pushed westward across Africa till he reached the Atlantic. There, according to Muslim tradition, he rode his horse into the waves, declaring he would conquer the sea itself and the lands beyond for the One God. Turning back through what he thought was conquered territory, Sidi Oqba was attacked by Berbers near Biskra. He released Dinar from his chains and gave him a sword. Throwing their scabbards away, the two rivals fought side by side till they were cut down. The death of Oqba signaled a general uprising in which Berbers and Byzantines combined to throw the Arabs back into Libya. Kairouan was lost and Kusaila became master of the interior.

All of Sidi Oqba's conquests had to be won again by others. In 688 Kairouan was recaptured and Kusaila defeated and killed. Nine years later Byzantine power in Africa was broken when the Arabs took Carthage and defeated the Greek fleet. The Berbers continued resistance for a time; but by skillful diplomacy some of the tribes were regained for Islam, the rest defeated, and the pacification of Africa began.

Despite setbacks and dissension, the Arabs conquered Africa with the speed and ease of a sharp blade cutting through soft, ripe cheese. Perhaps the ripeness was all. Two centuries of invasion, the Vandal incursion and the Byzantine restoration, the dissatisfaction of the tribes, religious dissension and economic grief—all contributed to the softening. The Berbers, after their short-lived resistance, flocked to the standard of the invaders. The Arabs' roving, martial life and tribal organization were similar to theirs, and no doubt the prospect of further conquest to the west appealed to them. But Islam itself must have been an attraction: it was simple and manly, and it sanctified many of their own basic instincts. The spread of Islam is sometimes ascribed to an Arab policy of conversion or death, circumcision by the sword as it were. If this were so we would expect to hear the name of at least a handful of Christian martyrs in 7th-century Africa, for it is not human nature to submit to such an ultimatum. But the Arab invasion produced no Perpetua and Felicity, no Cyprian, not even a defiant Tertullian. The Arabs did not seek wholesale conversions. They considered themselves an hereditary elite, distinguished by blood and religion from their subjects. Although the religion of Jews and Christian was respected, a special tax was levied on non-Muslims, and mass conversion deprived the Arabs of revenue. Yet within a century Christianity vanished from North Africa, partly through flight but largely through voluntary submission to Islam.

The founding of Kairouan was one of those momentous acts that alter the direction of history. The establishment of a permanent base in Africa meant that the Arabs would no longer merely raid the Maghreb—roughly Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia—and then withdraw, that they were committed to remain in the West and—these things having a momentum of their own—to continue westward to Algeria, Morocco, and Spain, until the momentum died in southern Gaul. And by breaking new ground and ignoring the older centers, Sidi Oqba cut the history of Africa in two as if with the edge of his blade. Carthage was the past: Kairouan the future. There was to be no dilution of the new with the old. The contending voices of the past were silenced by the cry of the muezzin: There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.

The 9th century was the golden age of Kairouan. In 800, Ibrahim bin Aghlab, an Arab from Algeria, seized the city and thereby half of North Africa. The Aghlabite dynasty constructed an extensive irrigation system that brought water from the mountains to encircle the city in a green belt of parks and gardens. Aghlabite princes built the Great Mosque in its present form and, along the coast, erected and endowed the ribats —fortresses that were also a kind of monastery and were garrisoned by men as dedicated to prayer as to battle. Under them, African religious thought and jurisprudence developed distinctive forms. The princes lived outside the walls of Kairouan, in a fortified palace set in gardens and guarded by an army of Negro slaves. Despite their patronage of religion, the Aghlabites themselves were said to live dissolute lives and indulge in the drinking of wine. Ambassadors from Charlemagne and renegade Byzantines were received at court. Kairouan's only rival for brilliance in the West was Cordova in Muslim Spain.

It was under the Aghlabites that the .Arabs began the conquest of Malta, Sicily, and southern Italy. A Byzantine official, on the outs with the authorities of Syracuse, came to Kairouan seeking support. The 70-year-old Qadhi of Kairouan was so enthusiastic for a crusade against the Christians that he led the first expedition himself. An army of 11,000 Arabs and Berbers sailed for Sicily. They laid siege to Syracuse, but an epidemic killed many of them, including the aged Qadhi. Joining forces with a body of Spanish Muslims arrived on a raid of their own, the survivors proceeded to reduce the island, city by city. Even before they controlled all of Sicily, they invaded the mainland—again invited by a Christian, the Duke of Naples who, in return for their help against the Duke of Benevento, helped the Muslims capture Messina. The victorious Africans pushed up the Adriatic, reduced Bari, and raided the territories of Venice.

In 846, an Aghlabite fleet appeared off Ostia. The Muslims sacked Rome outside the walls and seized the treasures of St. Peter and St. Paul, though the departing ships were destroyed by a storm. A few years later, the Arabs directed another raid I toward Rome but again a storm intervened and destroyed the fleet before it got there—as can be seen in Raphael's frescos in the Stanze of the Vatican. The Franks and Byzantines finally drove them from central Italy, but Bari remained Muslim for thirty years, ruled at the end by an independent Sultan. And Sicily settled down to its most brilliant century as a province of Islam.

When the successors to the Aghlabites, the Fatimite princes, moved to Cairo in 972 they left an Arab dynasty to represent them in Sicily and a Berber clan, the Zirides, to rule in Kairouan. The city reflected an afterglow of the preceding centuries, and the countryside was prosperous. The Zirides collected taxes in the name of the Fatimitcs and forwarded part of the revenue to Cairo; and dutifully mentioned the Shi'ite Caliph in the public prayers. But most of the populace was not Shi'ite, and it may have occurred to the Zirides to wonder why the wealth of Africa should be shared with Cairo. In 1049 the Ziride princes stopped payments to Egypt and substituted the name of the orthodox Caliph of Baghdad in the prayers. The Fatimites were quick to punish their disloyal vassals and in a diabolical way. They unleashed the lawless and rapacious nomads of upper Egypt. These tribes, which had been held in check since Roman times, swarmed westward like locusts. In successive waves they plundered farms and villages, burned orchards and cut down the olive trees for fire wood. Their herds stripped the vines, trampled gardens, and devoured the fields of grain.

In six years the plain of Kairouan was reduced to the desert that Sidi Oqba had found there and which exists today. The city became untenable. Simultaneously, Pisanand Genoese fleets attacked the coast. For the next two hundred years Ifriqyah (Africa) was fought for and dismembered by foreign and native adventurers. Tunis and Sfax became independent amirates. The Normans of Sicily occupied the cities of the Sake!. An Armenian condottieri named Karakoush tried to carve out a kingdom in the south. Berbers from Morocco and Spain fought each other for control of the country. At last a Moroccan named Abu Hafez quelled the chaos in the 13th century and established a dynasty that ruled for 350 years. But the Hafsite capital was Tunis. Kairouan had entered its dark age.

The holiness remains. There is one more monument to visit, and the guide always leaves it till last. It is the Great Mosque of Kairouan, the shrine of Sidi Oqba himself. It stands in one of the atrophied quarters of town, among empty streets and abandoned houses. The outside is like a fortress, with sloping walls and heavy buttresses blunted with layers of chalky lime. A squat tower of ochre brick stands at one end, and some dwarfish domes peer over the parapet. The impression is one of strength—severe, uncouth, almost brutal. Stepping through the gate you enter a wide flat courtyard with colonnades on three sides, a porch on the other. Behind the porch is a prayer-room, a vast hall supported by rows of columns. On the opposite side of the court stands the square tower, with two whitewashed balconies and cupola, to serve as a minaret. It is as simple and plain as that.

The Mosque of Sidi Oqba is the oldest Muslim edifice in the West, parts of it perhaps the oldest in the world. Where Sidi Oqba himself worshipped—if he prayed indoors at all—is of course lost. This is the fifth or sixth mosque on the site, erected by the Aghlabites and restored and embellished many times since. But the form is as old as Islam: it follows the design of the one built in Medina for Muhammad himself, though greatly enlarged and translated from clay and palm trunks into marble and stone. The building breathes the spirit of primitive Islam. Sidi Oqba and his band were hard-headed men of action, unlettered warriors recently emerged from the Arabian desert, who had surrendered to the Will of God, but to no other. Their city was a camp, their place of worship a fortress. Later Islam might refine itself to the delicacy of the Blue Mosque or the frivolity of the shrine of Sidi Sahib, and Persian mysticism would some day inspire those eastern minarets that seem to be suspended from the sky rather than to rise from the earth. The minaret of Sidi Oqba is as earthbound as a mountain, its bricks dug from the earth, its single door as low as the mouth of a cave. Its purpose was simply that of a platform—to enable the muezzin to be heard over the city, not to bring him closer to heaven. The early Muslims submitted to God, they did not aspire to be like Him.

Yet, as you look more closely at the Mosque of Sidi Oqba, you see that the fabric itself is not all that simple. The walls are a patchwork of brick and stone, augmented with blocks of marble, even Latin inscriptions set sideways or upside-down. The door of the minaret is framed with three antique lintels carved with stylized foliage; the steps of the tower are made of ancient grave stones. And the columns—both those that ring the courtyard and those that throng the prayer-room—are a heterogeneous collection of ancient and medieval styles, of marble, porphyry, and onyx, compiled from pagan temples, Roman theaters, Vandal palaces, Byzantine basilicas, brought from the ruins of Hadrumetum, Thysdrus, Rus-pina, and Carthage, mutilated, mismated, and indiscriminately combined. Yet the effect is neither classical, Christian, nor heteroclite. The Mosque is harmonious and unmistakably Arab, demonstrating that space, not wood or brick or stone, is the material of architecture.

The Mosque of Sidi Oqba was thrown up, of whatever materials lay at hand, in the rush of an urgent idea. That Idea is the central conviction of Islam. Here is no pantheon of minor gods, no hierarchy of prophets nor communion of saints. The Koran itself contains elements from many different religious sources and its vocabulary reveals Greek, Aramaic, even Abyssinian influences. But the message is plain: He is God, the One and Only. God, the Eternal, Absolute. He begetteth not, nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him. That is the burning conviction of Islam, for which Jewish ideas, Greek words, Latin inscriptions, and Byzantine columns are only the fuel. The form of the Great Mosque is the cry of the muezzin in stone.

The Mosque of Sidi Oqba is a world. At the gate there is always a blind beggar, a little knot of solemn children. Pale, undernourished students in groups of two and three talk quietly between Koranic classes. In the calm clearing of the courtyard men meet, kiss their forefinger in greeting, and stroll under the colonnades in earnest conversation. Officials of the Mosque, in neatly pleated turbans and short clipped beards, walk unhurriedly across the pavement and disappear through private doors. An old man dozes on a warm stone in the sun. There are no women, or very few—they prefer the Mosque of Sidi Sahib or a neighborhood shrine. This is a man's world. In the center of the courtyard a sundial tells the time of prayers and fasting. Beneath the pavement cisterns collect the rain water, and sockets of ancient columns, hollowed out, serve as well mouths, their lips deeply grooved by the ropes. A man lowers a bucket and prepares to wash himself before prayers. When you rise up for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and lightly rub your heads and your feet up to the ankles. Every aspect of life, from the most spiritual to the most carnal, is regulated. Establish worship, pay the poor-due, and bozo your heads with those that bow .... Forbidden unto you are carrion and blood and swine-flesh ... and the strangled, and the dead through beating ... Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms ... For divorced women make provision in kindness: a duty for those who ward off evil. What the Koran does not enjoin, hadith or tradition takes care of. You will use your right hand for eating, your left for unclean things. You will not spit or relieve yourself in the direction of Mecca. You will not carry the Koran lower than your waist nor place another book upon it. Islam is ringed with strictures, areas of life where no question is permitted lest society perish. The Athenians tried to do without them and lost their cohesion. The French since Descartes and the Marquis de Sade have embarked on the stimulating but dangerous experiment. Many of the taboos of Islam seem trivial, parochial, outdated, and harsh. But Islam survives.

In the dim cavern of the prayer-room, a group of students sits on amber mats in a broken circle about their teacher. They are committing verses of the Koran to memory. Everything they need to know is there, for it is a transcription of a book inscribed on tablets in heaven. They buzz over the pages like bees extracting nectar from a garden to store in the hive. In front of the mihrab, a man prostrates himself in prayer. God is as close as the vein in a man's neck. From the top of the minaret, the voice of the muezzin rings out over the courtyard, over the rooftops and across the bled. God is most great. I testify that there is no god but God. I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Come to prayer. Come to salvation. God is great. There is no god but God.

John Anthony lived and worked in Tunisia for many years before writing the book About Tunisia, from which this chapter on Kairouan is taken.

This article appeared on pages 30-36 of the January/February 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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