Kairouan (al-Qairawan, القيروان) was founded in 670/50 AH by 'Uqba ibn Nafi, the Arab general in command of the Muslim conquest of North Africa. The principal monument in the city is the Great Mosque, also known as the mosque of Sidi 'Uqba after the general who founded it. The first mosque on the site was begun immediately after the Arab conquest and consisted of a square enclosure containing a courtyard and prayer hall or sanctuary. This first building was made of mud brick and had to be restored in 695. There was another major reconstruction in 724-43 when a minaret was added. The present minaret was added by the Aghlabids in 836. It is a giant three-tier structure built of baked bricks on a base of reused ashlar blocks. At present, the minaret stands on the north wall of the courtyard but in the ninth century, it would have been outside the mosque courtyard in a manner similar to the contemporary Abbasid mosques of Samarra.
The mosque took its present form from the major rebuilding which took place under the Aghlabids which was completed in 862. The present mosque enclosure forms a large rectangle measuring 125 by 85 m. The prayer hall is one-third of the mosque area and comprises seventeen aisles perpendicular to the qibla wall with another aisle parallel to the wall. Aghlabid modifications included the present mihrab, the dome in front of the mihrab and the minbar. The mihrab niche is lined with perforated marble panels decorated with vegetal designs. Surrounding the mihrab are a series of polychrome lustre tiles which are believed to have been imported from Baghdad. The dome covering the area in front of the mihrab is built of stone and rests on a drum supported by large shell-shaped squinches. The dome has a gadrooned form which internally takes the form of thin radiating ribs. The inside of the drum is circular and decorated with a series of sixteen blind niches and eight arched windows. The minbar is the oldest in existence and consists of a high staircase with a series of intricately carved panels on the side decorated with geometric and stylized vegetal designs. The present maqsura (screen) was added in restorations of the eleventh century. Further restorations were carried out in 1294 when the arches of the arcades were remodeled and the projecting portal of Bab Lalla Rayhana was added. Other Aghlabid monuments at Qairawan include the Mosque of the Three Gates, and the famous polygonal cisterns or artificial lakes. Outside Qairawan three satellite cities were established known as al-Abbasiya, Raqqada and Sabra al-Mansuriyya. Nothing remains of Abasiyya, although at Raqqada there are huge reservoirs and the remains of a large palace built of baked brick. Other cities with Aghlabid monuments include Tunis, Susa, Sfax and Monastir. In 1052 the city was enclosed with a crenellated brick wall which was extensively restored in the eighteenth century.
The Mosque of the Three Doors, previously known as the Mosque of ibn Khayrun, was colloquially named after the three portals located along its famed west elevation. Its elaborate public entry is the oldest extant decoratively carved facade in the Islamic world, rendering the otherwise modest structure extremely significant to the modern study of North African architectural arts. The mosque was constructed during the ninth century CE (third century AH) under the Aghlabid dynasty ruling Ifriqiya, the coastal region comprising modern day Tunisia, western Libya, and eastern Algeria. The structure underwent a major renovation sponsored by the Hafsids during the fifteenth century CE (ninth century AH).
The Mosque of the Three Doors is located in the southeast of the Kairouan médina, approximately 400 meters south of the Great Mosque of Kairouan (836 CE / AH 221). Its western elevation opens onto a pedestrian street and hosts the mosque's arched entrance portals.
The mosque is almost rhomboid in plan, composed of four thick masonry walls enclosing a grid of vaulted bays. Unlike almost all North African mosques, the Mosque of the Three Doors is fully roofed and does not include a courtyard, likely due to its unusually compact footprint. The western street-front wall is 12 meters long, while the eastern qibla wall is 10 meters long. The mosque is 11 meters deep from east to west. The longitudinal axis of the structure is rotated 92 degrees clockwise from the north-south meridian to accommodate the orientation of the qibla wall.
A minaret is located at the northwest corner of the structure, projecting 1.5 meters from the face of the northern wall and rising 13 meters high. Added to the mosque in 1440 CE / AH 843, the minaret is similar in scale and ornamentation to other Hafsid minarets that were constructed throughout Ifriqiya. The minaret is roughly square in plan, measuring between 3.5 and 4 meters wide north-to-south and 3.75 meters deep east-to-west. A narrow stairway winds within the interior of the minaret to a small enclosed chamber located 8 meters above the ground, featuring screened openings framed by lobed arches. Decorative panels of green and white faience tiles in geometric patterns suggest a cornice and pilasters framing the twinned arches on the west elevation of the minaret. Such faience tiles are typical of Andalusian decoration, a vestige of the widespread artistic exchange between Spain and Ifriqiya during the fifteenth century. The minaret staircase opens onto a spacious balcony located 11 meters above the ground. The stairway is enclosed at the balcony level, its small square structure capped by a pyramidal tile roof and metal finial. The balcony is edged by 0.5-meter-tall stone merlons with pyramidal profiles, a form typical of Northern African or Andalusian battlements.
The three arched portals along the west elevation serve as the only entrances to the mosque's interior as it lacks a private imam's entry, typically located at one end of the qibla wall in North African mosques. The western elevation is symmetrically arranged, with the exception of the added minaret at its north end. A 3.25-meter-wide central arch is flanked by 2.5-meter-wide side arches. Each arched portal allows direct entry into the prayer hall.
The interior of the mosque continues the tripartite organization of the west elevation, as the prayer hall is divided by columns into three aisles, each three bays deep. Each bay is roofed by a corbelled stone dome reaching a maximum interior height of 4.5 meters. The columns from which the domes rise are each 2.5 meters tall. Each bay measures approximately 2.5 meters square, with a slight deflection to accommodate the skew of the column grid in plan. The central bay of the prayer hall is edged by a slim partition along its west side, preventing a direct view of the qibla niche from the central entry and the street.
Narrow niches are inset into the north, east, and south walls between the columns that support the perimeter domes. The niche at the southwest corner of the mosque has been partitioned off as a small storage space, while the northwest corner is occupied by the ground level entrance to the minaret's enclosed stair. The qibla niche is located in the center of the east wall, between two small ornamental columns. The opening into the niche is 1.25 meters wide, while the niche itself is circular in plan with a 1.5 meter diameter. The niche projects 1.25 meters into the 1.5-meter-thick east wall.
The mosque is a stone masonry structure laid in a coursed ashlar pattern. With the exception of limited colored tilework on the minaret and within the qibla niche, the entire structure is constructed of a soft white stone that is local to the area and easily carved. The use of this material enabled the ornamentation for which the mosque became renowned: the frieze and cornice above the three gates.
Within each of the three blind arches on the west street-front is a rectangular doorway bordered by a flat stone enframement. The lobed arches rest on repurposed antique stone columns and capitals dating from pre-Islamic Kairouan. Above the arches, the wall features intricate decorative carving of the same soft white stone used in the masonry structure of the building. A pattern of small lobed leaves and vine tendrils fills the space between the tops of the arches and the first band of Kufic inscription that forms the base of the 2-meter-tall frieze. The frieze is composed of four major bands of carving, each 0.5 meters tall; two rows of inscriptions are located below a central row of geometric and vegetal patterns, which is topped by a third row of inscriptions. The inscriptions reveal details about the construction and dedication of the mosque, attributing its erection and original name to Mohammed II ibn Khayrun (reg. 863-875 CE/AH 250-261). A portion of the inscription was added in 1440 to credit the construction of the minaret and general renovation of the structure to the Hafsid ruler Uthman bin Muhammad al-Mansur (reg. 1435-1488 CE/AH 839-893). Above the frieze, a 0.5 meter-tall row of carved dentils supports a simple 0.25-meter-tall cornice that projects 0.5 meters from the face of the wall.
Today the mosque remains open as a place of worship. Though tourists are restricted from viewing its interior, they may still visit to enjoy the structure's most significant architectural feature, its ornate public facade. Though the soft stone carvings have suffered some erosion during the centuries since its construction, subsequent restorations and attention to the structure's preservation in the modern era have allowed the carvings to remain in excellent condition. The Mosque was designated an UNECSO World Heritage Centre in 1988, along with the entirety of the Médina of Kairouan.
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