The Great Mosque at Kairouan
The Great Mosque,
Kairouan, Tunisia

To Muslims Kairouan is known as a holy city, but to visitors it’s more like Carpet City. For centuries it has been one of Tunisia’s main carpet producers, and is less than an hour’s drive inland from Sousse and its neighbouring resorts.

It has a population of about 120,000 and is much more typically Tunisian than the coastal resorts – apart from the daily arrival of coaches bringing visitors to see the sights and perhaps buy a carpet.

The city was founded in 670AD by an Arab General, and its name is said to derive from the Arabic word qayrawan, or military camp. However, it is thought that there may well have been a Roman settlement here previously, and the first Arabic settlement was quickly destroyed and it was begun again in 694AD.

The medina is, naturally, the place to head for your souvenirs but be prepared for a lot of gentle pestering to look into shop after shop, once you’ve shown the slightest interest in anything. There is also a lot of good-natured banter as you run the gauntlet of shopkeepers.

For less hassle if you’re looking for carpets, visit the government-run carpet centre, just to your left after you enter the main gate of the medina. They will advise on quality and prices, have a wide variety of choices from a few pounds to several hundred, and those prices are fixed.

Another good place for buying carpets and other handicrafts is the Centre des Traditions et des Metiers d’Art de Kairouan. This is in the medina on the far side of the covered souks, off the main street. Turn right at the Hotel Bir Baroula along the street of the same name. It is a government-run operation which both sells and demonstrates traditional crafts.

Beware of people who might approach you in the medina and tell you that they are tour guides. They will insist that they will show you the sights and not merely take you to a carpet shop, but then after pointing out the roof of the mosque and the city walls will promptly deliver you to one of the several shops which now call themselves Museums of Carpets.

The Medina. The old town stands inside city walls that were first erected at the end of the 8th century, although the ones you can see today date mostly from the 18th century. The main street that weaves through the medina from the main entrance gate where the coaches park is mostly lined with souvenir shops, plus some spice stalls and a few cafés. Don’t miss the entrance to the covered souks about half-way along on your right. Explore some of the side streets too to find shops where there’s slightly less sales pressure.

The Great Mosque. There has been a mosque on this site since 670AD, when one was built by the founder of Kairouan, an Arab general named Uqba bin Nafi al-Fihri, and that first mosque was named the Sidi Uqba Mosque. Some locals still refer to it by that name. What we see today dates mainly from the 9th century, and to Muslims it is the fourth holiest mosque in the world, after those at Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

The Mosque of Sidi Sahab. Not as grand as the Great Mosque but well worth seeing as visitors are allowed along tiled passageways and up stairs to see the mausoleum of Abu Zama el-Belaoui, who was a companion of the Prophet Mohammed and who returned to Kairouan bringing three hairs from the Prophet’s beard with him (which are now in Istanbul.) The Arabic word for companion is sahab, hence the mosque’s name. It was founded in the 7th century but much of the buildings dates from the 17th century.

The Aghlabite Cisterns. These two reservoirs were built in the 9th century by the Aghlabites, the dynasty which ruled Tunisia at that time. Water was brought along underground aqueducts from mountains over twenty miles away and stored in thirteen such cisterns, mainly for irrigation purposes. The larger is about 120 yards across and about sixteen feet deep.

If you’re planning any serious carpet shopping, visit Kairouan early in your holiday. Advice from the government-run carpet shop here will make you better-informed and less likely to be taken for a ride in the bazaars. (A carpet ride, presumably.)