Al-Qayrawan Mosque

The Qayrawan Mosque contributed a great deal to the development of architecture in the Muslim world. With its original design and harmony of various components it was a prototype model for the rest of North African and Andalusian mosques.

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Also known as the Mosque of Sidi Ukba, Al-Qayrawan (1) Mosque was built by the first Muslims to arrive in Tunisia and North Africa under the leadership of Uqba Ibn Nafi in 670 CE. The mosque was the first building to be erected in the town (2), a tradition which had been followed by most leaders.

The mosque has been renovated a number of times although the general character has been maintained.

The Mosque Plan and its Evolution

The Mosque has an irregular rectangular plan, a manifestation of the changes carried out by various leaders. As with other mosques, Al-Qayrawan consists of a hypostile hall for prayers (Masjid), a courtyard surrounded by covered arched galleries, and a minaret. The sanctuary is composed of 17 aisles defined by marble columns, which some claim to have been brought from Roman sites in Baghdad(3). These columns support horseshoe arcades above which a brick wall was laid down to carry the roof.

In their study, Fikri (4), Creswell (5), Marcais (6) and Saladin (7) established the chronology of the evolution of the sanctuary plan. The earliest suggestions indicate that in his works of 694, Hassan Ibn Nu'man built the sanctuary with four rows of arches running parallel to the Qibla wall from North West to South East, each with 17 perpendicular aisles, which suggest the same width of the present mosque(8). These rows of arches were 4.25m wide but the one next to the qibla wall was wider at 5.5 m width. The fourth arcade overlooked the courtyard. Today, this arcade represents the middle section of the sanctuary connecting the two central gates located in the eastern and western walls (9).

The renovation of Ziyadat Allah gave the final shape of the Mosque. Major alteration was carried out on the sanctuary. A new Mihrab was constructed on the qibla wall covering the historic one, and in front of it a great dome was raised (10). Furthermore, the aisle in front of the Mihrab was demolished leaving a large aisle consisting of two smaller aisles and running perpendicular to the Qibla wall (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Mihrab Aisle, represnting a wide nave, was made by joining two ordinary aisles perpendicular to the Qibla wall.

The roof level was raised above other sections, transforming it into a central nave (11). The intersection of this large nave with the arcade of the Mihrab wall forms a square bay which was surmounted by a semi-circular dome. Such an arrangement is widely known as the T plan scheme (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Birds eye view of the Mosque showing the plan elements. The T plan clealry appears on roof top connecting between the prayer hall gate in the Northern side, through the nave intersecting with the Qibla aisle wich runs from east to west.
Source: Hattstein, M. & Delius, P. (2000)
'Islam: Art and Architecture', Konemann, Cologne, Germany, p. 132.

This constitutes the second example, of such plan, after the reconstruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque of 780 (12). The section beyond this, consisting of three more rows of arcades and connecting with the courtyard (13), was constructed by Bishre Ibn Safwan in 723 (14).

The works of Ibrahim Ibn Ahmed, which he undertook in 875, added the dome of Bab al-Bahu at the end of the Qibla aisle, symmetrical to the dome of the Mihrab, on the roof of the main entrance of the sanctuary (Figure 3). Also in these works, the two covered aisles were added along the four walls of the courtyard.

Figure 3. Internal view of the Mihrab dome showing the 24 ribs forming the squeleton of the dome and the transition shell squinches at the corners of the square bay.

The courtyard extends beyond the prayer hall (sanctuary) towards the north. It is surrounded by two arched galleries (figure 4). The northern gallery includes a square minaret planted in its centre (figure 5).

Figure 4. General view of the Qayrawan Mosque showing the prayer hall (sanctuary) and the eastern galleries.

Still in its original state, the minaret consists of three main superimposed sections of graded size and décor. The base section is the largest; mainly of blind character. The middle section is thinner and decorated with three blind arches on each side. The top section is the smallest crowned with a semi-circular dome and decorated with blind arches topped with section of five small blind arches.

Figure 5. The Northern side of the Mosque is dominated by the famous 8th century square minaret.

Summary of Changes and Modifications

  • In year 694 CE Hassan Ibn Nu'man renovated the Mosque (15).
  • In 723, Bichre Ibn Safwan extended it to present size to accommodate the growing population of the city of Qayrawan.
  • In 772 Yazid Ibn Hatem renovated it.
  • In 836 Ziyadat Allah Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Al-Aghlab renovated the mosque (16).
  • In 875 Ibrahim Ibn Ahmed Ibn Al-Aghlab renovated and extended the mosque giving it the present plan and character.

Historic Significance

As noted previously, the whole Mosque belongs to the time of Ziyadat Allah who made permanent changes to its plan in year 875. The remains of Uqba's Mosque, unfortunately, are limited to the Mihrab and the Qibla wall. However, Fikri (17) contested that the present size and overall plan of the Mosque were determined in the extension made by Bichre Ibn Safwan in 723. The mosque remains the first of its kind in North Africa. It contains the shrine Sidi Uqba although there are suggestions that Uqba died in central Algeria near the city of Biskra (18). In this city, there is also a small mosque called "Sidi Uqba" claiming to hold the relics of this Companion. However, it is commonly known that in the maqsurah, located to the right of the Mihrab, lies the tomb of the Caliph Al-Mu'izz.

Architectural Significance

The space configuration adopted in this mosque has been explained by numerous suggestions, mostly connecting it to the Christian basilica. However, there are views, led by Scherrato, which arguet that it was developed independently from it (19). Regardless of this, Qayrawan Mosque succeeded in becoming a principal model for the religious architecture of North Africa.

In his study of the columns of Qayrawan mosque, Marcais (20) revealed that although many of them were clearly of Roman or Byzantine origins, there were a few of Islamic origin. These were engraved with Kufic inscriptions bearing the declaration of the Muslim faith "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed (PBUH) is His Messenger". He suggested that these were even sculptured by the Aghlabids around the time of the construction of the Mosque (21).

The other feature is related to the technical use of these columns. To achieve the desired height of the arches (and consequently the roof), the builders of Qayrawan Mosque did not spring the arches directly from the capitals above the columns, as customary practised, but added a decorated stone section followed by a cornice, before throwing the stretched horseshoe arch (22) (Figure 6). This ingenious technique spread to a large number of mosques constructed after the Qayrawan Mosque. Later, it was elaborated upon by the architects of Cordoba in the Great Mosque (see FULL ARTICLE - The Arch that never sleeps)

Figure 6. Portico arcade showing the use of added stone above the column to give it the desired height. The slight stilting of the horseshoe arch also achieved the same objective.

The dome of the Mihrab, constructed by Ziyadat Allah in the works he undertook in 850 CE, is of particular architectural significance. Its lobed structure was made from 24 lobed ribs resting on an octagonal shaped drum with 8 pairs of lobed squinches and pierced with 8 windows. The interior of this drum is given a circular form resting on a square base. However, its exterior has the shape of an eight pointed star of 8 curved interior sides and 8 projecting corners. The square base is equipped with four lobed shell squinches at the corners of the square providing the transition from the square base to the circular drum of the dome (Figure 3). The influence of Mesopotamia appears clearly in the method of construction of the dome (using bricks) as well as in the use of blind arches as decoration (23). Direct imitation of this dome is seen in the dome of the Great Mosque of Soussa (850). The use of squinches appeared first in Ribat of Soussa (Tunisia) built in 821, which suggests that it was perhaps a local building tradition rather than imported from Mesopotamia (24).

Decorative Significance

The decorative aspect of the Mosque involves a variety of motifs and material. It extends from the use decorative arches and tiles, to floral and geometrical art. The use of lobed arches in the squinches as well as in blind arches especially above the Mihrab refers to its transmission from Muslim constructions in the East as in Ukhaidir (774-775) and Baghdad Gate at Raqqa (Syria), built by Al-Mansur (754-775).

Mosaic and tile decoration adorn the area around the Mihrab. With various designs these tiles were arranged in singular form not customary in the Muslim world (25). The Mihrab itself was decorated with marble panels (approximately 60x45 cm) of various designs and topped with tiles organised in a row of lozenges.

Stucco work of Arabesque adorns the walls of the bay in front of the Mihrab as well as the niches and blind arches of the dome base and drum. Floral designs cover the wooden ceiling of the mosque consisting essentially of buds of pine enveloped in palm leaves as well as above the main gate (Figures 7&8).

Figure 7. Floral designs painted in silver white adorn the wooden beams supporting the flat roof.


In addition to its historic significance, Qayrawan Mosque contributed a great deal to the development of architecture in the region and the Muslim world in general. It represents one of the most original designs inherited from the prosperous period of the Muslim civilisation, setting up a prototype model for the rest of North African and Andalusian mosques. Meanwhile, the architectural qualities displayed in the harmony of its various components and its well adapted décor demonstrate the genius of the Muslim architect regardless of his geographical origin.

Figure 8. Details of carved wood Arabesque above the main gate.

Notes and References:

1 The French spells it with "k" and without "w" as follows: Kairouan.
2 Fikri, A. (1936) `The Jami Mosque of Quairawan", Almaaref, Cairo, pp.12-26. The author published this book based on his study of the Mosque between 1931-1934 and 1936.
3 Creswell, K.A.C. (ed.1958) `A Short Account of early Muslim Architecture', Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Baltimore, Penguin Books. One wonders why did the Aghlabids not use columns from neighbouring Carthage instead of bringing them all the way from Baghdad.
4 Fikri, A., op, cit.
5 Creswell, K.A.C. op, cit.
6 Marcais, op, cit.
7 Saladin, H. (1899) `la Mosquee de Sidi Oqba a Kairouan (les monuments historiques de la Tunisie- les Monuments Arabes), Paris.
8 Fikri, A, op, cit.
9 The study of Marcais and Saladin presented a different conclusion suggesting that this section represents the limits of the renovated mosque of Ziydat Allah.
10 Creswell (ed.1958) disagreed with this hypothesis suggesting that the dome was built by Ibrahim Ibn Ahmed in 862 CE. See Creswell, A.K. op, cit., pp.220-221
11 Nave: the aisle bordered by two rows of support (columns or pillars), with the arches they carry and the wall built above the arches.
12 The Mosque was originally built by the Caliph Umar in 634.
13 Arcade row: the space made from the spanning of arches which are arranged parallel from one aisle to the other.
14 Fikri, A., op. cit. However, in the opinion of Marcais and Saladin these works were carried out by Abu Ibrahim
15 Marcais (1954) thought that with the exception of the mihrab, the whole mosque was destroyed and rebuilt by Ibn Nu'man in 695. See Marcais, G. (1954) `l'Architecture Musulmane d'Occident', Arts et Metiers Graphiques, Paris, p.11.
16 Again Marcais, G. op. cit. suggested that the work included the wholesale demolition of the mosque and its complete reconstruction. Ziyadat Allah also preserved the original mihrab of Uqba. The work cost more than 80,000 mithqals, around 80,000 golden Pound Sterling.
17 Ibid.
18 The Algerians believe firmly in this claim.
19 See Scerrato, U., op. cit., p.46.
20 Marcais, G, op. cit., p.18.
21 There are those who claimed that the columns were all classical and the Muslims only engraved the inscriptions (see Roy, B & Poinssot, P. (1950) `Inscription Arabes de Kairouan', Publication de l'Institut des Hautes Etudes de Tunis, Vol.2, Paris.
22 This practice is not new as it was used by the Romans and the Byzantines in Africa (see Marcais, G: op, cit., p.19). In Muslim architecture, it was seen in 'Amr's Mosque of Egypt (641), where this technique was used through the introduction of six stone layers before springing the arch. Historians, including Creswell, believe that it was introduced in the reconstruction of the mosque, which took place in 827, probably prior its introduction in Qayrawan.
23 Marcais, op, cit, p.21.
24 Scerrato, U. (1976) called it "Soussa School" (see Scerrato, U. (1976) `Islam: Monuments and Civilisation', The Reader's Digest Association Ltd. London, p.46.)
25 Saladin (1908) provided an historical account explaining the cause of the adoption of this bizarre form but without referring to his source. He indicated that the Caliph Al-Mu'izz decided to renew the mihrab of Ziyadat Allah and proceeded with the demolition starting with disposing of the wall tiles. He faced opposition from the inhabitants of Kairawan who preferred to keep the old mihrab. Under this pressure, Al-Mu'izz abandoned his plan and re-fixed the unbroken tiles in the singular manner. (see Saladin, H. (1908) 'Les Villes d'Art Clebres: Tunis et Kairouan', Librairie Renouard, Paris, p.125). 

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