I don’t know enough about Islam. I had friends who were Muslim growing up, who I joined at gatherings, meals and even a mosque. But, I didn’t really grasp the feeling behind the culture and religion until I went to Kairouan, Tunisia. I was blown away by how welcoming everyone was, how safe I felt and the colorful streets. I felt as calm and peaceful as I did walking the Old City in Jerusalem.
It makes sense that I felt that way since the cities are very similar. After Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, Kairouan was considered the fourth holiest city of Islam during the medieval period.
It is the most ancient Arabo-Muslim base of the Maghreb, and seven pilgrimages to the Great Mosque in Kairouan is equal to one pilgrimage to Mecca. Pretty amazing!
A local Tunisian tour guide and now friend, Yazid, showed me around the city. After driving about an hour from Sousse – a beautiful beach town – we hit the Kairouan tourist office. I was expecting to wait in line amongst tons of Russian and Chinese tourists, but, we were literally the only ones there.
Yazid showed me a view of the city from the rooftop. I thought it would be fun to take pictures with the Tunisian flag.
And then we entered the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Women can choose a headscarf to wear inside, so, I obviously grabbed a pink one.
Yazid told me about the rainwater basin in the center of the courtyard, or sahn. It’s used for washing before prayer or to cool off from the heat.
The prayer hall, or musalla, is large and separated between genders. There are tall wooden stands with little staircases inside, called minbars, which are used for sermons or speeches. And everyone faces the mihrab, which points towards Mecca.
The beautiful minaret was once used as a watchtower, and for the Imam (the worship leader) to sing the call to prayer.
And this mosque has three beautiful domes, or qubbas.
So much thought and precision went into every aspect of the mosque. Each part was laid out beautifully.
Through the architecture, I felt the devotion to the religion and care to give visitors a meaningful experience.
There were no harsh tones or loud voices inside. All I saw were bright, open spaces; and a feeling of warmth from everyone experiencing the mosque there with us. It was just like the “wow!” feeling I get walking into a big cathedral with handcrafted stained glass windows and beautiful wooden fixtures.
To me, the most incredible thing about Kairouan was feeling the faith put into the Great Mosque all throughout the city.
From the Bir Barouta to the Mosque of the Barber and Medina, which I’ll explain in my next post; it’s no wonder UNESCO marked it as a World Heritage Site.