‘What a hell of a place to put a holy city’, The Times military correspondent of Kairouan, is quoted by many as having written in 1939. He was referring to the intense heat in the summer season, ‘when the town bakes like a brick on its barren plain’. Fortunately in the early spring of March it was still quite a pleasant place. It is Tunisia’s oldest Arab city and the fourth most important Islamic city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracts large numbers of pilgrims from the Muslim world.8 In 2009 it was declared city of science, knowledge and prosperity. The Kairouan Mosque is the great attraction in the town. Built originally in the 8th century, it has been added to and renovated throughout the 9th, 10th, 11th and 13th centuries. Said to contain over 400 marble columns taken from the ruins of Carthage and El Jem this might well account to some extent for the lack of marble left on Roman sites at the present time (Plate 6.18). The Great Mosque of Kairouan is not the only one in Tunisia and there were marble columns in the Great Mosque of Tunis, the Zaytuna, although not recognisably cipollino.
As non-Muslims were not allowed to enter the inner areas of the Kairouan mosque it meant taking zoomed photographs through the entrances and the various openings to get a view of the columns inside. However the pictures do show that several of the columns are made of cipollino.
Standing with one’s back to the minaret there are two or three cipollino columns in the right hand (eastern) gallery, measuring an estimated 2 – 3 m. /6.75 – 10.13 Rf in height, including bases and capitals, and .30 m. /1 Rf in diameter (Plate 6.19). There are one or two cipollino columns on the opposite (western) side, estimated at approximately the same size, with Corinthian capitals, but no bases (Plate 6.20). There are two possible cipollino columns in the Façade of the prayer room, again approximately the same size, with capitals and bases (Plate 6.21). Finally, in the prayer room, there are two or three cipollino columns with Corinthian capitals. The bases were not visible as they were wrapped (Plate 6.22).
At Sbeitla, the most southerly of the main Roman sites, there is no marble. Its structures are built of local limestone faced with lime and powdered marble. It is a settlement of the Flavian dynasty, and has an imposing Diocletian triumphal arch before the entrance to the archaeological site. The site itself has a capitol with three temples, to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, a forum, the remains of a fort, the best preserved remains of an olive press and a good theatre which has been recently restored. There are fine mosaics in the Palaestra. There are later additions in the shape of Byzantine basilicas.
8 Jacobs, Daniel, The Rough Guide, p.236.
Maps and Plates
Plate 6.18 General view of the Great Mosque of Kairouan.
Plate 6.19 Two or three cipollino columns, the Eastern Gallery, the Kairouan Mosque, Kairouan.
Plate 6.20 Two slightly damaged cipollino columns, the Western Gallery, the Kairouan Mosque, Kairouan.
Plate 6.21 One, possibly two, cipollino columns in the façade of the prayer room of the Kairouan Mosque, Kairouan.
Plate 6.22 Two or three cipollino columns in the Prayer Room of the Kairouan Mosque, Kairouan.