The Zitouna mosque, a landmark of Tunisia and Islamic history
Tunis - When walking in the Medina of Tunis during the prayer time, a visitor might get caught up not only in the maze of the alleys making up the old city but also in echoes of the simultaneous prayer calls resonating from the nearby mosques.
Distinct from all the rest is the sound of the prayer call from the Great Mosque of Zitouna. Silence falls outside as loud merchants, noisy visitors and even children playing in the alleys turn to the serenity of prayer. During Ramadan, the mosque welcomes hundreds of Muslims in the evening as believers seek spiritual growth and a place to worship.
At the heart of the Medina lies the second oldest mosque in Africa, expanding over an area of 5,000 sq. metres. Most historians agree that the mosque was founded in 689AD under the direction of Hassan ibn- Nouaman, who was the leader of the Islamic conquest of Tunis and Carthage.
The minaret of the mosque guides visitors to the centre of Medina as the mosque oversees the landscape of shops and quiet old Tunisian houses serving as cafés or cultural centres. Built in 1894, the minaret rises 43 metres from the north-west corner of the courtyard.
The original mosque is believed to be built on the site of a Christian basilica.
“Tunis was conquered in 689 by Hassan ibn Nouaman,” said Tunisian historian Abdelaziz Daoulatli. “He built the mosque on an old site that used to exist here. This contributed to the myth that the mosque was built on the shrine of St Olivia, contributing to the sacredness of the place.
Stretching over hundreds of years, the construction of the mosque continued as each ruling caliph of Tunis attempted to leave his mark by renovating and reconstructing the mosque. The mosque in its present form was refurbished in 864 under the direction of the Abbasid caliph al-Musta’in Billah.
“At the base of the mihrab, there is an inscription that states that Fathallah, the builder of the Abbasid caliph, Musta’in Billah, built the mosque,” Daoulatli said.
“The importance of the history of the mosque,” according to Daoulatli, “is reflected by the number of caliphs and princes who were associated with the building of Zitouna, ranging from the Abbasid to the Fatimid and Hafsid dynasties.
“There are 53 names of statesmen inscribed on the stones. No prince ever passed by Tunis and did not try to leave their trace in their mosque.”
In addition to its rich history, the mosque of Zitouna is an architectural masterpiece that displays the diverse influences of Islamic art of several centuries. The mosque’s architecture resembles that of the mosque of Kairouan, with a vast courtyard leading to a hall made up of stone pillars and wood beams. It has 160 columns brought from the ruins of the old city of Carthage. The roof covers an area of 1,344 sq. metres.
The dome is visible as the most important feature of the mosque. Adorned with fine details, the dome testifies to the art of Umayyad era. The mosque has nine doors that connect the quiet courtyard to busy traditional markets outside.
“Zitouna mosque is a masterpiece of architecture. It is the ultimate expression of Tunisian architecture of ten centuries. The stones of the mosque serve as record of the history of architectural art in Tunisia,” Daoulatli said.
He added: “The mosque had the imprints of pre-Islamic art like Roman scriptures and Christian art in addition to Islamic art. There was no rupture between the two eras. There was an artistic continuity which can be seen in the stones. The mosque shows the history of ten centuries of architecture in Tunisia from the ninth to the 19th century.”
The mosque is also the first university in the history of Islam playing a prominent scholarly role hosting students of religious sciences. Many renowned Muslim scholars studied in Zitouna, including Imam Sahnoun, Imam Mohammed ibn Arafa and Ibn Khaldoun.
“Many leading religious figures taught at the University of Zitouna too like Maliki scholar Ibn Abi Zied and physician Ibn Nafiss. Also, jurist and theologian Asad ibn al-Furat pursued his studies in Zitouna,” Daoulatli said.
The mosque educated leaders of religious reformism such as Imam Tahar ibn Achour and played a pivotal role in the struggle against French colonisation.
“The mosque of Zitouna promoted an open system of education. Tunisian society was open thanks to that reform movement, which started at Zitouna,” Daoulatli said.
He added: “Graduates of Zitouna were leaders of the national movement to fight off the colonisation along with others. After the independence, the Zitouna graduates worked on implementing Arabic language.”
Not only was the mosque a host of Muslim scholars but it also opened one of the first branches for female students. Ikbal Gharbi, an anthropologist and university professor, points out that Zitouna encouraged women’s education.
“The first female Zitouna school opened in 1949. A group of women went to Fadhel ben Achour, the great imam of Zitouna mosque, and asked that women study in Zitouna, too, as well as men,” Gharbi said.
“What is amazing is that when you look at the photos of that first class, you will see that the female students of Zitouna did not even wear a veil while taking classes with the greatest religious scholars of the mosque.”
She concluded: “One of the first female students is Ismat Eddine Karkar, who was the first woman from Zitouna to pursue her studies and get her PhD in Tunisia.”