GREAT MOSQUE (Sidi Uqba Mosque)


View of the courtyard
View of the Courtyard and Minaret



Although most of North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco along the Mediterranean Sea, was conquered by the Islamic army in the 7th century, it was after the 11th century that the middle and southern areas of Africa (Black Africa), which are divided from the North by the Sahara Desert, were Islamized.
So the area facing the Mediterranean is quite different from the general image of Africa; having been deeply Arabized in the nation and language, it is rather similar to the Middle East. Actually in the ages of early Islam, it was ruled by the Umayyads of Damascus and the Abbasids of Baghdad.

The central part of North Africa, mainly current Tunisia together with the western part of Libya and the eastern part of Algeria, was referred to as eIfriqiya,f the nucleus city of which, Qairawan (Kairouan), was constructed from 670 to 675 by the Umayyad general, Uqba ibn Nafi. Qairawan, which means literally a military capital (Misr), was a pivotal base town to rule the conquered regions along with Fustat (currently called Old Cairo) in Egypt and others.

Exterior View and Portal of Minaret

Under the Aghlabid dynasty (800-909), which Arabs founded by subjugating Berbers in the region, its capital Qairawan flourished greatly as the center of government, economy, and culture of North Africa.
The Great Mosque for congregational worship on Friday was erected with sun-dried bricks at the time of construction of the Misr and was designated as the Sidi Uqba Mosque taking the name of the founder. However, the extant mosque was reconstructed in 836 by Ziyadat Allaf I (r. 817-38) and was improved into the final form in 862 by Abu Ibrahim Ahmad.


Though the worship hall was built of stone, the circumferential walls of the whole precinct are made of bricks. When approaching the mosque, one may be surprised here again. One can see only a series of rough brick buttresses as the external appearance of the mosque. These impassive buttresses donft possess any aesthetical intention apart from the structural role to strengthen the outer walls staunchly.
The builders look to have had no desire to make the building beautiful and monumental for the outside viewer's eyes.

Plan of the Great Mosque, Qairawan
(From Alexandre Papadopoulo, Islam and Muslim Art, 1976, Harry N. Abrams j
The worship hallfs central span is wider and taller than the others like a span along the Qibla wall as well. Thus the plan makes the eT-shaped pattern,f characteristic of mosques in the Maghreb.

What they aimed to attain through and through is to enclose and gain an orderly harmonious courtyard and superb interior spaces. It is, so to speak, the attitude pursuing internal richness as opposed to outward self-display. Probably in old times, houses and stores stuck closely to the mosque on all sides. To begin with, there was no exterior view on the mosque there.
Such an introverted tendency was deeply rooted in the character of the Islamic faith; nevertheless it seems considerably contradictory to the Islamic armyfs rapid conquests and enlargement of its territory.

Facade of the Worship hall and its small front Dome


The buildings surrounding the courtyard make an austere impression as early Islamic architecture with little embellishment. The elements breaking its monotony are the small domes of the northern grand minaret and the central part of the southern side of the worship hall.
The minaret, which might have been erected outside of the precinct at the beginning, has become located at the center of the new western cloister due to the enlargement of the courtyard. Like other minarets from Ifriqiya to Spain, it is not round shaped but square, containing a staircase inside its massive walls. It was said to have been modeled after the Roman lighthouse of Salakta.
The small dome confronting this on the opposite side of the courtyard, the purpose of which is unclear, might be only a decorative element around the courtyard.

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Cloister and Interior of the Worship Hall

The worship room is an Arabic type hypostyle hall, columns of which were brought from Roman buildings. What gives this simple hypostyle hall a modulation is the central nave, capped with the before mentioned courtyard side small dome at the western end. It is wider and has a higher ceiling than the other aisles, emphasizing the praying direction toward Makka (Qibla).
In addition to that, another small dome is set in front of the Mihrab, from which another wide span runs parallel to the Qibla wall, making movement eT-shapedf in the plan in combination with the central nave.
Though this method was adopted at various mosques in Western Islam, it has not particularly grown into a prominent style.

(In "Architecture of Islam" 2006)

© Takeo Kamiya
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