Great Mosque of Zitouna

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The Great Mosque is one of the major attractions in the Medina. It is also known as the Zitouna Mosque as it stands on the site of the olive tree where Hassan Ibn Nooman first taught the Koran. The first mosque on the site was built 7thC but rebuilt 9thC using two hundred columns salvaged from the ruins of Carthage for the Prayer Hall. The courtyard is 14thC, the entrance portico to the south 17thC, the arches around the courtyard 18thC and the minaret 19thC.

It is in a cramped site in the middle of the Medina surrounded by souks. From the outside little is visible apart from the massive blank walls. The best view of the Minaret is from rue Sidi Ben Arous. Gateways lead from the Souks into the Mosque. There is no ceremonial wash area as the men wash before coming to the Mosque.

Non Muslims are not allowed to enter the Mosque. By the main gate is a small ticket desk and non Muslims are only allowed into one side of the courtyard where there is a wooden fence stopping you from going further. It is surrounded on three sides by simple arcades with the Prayer Hall is on the fourth side.

The University based in the Mosque was one of the greatest in the world with students coming to study from across the Muslim world. The library still contains one of the world’s greatest collections of Arabic literature. Tradition had it that each teacher had his own column where he sat with his students around him. It was a place of higher education until the 1950s when the Universities took over and theological students moved elsewhere.

We could see the covers of the water tanks which collected and stored drinking water for Tunis. There was a sundial with carved stone next to it. There is a reasonable view across the courtyard to the 9thC prayer hall which had its doors open but was too far away to see into.

This was the first Mosque we went into in Tunisia and we were frustrated that we could see so little of it. If you are intending to visit Kairouan where you have access to the courtyard then give this one a miss.

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