The most illustrious architectural achievement carried out in Kairouan, the first metropolis of Islamic civilization in the Maghreb is indisputably the Uqba ibn Nafi mosque. Founded in the year 50 A.H. / 670 A.D., it was subsequently taken care of by all the governors and princes of Ifriqiya. After Hassan Ibn Nooman pacified Ifriqiya and put an end to the revolt of the Berbers led by the Kahina, he renovated it in 84 AH/ 703AD. The mosque was modest in size at the time, and its present dimensions would have been the result of the expansion work that the governor, Bishr bin Safwan, undertook in the early 2nd AH/ 9th century AD.
The mosque was modest in size at the time, and its present dimensions would have been the result of the expansion work that the governor, Bishr bin Safwan, undertook in the early AH 2nd / AD 9th century.
When security was re-established in Ifriqiya during the Muhallabene period and Kairouan was rebuilt, Yazid Ibn Hatim thoroughly rebuilt the mosque in 155 AH / 771 AD. The mosque owes its final morphology and plan to Ziadat Allah Ibn al-Aghlab (AH 221-226 / AD 836-41). The Great Mosque of Kairouan was to become the ancestor and model followed by all Maghrebi and Andalusian mosques. It represents the quintessence of the Ifriqiyan architectural and ornamental repertoire of the period.
The monument is a vast irregular quadrilateral 126 meters long and approximately 75 meters wide, arranged lengthways like Iraqi mosques. The hypostyle prayer hall features seventeen naves perpendicular to the qibla wall and eight bays. Its plan is inspired by Umayyad mosques, such as the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. A ribbed cupola on squinches, with a square base of carved stone overhangs, the intersection of the axial nave and the bay along the mihrab wall. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful mihrab cupolas in Islamic art. The central courtyard is framed with porticoes formed of round horseshoe arches. The middle of the portico, on the prayer hall side, is enhanced by a high, wide arch flanked by two narrower ones, while in the middle of the northern wall stands a dressed stone minaret with a square base, 10.67 m of side, reaching a height of 31.50 m. The three storey minbar has served as an example for many Ifriqi minarets throughout history.
The mosque stands out by the preservation of most of its original furnishings from its early days, including the wooden minbar (a pulpit from which the sermon is delivered) (248 AH / 862 CE), which is the oldest minbar in Islam saved from the ravages of time. It is made of teak wood and comprises more than 300 panels with exquisite plant and geometric designs. It reflects the fusion of Byzantine and Iranian influences and their unification under the Islamic faith.
The Kairouan Mosque also boasts painted and carved wooden ceilings that date back to different historical periods spanning over a thousand years. These ceilings are complemented by the maqsura (lodge) of the Aghlabid prince al-Muizz ibn Badis with its unparalleled epigraphic cartouche (c. 425 AH / 1035 CE). The splendors of this mosque also include the tiles with metallic luster glaze adorning the façade of the mihrab (248 AH / 862 CE), a unique collection in Islamic art.