23 April 2017

Kairouan, Tunisia 2012

Today is one of those blogaversary days ... ever since the camels clamoured for their own space. Travel demanded babble at the same time. And it happens to be my ninety-ninth post on the blog. Here's to another three years, insh'allah!

Kairouan, the holiest Muslim place in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was a special stop on our way south in Tunisia. Olive trees and sheep abounded at first in the scenery; for some reason lamb was expensive and not common on restaurant menus or buffets. Many fences consisted of prickly pear cactus plants that can grown to ten feet tall. A very effective fence! They grow a red fruit, an acquired taste (often featured in weird cocktails); talk about intensive labour, to collect them. We reached very flat country, dotted with salt lakes. On the city outskirts, we passed camel butchers set up on the roadside. The head of the animal is always displayed to indicate what kind of meat they're selling and that it's fresh.

The "pools of the Aglobites" (spelling varies, Aghlabids, etc) were actually cisterns for rainwater collection built in the 9th century, during the Arab Aghlabid reign ― the golden age of Kairouan. A technically complex project, it was an engineering marvel of the time; four of the fourteen pools have been excavated. The view was excellent from the adjacent small tower. The pools or basins are only one part of the UNESCO designation for the city that includes outstanding architectural heritage and rich spiritual roots. For many centuries Kairouan was the capital of the Arab-Moslem world in Africa.

A camel with a hopeful owner/handler awaited outside, a ride I had to pass up. The same applied to the prickly pear jam in the small gift shop, but I did load up with some "worry beads" (seen hanging in all Tunisian vehicles). You never know what stress they will relieve. The ubiquitous mint tea was being served; our leader Samy drank almond tea instead; the small glass was half full of almonds.

 We moved on into the medina to see the restored mausoleum of a Sufi saint, Sidi Abid el-Ghariani (sidi = Moslem saint or holy man). Gorgeous architecture here, dating to the fourteenth century. The amazing ceilings were painted cedar, elaborate decoration. Sufism (tasawwuf) is a mystical, ascetic sect of Islam, particularly noted for scholarship. The most visible manifestation of Sufi to the uninformed is their dervish dancing performances.

On to the Great Mosque itself (we were not allowed in the prayer hall). Besides its status in Africa, it is the fourth holiest place in all Islam. Seven pilgrimages here are the equivalent of one Haj to Mecca and means being reborn, all sins wiped out. That's why many reserve it for when they're old. 

A glimpse of the interior

Originally built by the city's seventh-century Arab founder, it was rebuilt within the next two hundred years with some features added again from time to time. The courtyard is huge but not quite as big as the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, biggest in the world we were told. There's a huge cistern below the courtyard, more evidence of how parched is the general countryside in this inland region.

Trailing through part of the very clean-looking medina again to a most impressive house I thought at first was a small hotel. Another amazing ceiling. It was a venue for showing a promotional film about Tunisian history and culture. Unfortunately the film director used every sort of hackneyed trick with images and superimposure, whatever the proper names are for those techniques. With our irrepressible guide Samy constantly at our side, it's not as if we weren't being exposed to loads of information about the beauties of Tunisia!
That's the ceiling

And finally ... ah well, to be expected, somewhere on the tour ... the carpet shop visit with hospitable mint tea. It's near the medina entrance, across the street from the old tribal cemetery outside the walls. I could not learn how old the burials were, stones were whitewashed, inscriptions worn away. Luckily the carpet demonstration was not too long so we didn't feel too guilty at not buying. A woman was demonstrating the process. I liked the small pieces with more primitive depictions and symbols of Berber life but was not disappointed when I couldn't get a salesman's eye; they only want to sell the expensive, good quality carpets. On to a luxury hotel in the former kasbah for buffet lunch, arriving just in advance of a huge crowd of what looks like convention delegates.

What a privilege to visit this historical landmark of a city, a full morning of cultural basking.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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