Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Rise Of Islamic Art in Tunisia (Part1)

The rise of Islam in the seventh century as a new faith has shaped the universal history since Arab-Muslims for more than five centuries became the new rulers of the Mediterranean sea.
After the death of the Prophet Mohamed, Arabs started to conquer new territories. One century later, their empire spanned from China to as far as Spain. This empire included Parthia, heir of a thousands year Persian culture, Alexandria, the capital of the Hellenic world, and Carthage, the most powerful Roman province and the capital of a brilliant Punic culture. By the year 800, Islam had become the official religion of the newly conquered territories, and the natives of these lands started to convert to Islam and many of them took their autonomy from central authority, Damascus and later Baghdad.
Ifriqiya, the heir of Roman Africa, was not an exception. Territories included Tunisia, the eastern part of Algeria and the west of Libya. With the establishment of an Arab-Muslim state in 700, Kairouan became the new capital instead of Carthage. Again with the new system established by the Arabs, Ifriqiya found itself again a leader of the whole Maghreb, the governor that ruled from Kairouan used to control a huge territory that extends from Tripoli to Spain.
Kairouan was the first city to be founded in the Muslim west, its mosque known as the mosque of Ukba Ibn Nafii was the first mosque in the Muslim west that became a model for the rest of Maghrebian and Andalusian mosques. In fact, the mosque of Cordoba follows the model of Kairouan's mosque. Nowadays, the mosque is considered a masterpiece of the Maghreb mosques, since it shelters the oldest pulpit in the Muslim world.
The minaret of the grand mosque of Kairouan

The Kairouan mosque is one of the first mosques to include a minaret, and its minaret follows the model of Roman watchtowers, and. The mosaic tower is represented in a mosaic in Ostia, Italy.
The oldest Minbar in the Muslim world. Photo taken in 1930

According to some Spanish-speaking guides in Tunisia, many Spaniards come to see the grand mosque of Kairouan and compare it to Cordoba's. French writers, such as Guy de Maupassant, admired the beauty. He wrote: "moved by sublime inspiration, erect a dwelling place for their God, a place made of pieces torn from crumbling towns, but one that is as perfect and as a magnificent as the purest conception of the the greatest stonemasons."
The mosque was erected by stones and pillars that were collected from the Roman sites that surrounded the city. The mosque and its prayer-hall are considered as a museum of Romano-Byzantine capitals. The pillars and the blocks were installed magnificently, displaying a rhythmic symphony of semi-circular horseshoe arches.
Mosaic from Ostia depicting Roman watchtower and served as a model for the Tunisian minarets.

The minaret of the mosque and its buttressed walls reflects its military aspect. The mosque was built as a military base for the Arabs who founded the city as a military base. The name Kairoaun is derived from the Persian language and means ‘camp’.

Aghlabid Pools in Kairouan

Due to its arid weather, Kairouan attracted refugees from Yemen, Sham (Syria) and the Arabic peninsula. With the locals of Ifriqiya, Kairaoun counted around 500,000 inhabitants. The problem of water appeared since the precipitations are rare. The rulers of Kairouan appealed an old technique of water collections; the Fesquiya. The Kairouanese engineers built the biggest hydraulic work in the Muslim world that still stands in Kairouan. They consisted of fifteen reservoirs. Every reservoir is divided into three elements; small pools, big pools and water tanks. They are filled by water coming from aqueducts and rain. The small pools have a capacity of 4000 cubic meters and the purified water goes to the bigger pools, 57000 cubic meters in capacity while the potable water is pulled up from the cisterns.
Nowadays they are recognized by the name the Aghlabid Pools. Its a name of a dynasty that ruled Ifriqiya, Sicily and south Italy from Kairouan for more than a century. They were the first to be independent from the central authority of Baghdad. Independence allowed Kairouan to be the metropolis of the Mediterranean Sea.
Thanks to its contribution to the Islamic and universal culture Kairouan was named as a World Heritage site in 1988.
The legacy of Islamic architecture
Mr Neji Djelloul, a holder of a PhD from Sorbonne university, said the architectural elements in the Islamic art has its meaning. The minaret symbolize the power. In Sunni towns, the mosque with its minaret occupies the center since they believe that the mosque is the main area for their several activities like praying and studying and ruling. The minaret is not only to call Muslims for prayer but also symbol of the authority.  He said also that the courtyard of the mosque was derived from the Roman forum because Muslims meet every Friday after prayer to talk and converse about their issues and daily problems.
Since they believe that the nation must be ruled by a descendent of the prophet (Ahl├╣-bayt), Shiites built the palace of the Caliph or the ruler in the center of the town while the mosque is on the corner and devoid of minaret because they built it in the corner of the ruler palace.
Mahdia was the first Shiite capital in the history of Muslim monarchies, founded by the Fatimid monarchy that was considered a descedent of the prophet Mohamed. The town planning reflects  Shiite beliefs. The mosque is on the edge of the peninsula while the palace of the Shiite caliph was raised in the center.
Mahdia and later Sabra Mansouriya in the outskirts of Kairouan served as models for the future Cairo founded by the same dynasty in 974.