We chose a hotel that is slightly out of town, but that wasn’t a problem because we had a car. There aren’t many good options for staying in Kairouan because most tourists come as day-trippers from the coast. There is one beautiful hotel built in the old kasbah (fort), at the northern section of the medina. At over €200, it was well beyond our budget. We decided we would go and have a look around it though, and have a coffee in the lobby after a long day of walking through the atmospheric streets nearby.
There’s nothing interesting about the place we did find to stay, but it did have free WiFi (pronounced wee-fee here) in the lobby and more importantly HEAT in the room. The sheets and towels were more than acceptable but the hose on the hand-held shower put a damper on the whole package. I guess you win some and you lose some when you travel like we do. We’re (Anil’s) working on raising our standards, and I am coming around slowing, very slowly. There’s a part of me that still wants to be an ‘adventurous’ traveller, not just a tourist.
We loved Kairouan; there is so much to see within the huge walls of the medina, as well as several interesting sites within a short drive. We were happy to have a car to get around, and as we didn’t want to have the buffet dinner with the two busloads of tourists that were staying at our hotel. We were able to find a small, local eatery that made fantastic kebabs. They were so good; we ate there both nights. There was no atmosphere to speak of, but we felt more like Tunisians eating there than we would have at the hotel. Well, a little like Tunisians, because it doesn’t seem that there is a strong culture of eating out. The men clog the cafes and indulge in a lot of local ‘fast’ food, but you don’t see a lot of women in restaurants or coffee houses.
The Great Mosque, in the northeast corner of the medina, is North Africa’s holiest site. The original mosque built in AD 670 was completely destroyed, but another was built in its place two hundred years later. The 414 pillars that support the arched ceiling in the prayer hall were salvaged from Carthage (Roman) and Sousse (Byzantine) and no two are the same. Similar pillars ring the huge central courtyard, which was designed to collect rainwater by sloping to the center. A decorative feature in the center of the courtyard is designed to filter out the dust before the water drips to the cistern below.
As non-Muslims, we were not able to enter the prayer room, but we could peek in through the huge studded, wooden doors and make out the red tiles imported from Baghdad that surround the mihrab. There were two or three groups of tourists in the Grand Mosque when we were there and we found them really distracting. We had to pinch ourselves and remember that this country wasn’t designed for us to visit on our own, we were getting spoiled to be here in the off season and have most places to ourselves. Back on the streets again, we were gently encouraged to visit the carpet shops, but the merchants weren’t overly pushy and were easily discouraged by a simple ‘no, thank you’, or ‘no, merci”.
By staying two nights in Kairouan, we were able to see all the sights at a leisurely pace, and we saw them all, one by one. We particularly enjoyed wandering the residential streets of the medina and watching the local citizens going about their daily routines. Two young girls greeted us in French as we walked along, and after exchanging names the younger one became bold enough to ask me for a ‘bon bon’. I was thrilled to understand what she meant, and even more pleased to remember that I had tucked a small bag of toffees into my purse only that morning. The older girl poked her friend for being so forward, but happily put out her hand for a couple of candies as well. They left me with a great memory and a sweet photo of the two of them.
There were two sites of particular interest in Kairouan, one inside the walls and the other quite some distance from the medina. Both focus on the water of the region.
Kairouan was founded in AD 670 by an Arab general and takes its name from the Arabic word for military camp, qayrawan. Legend has it that the general’s horse stumbled on a golden goblet that lay buried in the sand and that when the goblet was retrieved, water sprang from the ground. The goblet is said to be the same one mysteriously missing from Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For this reason, the general concluded that the water was supplied from the same holy well of Zem-Zem so far away.
Today, visitors can see the well in the heart of the medina and watch as a camel turns a wheel to drawn up the water from the spring below. The camel is blindfolded to keep it from getting dizzy, but as we were the only visitors, it doesn’t appear that he had made many circuits that day. Apparently, Muslim tourists find it a moving experience, especially if they believe the water comes directly from the holy source, and they are only too happy to drink the water. We passed up the opportunity to drink, and not just because we are non-believers.
The even more striking water site is the Aghlabid Basins built in the 9th century. Water was delivered by aqueduct from the hills west of Kairouan, 36km away. The water was first directed to a settling basin and then it passed to the enormous, main basin, which is 5m deep and 128m in diameter. Though it’s no longer there, we read that there was once a pavilion in the middle of the large basin where the rulers could come and relax on hot summer evenings. Though a lot of visitors don’t understand the importance of water in the region, we were suitably impressed and were sure to keep our showers brief the next morning.
The following morning, we were up early and headed off back towards the coast to visit the seaside city of Mahdia before driving south towards the island of Djerba. We had rented the car for 10 days, but there were dozens of places we wanted to visit, so we reluctantly pushed on. I could have spent a few more days in Kairouan, but there was nothing about our hotel there that convinced us to stay longer.