The New International Encyclopædia/Kairwan
KAIRWAN, kḯr-wän' (Ar. kairuwân, from the Persian kârawân, caravan, or resting-place). A town in Tunis, 30 miles southwest of Susa (with which it is connected by rail), and about 80 miles south of the city of Tunis. It is situated in a treeless plain, covered in part by salt marshes, some distance west of a stream flowing south to Sedi el-Heni Lake (Map: Africa, E 1). About A.D. 670 the Mohammedan General Ukbah, after having conquered Northern Africa, selected a site in the midst of a dense forest, then infested by wild beasts and reptiles, as the location of a military post. It was to keep in check the Berber hordes, and was selected far from the sea in order to avoid danger of attack. This ‘resting-place’ soon developed into a city, which the fertility of the region made celebrated for its olive groves and luxuriant gardens. Fifteen years after its founding it was besieged by an overwhelming force of Berbers, and fell into their hands after Ukbah had been killed in battle. It was later recaptured, and though more than once besieged remained for four centuries the ‘holy city,’ the Mecca of Northern Africa. In the tenth century the city was embellished by the Aghlabites; later it suffered considerably from the rivalry of Mahdiyyah, and then of Tunis; but in the eleventh century, as the capital of the Siride Muizz, was still famous for its wealth and prosperity. About the middle of that century, however, the Fatimites of Egypt instigated the Egyptian Bedouins to invade this part of Africa; Kairwan, attacked and taken, was so utterly destroyed that it never afterwards regained its former position; it continued, nevertheless, to be the centre of theological study. In 1881 it was taken by the French without much difficulty, though much opposition had been expected from the religious zealots. It was then newly fortified and made the capital of a ‘contrôle civil.’
It is surrounded by a high brick wall, pierced by five main gateways, and surmounted by towers; the circuit is about 3500 yards, and almost forms a hexagon. Until the French occupation access to the city was difficult for non-Mohammedans; but visitors at present have little trouble in entering even the mosques. There are about eighty ecclesiastical structures; numerous tombs of saints and warriors, for the dead are brought from afar to be buried in the ‘holy city;’ and about thirty mosques, of which six are important ones. The Ukbah mosque, which was rebuilt in 827, is in the northern section of the city, and is one of the most magnificent and sacred in Islam, being considered one of the four gates of Paradise. It contains about 430 antique Roman columns of marble, granite, and porphyry, with horseshoe arches; the ceiling is flat, of dark wood; in the centre of the immense court, which is surrounded by a double colonnade, is a marble fountain over the sacred well, which is supposed to communicate with the Zemzem at Mecca; the mihrab is tiled; the sanctuary double, with ten arches in one direction and seventeen in the other. The chief manufactures of the place to-day are copper utensils, carpets, morocco leather, oil of roses, saltpetre, and potash; the handsome bazaars are well stocked, though nothing is exported. Population, in 1896, 26,000, including that of seven populous suburbs.