Kairouan is the fifth-biggest city in Tunisia with more than 150,000 inhabitants. It’s 155 km south of Tunis and 65 km west of the Sahel – Tunisia’s eastern coast.
The Arabs founded the city in the 7th century and made it into a military base during their conquest of the Maghreb and Spain. Later it became the capital of Ifriqiya, the Arabic name for Tunisia in the Middle Ages, and was the largest metropolis in the western basin of the Mediterranean Sea for more than three centuries.
Nowadays, Kairouan is the most visited city in central Tunisia, thanks to its rich Islamic heritage. One of the Prophet Mohamed’s companions, Abou Zumaa Balaoui, is buried there. During Mouled – the festival that celebrates the birthday of the Prohpet Mohamed – thousands of visitors from Tunisia and abroad descend upon the city.
Kairouan is blessed with an important architectural and cultural heritage. With its massive, ancient walls, Kairouan’s medina remains one of the most authentic in Tunisia. Its grand mosque even served as a model for other mosques constructed in the Maghreb as well. Designed in the form of a citadel, it bears witness to the city’s military origins.
The Backroads of Kairouan
Despite the large number of visitors who come to Kairouan each year, relatively few take the time to explore the hills and mountains behind the city. Those who do explore these backroads are rewarded with wonderful views and the opportunity to experience some of Tunisia’s impressive pre-Islamic heritage. This dates back to pre-historic times and includes the Byzantine era in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Much of this history is ignored not only by many Tunisians but by specialists in the field as well.
Ksar Limsa is often described as one of the most beautiful and most complete Byzantine monuments in Tunisia. With walls gilded by sunshine and crenellated towers, this fortress overlooks the valley of Oued Mahrouf some 30 km north-west of Kairouan near the village of Al Ouesllatia. The fortress is rectangular in shape, flanked by 13-meter high towers in each corner. The walls are around eight meters high and a crenellated parapet protects the wall walk. The inner courtyard measures 31 meters in width and 28 in length. The walls were built by stone collected from the ancient Roman town of Limisa. Constructed in the 6th century, it is a typical “castellum” built by the Byzantines to protect the town from attack.
Rock Art in Djebel Ouesllat
This large and impressive mountain covers more than 130,000 hectares. Although it’s hard to reach and lacks water, this mountain has known human occupation for over 5,000 years.
Ouesllat mountain contains an impressive quantity of wall paintings that demonstrate the existence of disappeared species. The paintings show that the white rhinoceros, the great ancient buffalo, as well as antelope, giraffe, hyena, and ostrich, once lived in the region.
Precious details about daily life are also revealed, such as hunting and family life. Domestic animals, such as cows, goats, sheep, and dogs, are well-illustrated in bucolic pasture scenes.
This mountain’s more recent history is likewise remarkable. The tribes of this mountain were very hostile towards any central authority and historically supported all kinds of rebellion against it.
In the beginning of the 18th Century, the hill tribes supported Hussein Ben Ali, the founder of the Husseinite monarchy that ruled Tunisia until 1957. During a bitter civil war between Ben Ali and his nephew, Ali Pacha, local villagers were punished by the Pacha for their support of Ali, who was murdered by Pacha and whose death was avenged by his sons – the ultimate victors of the war. All of the olive trees were cut down and the inhabitants were exiled during the Pacha’s reprisals.
These days the region is largely deserted, despite its fertile soil, and the abandoned villages have been left untouched for two hundred years. They stand witness to this important and bloody period of the Tunisian history.
The villages of Ouesllatia and Ksar Limsa can still be visited by car if one takes the regional roads – 99 and 46 – from Kairouan. Guided tours can be also organized from Kairouan.
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