Qantara Qantara

Mihrāb of the Great Mosque of Kairouan

  • Title/name : Mihrāb of the Great Mosque of Kairouan
  • Production place : Kairouan, Tunisia
  • Date / period : 862
  • Materials and techniques : Sculpted and openwork marble, painted manchineel wood, lustre ceramic tiles and underglaze-painted ceramic tiles
  • Dimensions : H. 4.56 m; L. 1.98 m; D. 1.58 m
  • Conservation town : Kairouan
  • Conservation place : Great Mosque of Kairouan
  • Inscription :

    Inscription in Kufic sculpted in relief:

    - Right-hand springer: “In the name of God, what God wishes, happens. God suffice me and He suffices for the amount.

    - Left-hand springer: “Bless Muhammad and Muhammad’s family, as You blessed Ibrāhīm and Ibrāhīm’s family. You are praised and glorified.” 

    - Interior of the niche: “Basmala + Sura of Faithfulness, (CXII, 1-4): "He is Allah, the One and Only. Allah, the Eternal and Absolute. He begetteth not, nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him.” +  Taslia-Taslim.

The edification of this mihrāb is wreathed in legend: its site is said to have been indicated to ’Okba Ibn Nafi in a divine revelation (in fact, the present-day qibla faces too far south and deviates from the direction of Mecca by 31 degrees). Be that as it may, the decoration of the current mihrāb probably dates, as al-Bakri[1] points out, from the time of Ziyadat Allah (r. 836–841). On the basis of a text by al-Tujibi[2], certain archaeologists have concluded that the facing tiles probably came from Iraq and were installed at the time of Abū Ibrahim Ahmad (r. 854–863). But regardless of which prince took the initiative to embellish the mihrāb, the latest research refutes its Eastern origin. The back of one of its marble panels bears a Roman inscription. And a recently discovered inscription engraved on one of the panels refers to its Andalusian main contractor.

The mihrāb has a horseshoe-shaped plan and is formed by a half-dome niche topped by a half cupola. The arch rests on two orange marble columns surmounted by Byzantine style capitals. The interior of the niche is decorated with 28 panels in sculpted and openwork marble, separated by bands inscribed in Kufic letters. They are decorated with a great variety of vegetal and geometric motifs, including the stylised grape leaf, the floweret, the spread wings, vegetal motifs rolled up around a central axis, scallop shells inside an arched string-course suggestive of the shape of a mihrāb, and braids. This decoration is marked by the Byzantine influence conveyed by Umayyad art. The niche is surmounted by a half cupola made of curved wood covered with a floral decoration of yellow vine branches on midnight blue ground painted over rendering. The equatorial origin of the wood is an important testimony to the presence of trade between Ifriqiya and the southern Saharan countries.

The decoration of shell-shaped niches resting on small columns is well known in Umayyad art in Syria[3]. These forms were in fact particularly in favour among Umayyads from Cordoba; consequently it is tempting to think that the craftsman is expressing his Andalusian origins. The floweret motifs on the rectangular panels crop up elsewhere in the Great Mosque and should be compared to the panels of brackets in the al-Aqsa Mosque (Jerusalem, 709-715). They also evoke the sculpted and painted stone panels that used to grace the drum of the Dome of the Rock and are now in the museum of Haram. All this decoration is marked with the Byzantine-Christian heritage of Syria. The braid on the lower part of the mihrāb is a fairly rare decorative theme in Kairouan. Its origins should be sought in Umayyad vegetal motifs, but it also calls to mind Sassanid themes, which are clearly noticeable in Umayyad art[4]. The arabesque on the niche evokes Umayyad art[5], but also the foliated scrolls on the façade of the Mosque of the Three Doors (Kairouan, 866). The capitals with acanthus leaf decoration resemble those of the Mosque of 'Amr Ibn al-'As in Fustat. There are also resemblances between certain motifs on the marble panels and Tulunid woodwork from Egypt. The inscription along the niche of the mihrāb was to serve as a model for several other Ifriqiyan, Maghrebian and Andalusian mosques[6].

The rectangular frame of the mihrāb is adorned with polychrome and monochrome lustre ceramic tiles alternating with painted tiles, most of them brought over from Mesopotamia, laid point to point. This motif of the square laid on its point will last until the end of the thirteenth century at least. It is found again in a tympanum of the Great Mosque of Sousse, placed where the first mihrāb was located; then it migrates to Egypt where it adorns different Fatimid and Mamluk monuments in Cairo[7].

NOTE

[1] Al-Bakri, 1911–1912.

[2] Ibn Naji, 1978, p. 147.

[3] In particular at Khirbat al-Mafjar (724-743), except that the arches there are semicircular and rest on twisted columns.

[4] Decoration of the palaces of Mshatta, Khirbat al-Mafjar, Qasr al-Tūba, etc.

[5] Mshatta Palace

[6] Great Mosque of Monastir (ninth c.), oratory of La Sayyida (Monastir, eleventh c.), Great Mosque of Cordoba (786–988)

[7] It can be observed on a minaret and the side niches of the entrance to the al-Hākim Mosque (1002), on the façade of the al-Aqmar Mosque (1125) and again, in the second half of the thirteenth century, on the entrance gate of the Mosque of Baïbars (itself a replica of the Mahdiyya Mosque ).

BIBLIOGRAPHY RELATED TO THE ITEM

Al-Bekri. Description de l’Afrique septentrionale, 2nd edition, Algiers, 1911-1912.

Golvin, L. Essai sur l’architecture religieuse musulmane, vol. III. Paris, 1974, Klincksieck, p. 223-239.

Ibn Naji,  Ma'âlim al-îmân fi ma'rifat ahl al-Qayrawân, vol. II. Tunis, 1978, al-Maktaba al-Atiqa, p. 147.

REFERENCE BIBLIOGRAPHY

Golvin, L., Essai sur l’architecture religieuse musulmane, t. III, Paris, 1974, Klincksieck.



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