This complex stands outside the medina, on the site of the tomb of one of the Prophet’s companions, Abu Zama'a al-Balawi (d. 654), known as Sidi Sahbi, who is considered the city’s patron.
The complex is accessed via an entrance leading to a large porticoed courtyard paved with bricks. It includes a mausoleum, a madrasa and several rooms.
A Hispano-Moresque type minaret rises in the north-western corner of the courtyard. Its upper storey is occupied by two gemel windows framed with ceramic facing. The top of the minaret is crowned with stepped merlons, in contrast to the typical Kairouan minaret’s rounded merlons.
To reach the mausoleum from the courtyard you take a bent vestibule leading to a patio bounded by two porticos. The porticos are formed by horseshoe arches resting on neo-Corinthian capitals adorned with the Ottoman crescent. This passageway leads into a handsome space covered with a cupola on squinches in the tradition of Kairouan cupolas. It is richly decorated with stucco panels graced with Hispano-Moresque style vegetal and geometric motifs such as hexagons, stars and rosettes, and Turkish style motifs such as bouquets of flowers and cypress trees. You proceed into the funeral chamber, a dark room covered by a cupola on squinches that is surmounted on the exterior by a lantern-turret. From the dimness of the chamber you emerge into a very bright courtyard lined with porticos in the shape of pointed horseshoe arches, whose façades are decorated with ceramic and stucco panels.
From the zawiyya a staircase leads to the porticoed courtyard of the madrasa. Lodgings and a prayer hall are located off the courtyard. The prayer hall is divided into three naves and six bays and is covered with a terrace roof. In front of the mihrāb is an onion-shaped dome on squinches decorated with marble panels framed with ceramic tiles.
To the south-east, the courtyard of the madrasa leads to other lodgings on two levels arranged around a small courtyard.
The complex also contains a warehouse for the storage of products from habous and donations, and an apartment composed of a courtyard surrounded by residential rooms. Known as the “pasha’s al-'alwi”, it used to accommodate the bey in charge of collecting taxes, and later housed the mausoleum’s important guests.
The complex illustrates the different influences that swept across Tunisia during the Ottoman era and contributed to creating an original artistic personality. The Hispano-Moresque influence is the one most pregnant with meaning: this is confirmed by the nisba of the master masons who supervised the construction of the madrasa. It is evident in the minaret and the lantern on top of the cupola of the funeral chamber, which resemble those seen in Tunisian cities populated by Andalusians who came from Spain after the Reconquista. It is also discernable in the polychrome ceramic tiles and the carved and painted wooden ceilings, which are very similar to those in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century madrasas and homes in Marrakech, Fez and Tunis.
The foreign influences are of two origins: Italian (marble abutments on certain doors, frames of several windows and neo-Corinthian capitals) and Ottoman (bouquets of flowers decorating the façade of the prayer hall portico, which also bear a Byzantine mark, typical of Turkish art).
All these influences are blended with the local traditions perpetuated by the Kairouan architectural school, although this symbol of the city’s spirituality is the monument most representative of foreign influences. This mausoleum, which is similar to the one of Sidi Mehrez in Tunis (nineteenth century), is venerated by Tunisians. Many festivities are celebrated here, including mouled, marriage contracts and circumcisions. It used to be the assembly place where caravans from all over the Maghreb gathered before embarking on the pilgrimage to Mecca.
 See for example the cupola preceding the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, 862.
 It is reminiscent of those of the mosque of Koutoubiya in Marrakech (1158), the Great Mosque of Tlemcen (twelfth c.) and the mosque of the Qasaba in Tunis (1282).
 Cupola of the Great Mosque of Testour (seventeenth century, prior to 1631).
 This holiday commemorates the birth of the Prophet.
Maoudoud, K. Kairouan. Tunis, 2000, ANEP, p.32–36.
Marçais G. Tunis et Kairouan. Paris, 1937, Renouard, p.68–69.
Roy, B. and Poinssot, P. Inscriptions arabes de Kairouan, Paris, 1950, Klincksieck, vol. 2, fasc.1, p.65–67.
Benaboud, N., El-Khatib Boujibar, K. Lakhdar, M., Le Maroc andalou, A la découverte d'un art de vivre, Amman, Aix en Provence, 2000, Musée sans frontières.
Wilbaux Q., Marrakech, le secret des maisons jardins, Paris, 1999, A.C.R. édition.
Golvin L., Essai sur l’architecture religieuse musulmane, t. IV, Paris, 1979, Klincksieck.
|Ceramics, architectural decoration|
|Shapes and patterns|