Qantara Qantara

Fragment of wood ornamented with arches

  • Title/name : Fragment of wood ornamented with arches
  • Production place : Kairouan, Tunisia
  • Discovery place : The Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia
  • Date / period : 1293
  • Materials and techniques : Painted cedarwood
  • Dimensions : Length: 195 cm; width: 20.5 cm; thickness: 3.5 cm
  • Conservation town : Kairouan
  • Conservation place : Raqqada Museum of Islamic Art
  • Inventory number : 339

The ceilings in the Great Mosque of Kairouan were restored and repaired on several occasions between the ninth and eighteenth centuries.

A narrow band decorated with small ocelli marks the upper edge of the panel. Below this band, a white strip, from which hang nodules of small tongues, delimits the height of the main decoration. The decoration, which is painted in bright colours and repeated seven-and-a-half times, is defined by the intersection of three types of lobed arches of various sizes.

The green arcade in the foreground is comprised of fairly large arches, and is surrounded by a coloured border with eight lobes and points. In the middle ground, which is finely highlighted in colour, an arcade of tri-lobed arches runs alternatively at the height of those in the foreground and at half this height. The tops of the highest arches reach into the spandrels of the green arcade, and the smaller arches reach inside this arcade. Depending on their size, all the intervening spaces are ornamented with an individual floral element: a palmette, fleuron, half-palm, leaf, or vegetal axis crowned by a fleuron.

Since the panel was produced at a time when Ifryqian art was influenced by Hispano-Moresque art, there’s a temptation to date this panel to the period of the Hafsid prince Abū Hafs ‘Umar (reigned 1284–1295), who in 1293 proceeded to restore the Great Mosque of Kairouan and built lateral porches, of which the most remarkable is Bāb Lalla Rayhana.

The polylobed arch was widely used in Hispano-Moresque art in the painted—and particularly the carved—wood decorations. Examples include an architrave originating from an eleventh-century mosque in Marrakech [1], and decorations carved on cedarwood originating from Marinid madrasas in Fez and Meknès. This arch motif had already been used by the Abbasids: on the decorations of the door of Baghdad in Raqqa (Syria, ninth century)  and in the tenth century in Fatimid Egypt on several monuments, including the mosques of al-Hākim (1002–1003) and al-Aqmar (1125). In the tenth century, the motif was part of the Ifryqian decorative repertoire and appeared on the façade of the Great Mosque of Sfax (988) and that of the Mosque of Sidi ‘Ali Ammar in Sousse (beginning of the tenth century). It was widely used in the city of Qal’a at Bani Hammad and played an important role in Andalusian architecture. Examples include the Great Mosque of Córdoba (middle of the tenth century), the Aljaferia palace in Zaragoza (second half of the eleventh century), and later the Alhambra palace in Granada (thirteenth to the fifteenth century); and it was used in Almoravid and Almohad art, such as in the Great Mosque of Tlemcen (1136) and the mosque at Tinmel (eleventh to twelfth century).  It was also used as a decorative motif in Hafsid and post-Hafsid Ifriqiya. It was the basic element of the lozenged network, particularly on minarets. This ornamentation spread from the Maghreb to Christian Spain, Norman Sicily, Italy, and even France.

Use of the tri-lobed arch spread to Ifriqiya, probably through Andalusia, as it was used in the Great Mosque of Córdoba in the tenth century. It had, however, already been used in the  arcades of the Great Mosque of Raqqa (Syria) in the eighth century, and later endured in Syria (minaret of the Great Mosque, Aleppo, 1096) and Ayyubid and Mamluk Egypt, such as in the complex of the sultan Qā’it Bay in Cairo (1477) and the madrasa of the sultan al-Ghawrī (1503–1504).    


[1] Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, inv. 74.1988.2.3. See also the Spanish frieze, eighth to ninth century, Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the Moroccan frieze from the twelfth to thirteenth century, conserved in the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris.


Tunez, Tierra de culturas, (exhibition catalogue, Barcelone, 2003), Valence : IEMed, 2003, p. 232.

Tunisie : du  christianisme à l’islam. IVème- XIVème siècle, (exhibition catalogue, Lattes, musée archéologique, 2001), Lattes : Landes et Ben Hassen, 2001, p. 191.


Mozzati, L., L'art de l'Islam, Paris : Mengès, 2003, p. 102-103, p. 223.

Le Maghreb médiéval, Aix-en-Provence : Édisud, 1991, p. 248, fig. 188-189.

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