Qantara Qantara

Minbar of the Great Mosque of Kairouan

  • Title/name : Minbar of the Great Mosque of Kairouan
  • Production place : Kairouan, Tunisia
  • Date / period : AH 248/AD 862
  • Materials and techniques : Carved teak, openwork, ironwork.
  • Dimensions : W. 3.93 m; H. 3.31 m
  • Conservation town : Kairouan
  • Conservation place : Great Mosque of Kairouan.

This gem of fine Ifriqiyan furniture is the oldest known preacher’s chair still in situ in the Islamic world. It is an eleven-step staircase made of teak wood imported from India and is composed of an assembly of over 300 sculpted parts. The exceptional ornamental richness of the panels testifies to the great variety of the repertoire from which the ornamentalist drew his models.

The minbar, which stands to the right of the mihrāb against the qibla wall, is said to symbolise the platform from which the Prophet addressed the faithful. It may also be a legacy of the raised throne on which the Sassanid commander in chief sat while reviewing his troops. Minbars, which are used by imams while delivering their sermons, may be wooden as here, but are also sometimes made of stone (as in the Ottoman and Indian world), brick (the Iranian world) or even cob (Libya).

Some authors claim that this minbar was not produced in Ifriqiya; to back up their claim they cite a text by Al-Tujibi[1] from Kairouan quoted by Ibn Naji and point to the delicacy of the cabinetwork. Like the lustre ceramic tiles of the mihrāb, these wooden panels, they maintain, come from Baghdad. The decoration – extremely varied and carved precisely and deeply to bring out the relief – borrows from several traditions. It may have been carved in part by Ifriqiyan cabinetmakers: it resembles the contemporaneous wooden springers found in the Ibn Khayrun Mosque in Kairouan (866) so strongly that this could be the case.

The main ornamentation is formed of 90 small rectangular panels with a diverse array of decoration, joined by bands filled with a uniform decoration of foliated scrolls. Grape leaves, superimposed pine cones, thin, supple stems, lanceolate fruits re-carved on the surface, and pear-shaped bunches that seem to support scrolled leaves are all aligned in a pure vegetal decoration. The same decoration is also arranged in compositions centred around a stylised tree, a soberly sketched vase and a piece of fruit. The geometric decoration formed by chequers, braids and grids is remarkably varied. Intertwining lines form either simple figures such as squares and diamonds or more complex ones such as Greek crosses, hooked crosses and stars. There are also panels with a mixture of motifs. Some are similar to the sculpted marble decoration of the mihrāb and to Tulunid Egyptian woodwork.

The decorative repertoire and the way the motifs are used are reminiscent of Umayyad art, which is found in the decorations of the palaces in the Syrian desert and whose roots draw their lifeblood from both classical Greco-Roman and Byzantine soil and Sassanid Iranian soil. There is little here that resembles contemporaneous Mesopotamian art and the style of Samarra. The panels where floral motifs are very limited and are used mainly to fill in the voids left by geometric figures should be compared to the openwork windows in the complex of Khirbat al-Mafjar (Jericho, Palestine, 724–743) or the ones from Umayyad monuments in Syria and Jordan (Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, 724–727, Mshatta and al-Tuba, 743–744). The minbar in Kairouan attests to the persistence of this dual nature. The Hellenistic legacy is manifest in the panels trimmed with rigid or curved, plaited or latticework braids. The memory of Sassanid art, and in particular the sovereigns’ crown; is expressed in richer floral compositions and more vigorous relief: the pine cone wrapped in palm leaves, the stem raised in line with the panel, S-shaped whorls, open wings, and foliated scrolls forming ribbons. The Kairouan minbar is the product of a successful symbiosis between different traditions that can also be seen in a good number of productions of the Kairouan school in the brilliant Aghlabid era.


[1] Ibn Naji, 1978, p. 147-148.


Golvin L., Essai sur l’architecture religieuse musulmane, t. I, Paris, 1970, Klincksieck, p. 213.

Ibn Naji, Ma'âlim al-îmân fi ma'rifat ahl al-Qayrawân, t. II, Tunis, 1978, al-Maktaba al-Atiqa, p. 147-148.


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

Les Omeyyades : naissance de l'art islamique, Aix en Provence, 2000, Edisud.

Syrie, Mémoire et civilisation, (exh. cat., Paris, Institut du monde arabe, 1993), Paris, 1993, IMA, Flammarion, p. 418-419.

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