Kairouan’s medina (old town) is the most atmospheric and best preserved in Tunisia, the tightly packed alleyways giving a taste of the Arab empires. Unlike the prettified old towns of Hammamet and Djerba, the old town here is the real deal, and strolling the lanes is number one on most visitor’s things to do list. The medina is surrounded by a 3.5-kilometer-long circuit of brick walls reinforced by numerous towers built by the Husseinites in the early 18th century.
Inside the walls, lanes ramble in a maze of directions. The best way to explore is simply to throw away the map and wander. As well as being home to most of Kairouan’s tourist sightseeing draws, the narrow roads lined with colorful, paint-peeling houses are attractions themselves. You could spend hours here just soaking up the old town’s beautiful architecture. Even if you’re short on time, don’t miss spending a few hours just walking around.
To the north of the medina, beyond the Avenue de la République, are the Aghlabid Basins that supplied water for the Aghlabid palace, which once sat on the site of Kairouan’s present-day cemetery. The water was brought by aqueduct from Djebel Cherichera, 36 kilometers away. The smaller basin was a settling tank from which the water flowed to the larger one that had a capacity of 50,000 cubic meters. In the center of the larger pool is the base of a pavilion, where the Aghlabid rulers used to relax. The pools were restored in 1969, and another pool has been discovered just to the west.
Zaouia of Sidi Abed el Ghariani
This ornate tomb, dedicated to a holy man who lived in Kairouan during the 14th century, is notable for its fine wood, stucco ceiling, and sumptuously decorated inner courtyard. The inner courtyard is a highlight for photographers, completely covered in vibrant, colorful ceramic tiles displaying intricate and beautiful patterns. The tile work has been extremely well preserved, so you can really absorb the dazzlingly beautiful effect of the decoration. Anyone interested in traditional Arabic decoration and artistry should definitely put this building on their things to do list.
The medina’s Souk Quarter
The medina’s souk quarter was built mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries and is still occupied by the traditional craftsmen of Kairouan. It’s an interesting place to poke about, even if you’re not a shopper, as you can see many of the craftsmen busy at work in their workshops. To reach the souk, head down Rue Ali Belhaouane. After passing the El Bey Mosque on your right and the El Maalek Mosque on your left, Bab el Tounès (Tunis Gate) comes into sight. The souk streets all ramble off from here.
A blue door marks the entrance to Bir Barouta, a 17th-century well on the upper floor of the building. According to legend, an underground channel connects the well with the Zamzam spring in Mecca. A camel, attached to the pulley-system, draws up the water from the well by walking around the well. Due to the legend, believers come to drink this holy water. But for many visitors, the sight of the camel, destined to trudge around the well endlessly, is an unhappy spectacle.
Lalla Rihana Gate and Cemetery
A large cemetery with some interesting tombs dominates the east side of Kairouan’s Great Mosque. The Lalla Rihana Gate (named after a local holy woman) sits on the eastern side of the mosque, projecting from the mammoth mosque walls. It is a square structure in Hispano-Mauresque style, built in 1294. Inside the cemetery itself are multiple rows of whitewashed tombs. For photographers, the cemetery is a good place to get interesting shots of the mosque complex with the rows of tombs in the foreground.