The great mosque of Keruan (Tunisia) looks like a fortress. Because it is. And also the oldest sanctuary in the Muslim West and one of the oldest Islamic temples in the world.

Originally it was built in the year 50 of the Islamic calendar, corresponding to 670 of ours. The Berbers were still resisting the arrival of the new faith, so they partially destroyed it. For this reason, in the 9th century it was rebuilt as it is today: from the outside it is like a castle, with high defense walls. 

Inside, a huge open-plan patio is exposed to the harsh sun of the Sahara desert. In contrast, the rooms that are used for prayer show a coolness and a semidarkness that invite you to recollection. There are more than 400 columns of white marble, red porphyry, and blue granite, some from ancient Carthage.

Precisely because of its precocity – when the Prophet Muhammad had not yet seized the large amount of territory that he later convinced – Keruan is considered the fourth holiest city in Islam, after the leaders Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

Traditionally, tourism has come to Tunisia with quite hedonistic goals: enjoying sunny and long beaches where foreigners are permissive with scant clothing; walks through well-stocked souks where you can buy handicrafts at good prices; visit coastal towns of Mediterranean beauty such as Sidi Bou Said.Keruan Grand Mosque minaret

Keruan Grand Mosque minaret.

However, it is well worth the drive 100 miles south from the capital to wander around Keruan. The great mosque is easily located thanks to the height of its minaret, 32 meters that dominate the horizon. Inside the temple, the horizontal sundial on a marble tombstone attracts attention. The rainwater collector is not satisfied with being a mere sewer. It is an intricate arabesque also carved in white stone that discreetly collects precious and scarce rainwater. 

The mihrab –the niche that indicates the direction of Mecca and from where the prayers are directed– is finely worked, flanked by two columns displaying plant motifs and an upper arch that is among the most delicate in world Islamic art, to which experts give an age of twelve centuries.

Keruan also contains the mausoleums of some people considered saints, including Sidi Sahbi.

Wandering through the Keruan souk, entertained by the whitewashed roofed galleries in which the blue of frames, windows and shutters stand out, it is possible that the traveler will pass unnoticed another of the most interesting temples in the city: the Mosque of the Three Doors . The name refers to the entrance arches. It has a very inconspicuous minaret, and with the hodgepodge of rugs, pots, sellers, and buyers, you might miss it. You have to find it and visit it.

Commissioned to build by Muhammad ibn Khairun (which according to some would give its name to the city, although others say that Keruan derives from the Persian word for caravan), this temple is from the middle of the 9th century and also one of the oldest in the Islamic world. These two mosques were reason enough for Unesco to declare the city a World Heritage Site. But there are still other civil monuments that also deserve to be known, such as the monumental Aghlabid cisterns, intended to supply the city with drinking water.Mosque of the Three Doors of Keruan, Tunisia.

Keruan also contains the mausoleums of some people considered saints, including Sidi Sahbi. He was a traveling companion of Muhammad himself and he makes sure that the tomb -entrance to non-believers is prohibited- keeps three hairs of the prophet.

Access to Keruan from the city of Tunis is easy, it is two and a half hours away following the A-1 motorway that partially runs along the Gulf of Gabés.

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