If there are masterpieces of cabinetmaking in the West, like the stalls, dating from the first quarter of the 16th century, of the superb Notre-Dame d'Amiens cathedral (in Picardy, France), the majestic Great Mosque of Kairouan, the oldest mosque in Tunisia and the whole of the Maghreb, located about 130 kilometers as the crow flies south of Tunis, is also home to a jewel of woodwork, exemplified by its minbar of the 9th century.

The latter is one of the most splendid works of art dating back to the reign of the Aghlabids (800-909). This was a powerful Arab dynasty, vassal of the Abbasid caliph, having dominated present-day Tunisia, where their capitals were located (Kairouan, El-Abbassia and Raqqada), eastern Algeria, Tripolitania, as well as Sicily and a part of southern Italy which were conquered during the second half of the 9th century.

Dated precisely to 862 AD, made during the reign of Prince Abu Ibrahim Ahmad (856-863), this preaching pulpit, in the shape of a staircase, with an upper seat, is unquestionably the oldest minbar in the Muslim world which reached us. It is located at the back of the prayer room, to the right of the mihrab, and is used by the imam to deliver his sermon during the great weekly Friday prayer.


Consisting of an assembly of more than three hundred pieces, entirely sculpted with a remarkable variety of both geometric and floral motifs, its ornamentation illustrates various contributions; is essentially of Abbasid and Umayyad inspiration, but also betrays Byzantine influences.

Close-up on a panel with vegetal decoration. In the form of a feigned niche, it is lined with symmetrical windings,
containing either five-lobed florets or pairs of three-lobed florets. (photo credit: Issam Barhoumi)


Measuring 3.93 meters in length by one meter in width, and 3.31 meters in height, this pulpit has among its wooden parts, all assembled using tenons and mortises, ninety rectangular panels, with varied decorations, magnificently carved with pine cones, thin and flexible stems, vine and acanthus leaves, florets, lanceolate fruits, pear-shaped clusters, and various simple geometric shapes, such as circles, lozenges , hexagons, etc., or more complex like tracery, rosettes, stars, etc.

In this finely chiseled ornamentation, geometric patterns prevail over plant motifs. The arms and the back of the seat, the railing, the risers, as well as a large part of the two side cheeks are covered with geometric patterns, while the plant ornaments adorn, mainly, the uprights and the crosspieces connecting the panels, as well only eleven panels distributed on the cheeks as follows: ten on one side, but only one on the other. The upper border of the banister is embellished with a rich vegetal decoration which includes scrolls rolled up in alternating loops; each loop envelops a spreading vine leaf accompanied by a hanging bunch of grapes.

Although most of the panels are either exclusively with geometric decoration, or with floral and vegetal decoration, there are, in addition to these two categories, panels with mixed decoration. The latter are with registers, with networks and in the form of flat-bottomed niches. After more than eleven centuries of use, the minbar of the Great Mosque of Kairouan is relatively well preserved. Between 1907 and 1908, it underwent a restoration that replaced some of its most damaged panels. However, the vast majority of these are practically intact. About it, the Franco-Tunisian historian and sociologist, Paul Sebag, wrote this in his book dedicated to the Great Mosque of Kairouan (ed. Delpire, 1963): "the discreet light in which the prayer room is bathed clings to the reliefs, accentuates the openwork and adds to the splendor of this venerable masterpiece”.

This precious work of art testifies to the virtuosity of craftsmen specializing in wood carving during the Abbasid High Middle Ages,