Language Issue
The Kairouan carpet: Identity, authenticity, modernity and renewal
The Kairouan carpet: Identity, authenticity, modernity and renewal
Issue 55

Dr Ibtisam Mohdhab Jalassi, a writer from Tunisia

Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts, University of Kairouan

The traditional carpet (Zarbiyah) represents one of the most famous and authentic traditional industries in Tunisia. Zarbiyah is the singular form of the Quranic word Zaraabi, as mentioned in Surah Al Ghashiyah, "Faces, that Day, will show pleasure, with their effort [they are] satisfied. In an elevated garden, within it is a flowing spring. Within it are couches raised high. And cups put in place. And cushions lined up, and carpets (zaraabiyyu) spread around.”

Traditional carpet-making has spread to many regions in Tunisia where wool is available. The Tunisian city of Kairouan is known for carpets. Kairouan was Tunisia's capital from 800AD to 909 AD, and it was the first Islamic city in the Maghreb. Founded by Uqba bin Nafi al-Fihri in 50 AH, it was the starting point for his conquests.

 Many historians and intellectuals believe that the founding of Kairouan represented a watershed moment in the history of the Islamic civilisation in the North African countries, so they called it the oldest and most important Islamic city in that region. Later, it was named ‘The Fourth City’ because it was considered the fourth holy Islamic city after Mecca, Medina and Al-Quds Al-Sharif. This was due to its many religious landmarks, its central and decisive role in solidifying Islam in many parts of Africa and Andalusia, and its position as a centre for jurisprudence and culture.

Kairouan was famed for the traditional handicrafts that its inhabitants still make to this day, but the carpet remains the most famous of these crafts. Despite the development of the carpet-making industry in other regions of Tunisia, especially the coastal region, carpets are still associated with Kairouan. 

This research fills a gap in the literature by combining scholarly references to traditional crafts in Tunisia with field studies on social life in Kairouan. It allows for the discovery of Arab-Islamic treasures in Kairouan, which was one of the most important Islamic cities historically.

Despite the significant changes that have occurred since carpet-making became an industry that contributes to Tunisia's economy, the heritage and traditional attributes of carpets have not disappeared. They remain the preferred floor covering for homes in Kairouan and other Tunisian cities. The carpet industry is in dire need of development if it is to keep up with the times and demands for renewal, but it is important to preserve its history because it represents civilisation, identity and culture. Carpets are part of the collective memory and they represent customs, traditions and a life philosophy based on work, shared effort and respect for others.

Our field research gave us the impression that people have the ability to identify the most beautiful and authentic patterns that reflect environmental factors. It is critical that we preserve this history, particularly in light of all that our society is experiencing as a result of modern technology and the communications revolution. While these changes offer promotional and marketing benefits, they are a threat to identity.