' I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream.'


'Mes photos de Kairouan' - beautiful 1950s snapshots of a timeless holy city

Rummaging around for unusual ephemera in a charity shop recently, I came across a handful of mid-twentieth century travel photo sets, some colourised, some in black and white, each bundled up in its own eye-catching slip case envelope. Among them was a set entitled Mes photos de Kairouan containing around a dozen beautiful and fascinating images of the historic Tunisian city in question, taken during the 1950s by a Parisian photography company.  I was captivated and needed to find out more! 

The historic city of Kairouan is one of the holiest cities in Islam and its ‘old city’ quarter, a labyrinth of winding streets and minarets, is home to the masterpiece of Maghreban architecture, the Great Mosque, as well as the Mosque of the Three Doors, which is the most ancient known example of a sculpted Muslim art fa├žade still in existence. From the 9th to the 11th century, when the city was in its prime, The Great Mosque was a place of both religion and knowledge, a key, bustling centre of learning filled with scholars from across the Arab and Islamic world exploring spiritual thought and the sciences. In the 1980s, Kairouan’s rich architectural heritage resulted in it being deservedly (and thankfully) inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

The photographs I found are snapshots of a city that has changed little neither before nor since they were taken; this timelessness is silently preserved in their striking black and white.  One image in particular is especially haunting. In the deserted, sunlit courtyard of the Great Mosque, stand two isolated figures: one, dressed all in black, is stood in the angular shadow of a building; the other, all in white and cloaked, is stood apart, nearer to the camera, in a somehow paler wall of shade. Both face us head on, yet both faces are obscured.  The resulting image is unequivocally eerie. Its human subjects were probably unintentional and almost certainly unwanted, but they nevertheless help create an evocative piece of art.

So, be always on the lookout for those small, easily overlooked mementos of the past – you never know what you’ll discover.

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