Al-Zaytuna or Zitouna Mosque is the oldest and certainly most beautiful mosque in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis. The mosque was originally built in 698 AD using columns from the ruins in nearby Carthage and it was known to host one of the greatest universities in the history of Islam.
The name Zaytuna literally means olive in Arabic. Historians believe that the Mosque of the Olive got its name because the site was originally built on a Christian church dedicated to Santa Olivia who is represented as a young women surrounded by olive branches in Christian artwork.
Normally the mosque is closed to non-Muslims and it is only possible to enter a small part that offers no views of the internal courtyard. For most, they are resigned to seeing the mosque from many of the rooftop cafes nearby. I personally recommend Panorama Medina, but that is a separate topic.
If you are lucky though and show up at just the right time, it is possible to see inside the mosque. I was lucky enough to make it inside, and if you follow my steps, you might make it in as well.
On the very eastern end of the mosque, there are two large black doors that enter into the central courtyard of the mosque. These doors are almost always closed and there is a sign on them in several languages stating non-Muslims are not allowed. While I think these doors might be available and unlocked for locals wishing to pray, they are strictly forbidden to tourists. Since this is in a busy area of the souks, its not possible to enter as locals will see and tell you it’s forbidden. However – here’s the trick – come on a Sunday afternoon when the locals are no longer at their shops and the souq is dead.
I was walking by the mosque at around 4:45 pm on a Sunday afternoon when I noticed the doors were left open and nobody was around watching them. I quickly snuck in and saw one of the most beautiful courtyards of any mosque I had been too. There were other Muslims in the courtyard feeding birds and taking photos and no one seemed to mind that I was there.
Prior to 2011, this mosque was open to foreign visitors but ever since it has been closed. Mosques throughout most of the Muslim world are generally fully open to non-Muslims; however in Morocco and Tunisia there are some restrictions. This is the first place I ever heard of with a closed courtyard though. It’s unfortunate that this rule is in place because most just want to admire the beauty of Islamic architecture. None of the locals seem to care except for the ones that guard the door. Hopefully they will change their policy in the future, but for now the best bet for seeing inside this mosque is to follow my Sunday afternoon trick.
If this works for you let me know in the comments below! Enjoy your time in Tunisia.