KAIROUAN (Qairuwān ) Tunisian town situated 77 mi. (125 km.) S. of *Tunis. Kairouan was founded in 670 by ʿUqbaibn Nāfiʿ, the Arab conqueror of North Africa. For about four centuries it was the government center and the capital of the *Aghlabids, the *Fatimids (until 969), and the *Zirid emirs, and the meeting place of commerce of East and West. It is possible, though not certain, that Jews settled in the town from the time of its establishment. In about 690 the *Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān had 1,000 Copt families transferred from *Egypt to Kairouan. Some traditions have it that these families were Jewish. The fact remains that Jewish life prospered there. The community became the leading Jewish economic and cultural center in North Africa during the Middle Ages. The detailed extant information on this community begins with the ninth century. Studies of documents from the Cairo *Genizah have shed light on the Jewish society of Kairouan about which some aspects were previously known from rabbinical literature, especially responsa by Babylonian geonim. An important correspondence was maintained between the Jews of Kairouan and the Babylonian academies.
The academy of Kairouan was well-known throughout the Jewish world. Its heads, known as resh kallah, were outstanding scholars. When Natronai b. Ḥavivai (c. 775) was not accepted as exilarch in Babylonia, he is said to have gone for some time to the Maghreb, i.e., Kairouan. In the tenth century (c. 920) another exilarch, Mar Ukba, also settled in Kairouan, after being compelled to leave Baghdad. In 880 the mysterious Jewish traveler *Eldad ha-Dani, who claimed to belong to the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, also went to Kairouan. His presence and his knowledge aroused discussions among the rabbis of Kairouan, who also addressed themselves to this subject in correspondence with Ẓemaḥ Gaon of *Sura. The medical writer and philosopher, Isaac *Israeli, went to Kairouan from Egypt, and died there in 932 or 942. From 904 he was the private physician of Ziyādat-Allah iii (903–909), the last Aghlabid sovereign, and later held the same position in the service of ʿUbayd Allah al-Mahdī (910–934), the founder of the Fatimid dynasty in Tunisia. His numerous students included the astronomer and physician *Dunash ibn Tamim, who was born in Kairouan at the beginning of the tenth century and spent his entire life as the private physician to the Fatimid caliphs.
Toward the end of the tenth century the arrival of *Ḥushi'el b. Elhanan in Kairouan marked a turning point in the study of halakhah. R. Ḥushi'el, like many other Jews, went to Kairouan from *Italy. The actual population which made up the Jewish community was varied in origin. In addition to numerous names which were obviously of *Berber origin, such as Labrat, Sighmar, and Masnut, documents from the Cairo Genizah have furnished many names of families of foreign origin which were established in Kairouan. These include Andalusi (of Spanish origin), Fasi (of *Fez), Taherti (of Tahert (now Tiaret) in southwestern *Algeria), and Siqili (of Sicily).
Kairouan scholars were in contact with Palestine where in fact there were many immigrants of North African origin. The gaon of the Palestinian academy at the beginning of the 11th century, Solomon b. Judah, who was originally from Fez, maintained contact with Kairouan. R. Ḥushi'el introduced a new method of study in his academy which did not rely upon the opinions of the Babylonian scholars. Moreover, the academy of R. Ḥushi'el asserted itself in a stronger fashion than was generally the case for such academies. This resulted in the intellectual and spiritual independence of the school of Kairouan, which was accentuated to an even greater degree when R. Ḥushi'el was succeeded by his son R. *Hananel, one of the great medieval Jewish scholars. However, other rabbis, such as *Jacob b. Nissim ibn Shahin, the head of a second academy in Kairouan and representative of the Babylonian academies, continued to correspond with the *Pumbeditageonim R. Sherira and his son R. Hai. From the end of the first half of the 11th century R. *Nissim, the son of R. Jacob, held a prominent position in Kairouan as a result of his vast erudition and his connections. He was the teacher of the Spanish poet Solomon ibn *Gabirol and his daughter married *Joseph, the son of *Samuel ha-Nagid of Granada. R. Nissim succeeded his friend Hananel b. Ḥushi'el as representative of the Babylonian academies in Kairouan. His writings are a valuable source for the history of the Jews of North Africa, as well as being important in the field of halakhah. R. Nissim witnessed the destruction of his community when the town was sacked in 1057 by Arabs who invaded North Africa from Egypt.
This invasion considerably impoverished the area occupied by present-day *Libya and Tunisia. It marked the end of Kairouan as a Jewish intellectual center; one finds its Jewish inhabitants scattered in Egypt and Sicily. The town itself never regained its former prosperity. The last *nagid of Kairouan left for Egypt, where he was followed by large numbers of Tunisian Jews. The Jews of Cairo had to collect contributions in order to provide him with a livelihood. There is much documentary evidence to show the extraordinary prosperity of the community during the period which preceded its ruin. Its worldwide contacts, from *Spain in the West to *India in the East, were particularly active and intensive. The Jews, like the other inhabitants of the town, were spoiled by a life of wealth, and had extravagant tastes so that, for example, they desired expensive and richly colored cloths of Persian origin. They were also fond of perfumes and music. Their business firms were represented in many centers of commerce. These large firms were headed by families with numerous branches; they were noted for their activity and wealth. Typical examples include the following: the Ibn Sighmar family, which in addition to its economic importance and great influence at the court furnished Kairouan with at least four generations of dayyanim; the Berechiah family, which was made up of scholars and community leaders; the Majjani family, which played a prominent role in world commerce; and many other families.
The most important personalities of Kairouan during the first half of the 11th century included the first nagid of the Jewish community, Abu Isḥāq Abraham ibn ʿAta, who was not only exceedingly wealthy, concerned with the welfare of others, and a scholar, but also a general in the army of the Zirids. The second nagid of Kairouan was Jacob b. Amram, whose power and generosity were lauded by the geonim of Palestine.
When Tunisia was conquered by the *Almohads in 1160, there is no mention of the Jews of Kairouan. From then until 1881, when Tunisia became a French protectorate, Kairouan, a holy city of *Islam, remained strictly out of bounds for all non-Muslims. From 1881, French civil servants were sent to Kairouan. Shortly afterwards Jewish shopkeepers settled there with their families and two synagogues were founded. The small community had its own shoḥeṭ and ḥazzan. In 1936 there were 348 Jews in Kairouan. They suffered hardships during the German occupation (see *Tunisia: Holocaust period) when many fled. Some subsequently returned, and in 1946 there were 275 Jews in Kairouan. These, however, left – some for the bigger cities, some to other countries – and by the late 1960s no Jews remained in Kairouan.
G. Marçais, Tunis et Kairouan (1937); Hirschberg, Afrikah, index; R. Brunschvig, Berbérie Orientale Sous les Ḥafsides, 1 (1940), 357–77, 396ff.; S. D, Goitein, in Etudes d'Orientalisme dédiées à… Lévi-Provençal, 2 (1962), 559–79; idem, A Mediterranean Society (1967), index s.v.Qayrawān; A.N. Chouraqui, Between East and West (1968), index. add. bibliography: " Al-kayrawan," in: eis2s.v., 4 (1978), 824–32) (includes bibliography); M. Ben-Sasson, Ẓemīḥat ha-Kehīllah ha-Yehudīt be-Arẓōt ha-Islam: Qairawān 800–1057 (1996), includes bibliography.
"Kairouan." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kairouan
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