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Kairouan's minaret - a tower with one small window in the center of each story

Kairouan’s minaret – the oldest minaret still standing today.

What is a minaret?

A minaret is a tower that Islamic holy men called muezzins climb in order to call out the call to prayer, five times a day. It is a tall thin building with stairs inside it (or sometimes outside) and small windows to let in daylight. At the top, there is an opening for the muezzin (moo-EZZ-in) to call out the prayers so everyone will know that it is time to pray.

Most medieval minarets were near mosques, where men (though not women) came to pray.

What is a mosque?
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Minaret at Samarra, 847 AD

Minaret at Samarra, 847 AD

What is the oldest minaret?

The oldest minaret that is still standing is the one you see here from the Great Mosque at Kairouan, in North Africa, which was built during the 700s AD. Another early minaret is the one from the Great Mosque at Samarra, which was built in the 800s AD.

The mosque at Kairouan
The Abbasid Empire
Early medieval timeline

It’s possible that the architectural inspiration for the earliest minarets came from Buddhist pagodas in China, which were first built in wood about 200 AD (themselves modelled on Han Dynasty watchtowers), and then began to be built in stone around 500 AD.

When the Almovarids ruled North Africa and Spain, they disapproved of minarets, and so people built mosques without minarets in those areas during the 1000s AD. But when the Almohads conquered the Almovarids, they built a lot of minarets to show that they had won.

Learn by doing: is there a bell-tower near you? Does it look like Islamic minarets?
More about mosques

Bibliography and further reading about minarets:

Great Mosque at Kairouan
Abbasid period architecture
Islamic Architecture page
More about the Islamic Empire home