Tlemcen, in the northwest of Algeria, is sometimes called the “African Granada,” because of the richness of Medieval Islamic architecture in the city. The region has been inhabited since the Neolithic era. In the 1st century the Numidian (Amazigh) leader Takfarinas was killed in battle with the Romans who established the military outpost of Pomaria (orchards). In the 8th c. after the conquest of the Muslims, the city expanded beyond the walls of Pomaria and became known as Agadir (the wall).
From this period onward, the city was governed by a succession of Muslim dynasties. The Idrisids of Fés conquered Agadir in 788. They were replaced in command by the Umayyads of al-Andalus. In 1079, Tlemcen was conquered by the Almoravids under the leadership of Yusuf ibn Tashfin. A new town, Tagrart (the camp), was established adjacent to the existing town. The city now known as Tlemcen (the springs) was created from the union of Agadir and Tagrart. It was during this period that the Great Mosque of Tlemcen was built.
Yet even as the Great Mosque was being adorned, a new power was growing stronger to the west in modern day Morocco. The Almohad dynasty, led by the Algerian-born Abd al-Mumin bin Ali, conquered Tlemcen in 1144 and ruled for over a century. Nonetheless, their architectural contribution to the city was modest.
In the 13th century, the decline of the Almohads provided to the Abd al-Wadids (Ziyanids), led by Yaghmurasan ibn Zayyan, an opportunity to establish an independent dynasty. They ruled over central Maghreb for three consecutive centuries, during which time Tlemcen enjoyed an unprecedented era of economic and intellectual prosperity. The once secondary city became a powerful capital, and a crossroads between the Orient and Mediterranean Europe. Tlemcen frequently hosted Spanish and Italian merchants (and occasionally merchants from meridional France) who were interested in gold from the Sudan. They were installed in the walled district of al-Qaysariya. The neighborhood contained two churches serving the Christian merchants. The well-established Jewish community occupied a large area in the heart of the medina, between the Great Mosque and the Mechouar (government headquarters).
Most medieval monuments of Tlemcen date back to that time. Even the Almoravid great mosque was expanded and a large minaret constructed. The new capital was adorned with many new buildings, the most important being: the Madrasa al-Tashfinya, the mosque of Sidi Abi Hasan, and the new royal palace (Dar al-Mulk). The Abd al-Wadids (Ziyanids) reign was also a period of intense intellectual and religious activity. The famous historian Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun stayed and taught at the madrasas of the city.
The brief domination of the neighboring Marinids (1337-1358) endowed the districts extra muros with several architectural gems such as the complex of Sidi Abu Madyan, the mosque at Mansura. After this period, Tlemcen never reached the same level of glory, partly because of the constant threats coming from Muslim and Christian neighboring kingdoms. This situation lasted until the city was occupied by the Ottomans, and annexed to the Regency of Algiers, in 1555. The prosperity of Tlemcen during the late Middle Ages was followed by centuries of slow decay, under the Ottoman rule.
After the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were marked the French occupation and its major urban renovations that changed the morphology of the city. Nowadays, the historical center of Tlemcen is enclosed within an urban agglomeration that has grown to more than thirty times its size, with a medieval medina attempting to find its place in a city of the 21st century.
Abadie, Louis. Tlemcen au passé retrouvé. Nice: Jacques Gandini, 1994.
Bargès, Jean-Joseph-Léandre. Tlemcen, ancienne capitale du royaume de ce nom, sa topographie, son histoire, description de ses principaux monuments, anecdotes, légendes et récits divers : souvenirs d’un voyage, Paris: Duprat, 1859.
Lawless, Richard I. “Tlemcen, Capital City of the Abd al-Wadids: A Study of the Functions of a Medieval Islamic.” Islamic Quarterly 18 (1974).
Lawless, Richard I. and Gerald H. Blake. Tlemcen: Continuity and Change in an Algerian Islamic Town. London: Bowker, 1976.
The Madrasa al-Tashfiniya was built by the Zayyanid Sultan Abu Tashfin, between 1320 and 1330, and was demolished in 1873 under French occupation. Those who had the privilege of visiting the madrasa described it as an architectural masterpiece. It is undoubtedly the most famous and most studied of all medieval madrasas in Algeria. Al-Tashfiniya was the object of all the care and attention of its founder, Sultan Abu Tashfin. Indeed, we learn from al-Tanasi that this Sultan adorned his madrasah with all the embellishments that one could admire in his own royal palace. The most remarkable of these decorations was a silver tree on which there were all sorts of singing birds.
Spatially, al-Tashfiniya stretched over an area of 1100 sq. m., making it the second largest Maghreb Madrasa in the Middle Ages, just behind the Madrasa al-Bu’inaniya of Fes. It reproduced the same spatial pattern of other Maghrebi madrasas. Its plan consisted of large rooms for teaching and praying, accompanied by numerous small cell rooms for the accommodation of the students; the whole was organized around a central courtyard.
However, the rectangular courtyard was much deeper than wide (length-width ratio was 22:9 m). Apart from the unique case of the Madrasa al-Mustansiriyya in Baghdad, there were no known cases that adopted these proportions in madrasas, neither in North Africa nor in Western Asia. On the other hand, the stretched proportions of the courtyard are a common feature of many Andalusian palaces. Moreover, unlike the majority of the medersas where the fountain is positioned in the center of the courtyard, al-Tashfiniya’s basin was entirely off-center. It was in the same way as the Comares Palace of the Alhambra, where two basins were located at both ends of the long courtyard. These similarities corroborate the idea of an analogy between the Madrasa al-Tashfiniya and some Andalusian palaces.
Today, although this madrasa has disappeared forever, it embodied an institution of higher learning in the Zayyanid dynasty. A dynasty where men of knowledge were buried in the royal necropolis, alongside the royalty.