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 fortified city of Al-Mahala al-Mansura, the Victorious Camp, was established by the Marinid Emir Abu Yusuf Yaqub just outside of Tlemcen in 1299 as headquarters for his seige on that city in which the 'Abd al-Wadid (or Zayyanid) Dynasty still maintained control. Abu Yaqub immediately began work on a palace alongside a Congregational Mosque.
The city had already become a thriving urban center in its own right. As early as 1302/702 AH Ibn Khaldun commented on the hammams, caravanserais, and hospital of the city. He also commented on the extraordinary height of the minaret on the Great Mosque.(1) This was all contained inside walls 1.5 m thick and 12 m high and punctuated with 80 towers, the ruins of which are still visible. Mansura became know an Tlemcen al-Jadid. The siege lasted 8 years, and Tlemcen was greatly stuggling with hunger and disease when the siege was
brought to an end by the assassination of Abu Yaqub on the 13th of May 1307/11 Dhu al Qa'dah 706.
Some time later, Mansura was largely abandoned by the Marinids for a brief period, and the city partially destroyed. Yet by 1335/735 AH Mansura was being rebuilt and was once again the headquarters for a Marinid seige of Tlemcen by Abu al Hasan, this time with success. Mansura then became the seat of government for the dynasty.
The fall of the Marinid Dynasty brought about the fall of the city, but the ruins attest to the significance of the city in the architectural history of the region.
Today the rampart of terre pisée flanked by square towers is still
comparatively intact, but the interior is land under cultivation. There
still exists, however, the ruins of a palace, no longer distinct, a
section of a paved street, and probably the surrounding wall in terre
pisée of the mosque with half of the great stone minaret which rose
above the principal entrance. Although the inlaid ceramic work has
almost entirely disappeared, the façade of the square tower, which is
120 feet high, is one of the finest pieces of Mag̲h̲ribī art of the
8th/14th century that survives. The columns and the capitals in marble
of the mosque are preserved in the Museums of Tlemcen and Algiers.(1)
NOTES: (1) Macias, G., and M. Shatzmiller. "Al-Mansura."
Ministère de l’information et de la culture avec la collaboration de M. Bourouiba, M. Dokali. Les Mosquées En Algérie, 2nd, 26-33. Alger, Algeria: Ministère de l’information et de la culture, SNED, 1974.