Timeline: Zayyanid {1235-1555}

The Zayyanids ('Abd al-Wadids, Banu Zayyan, or Banu 'Abd al-Wad) were an Amazigh (Berber) dynasty that ruled the northwestern part of the central Maghreb (present-day Algeria) from 1236 to 1555 (633-962 AH). The Zayyanid dynasty was founded by Yaghmorasan lbn Zayan who was governor of Tlemcen under the Almohads, before declaring autonomy and making the city his own capital. The territory controlled by the Zayyanids was marked by moving borders, depending on the strength or weakness of the ruling sultan. Yet, at its height, the kingdom extended from the present-day Algerian-Moroccan borders to the city of Bejaia.

The Zayyanids' rule falls into two parts separated by a short period (1337-1359/738-760 AH) during which the kingdom came under the control of the Marinids. During the first period (1236-1337/633-738 AH), it was the tribe of Banu 'Abd al-Wad that gave its name to the first branch of the dynasty then called 'Abd al-Wadid. In the second period (1359-1555/760-962 AH), the second branch was called the Zayyanids after Yaghmorasan Ibn Zyan, the founder of the dynasty. However, both names refer to the same reigning family and are used interchangeably.

The sultans of the first branch left remarkable traces of their rule, which some survived until modern times. First, they undertook important works to transform Tlemcen into a capital worthy of its new status. During his reign, the founding Sultan Yaghmorasan built the minaret of Agadir, and that of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, of which he also extended the prayer hall and courtyard. He laid the foundations of a new fortified palatial complex, al-Mechouar, which became the official residence of the Zayyanid sultans. Yaghmorasan's son Abu Said Uthman built the sumptuous mosque of Sidi Bel-Hasan that, unfortunately, suffered from several damaging fires.

The fifth sultan Abu Tashfin constructed many buildings, including three palaces in al-Mechouar, the Sahridj al-Kebir (great basin), and the Madrasa al-Tashfiniya, which attracted students from different parts of the Maghreb. It should be noted that the Zayyanid capital became a center of intense intellectual activity. The great historian Ibn Khaldun (Abd al-Rahman) taught at the Madrasa of Sidi Abu Madyan. His brother Yahya Ibn Khaldun was the historiographer of the sultans of Tlemcen and died in this same city. The Zayyanids did much to encourage the intellectual life of their capital by building several madrasas (five according to Leo Africanus). The important place held by men of knowledge is illustrated by the fact that scholars were buried in the royal cemetery, along with other members of the ruling family.

Another indicator of prosperity is the large numbers of European merchants who came to the kingdom seeking sub-Saharan gold. Tlemcen became the crossroads of trade between Western Mediterranean Europe and the states of sub-Saharan Africa through the commercial development of gold. The European merchants came mostly from Catalonia, Aragon, Genoa, Venice, and Marseille; and lived in an individualized neighborhood, al-Qaysariya, which contained caravanserais and churches.

For most of its history, the dynasty was in an almost permanent state of war with its Marinid and Hafsid neighbors. In fact, the weakness of the Zayyanid military kept the integrity of the state fragile throughout its history. The ruling sultans did not always succeed in protecting the provinces or even their capital from threats of the Marinids who besieged the city several times. The first long siege lasted a little over eight years (1299-1307/698-707 AH), during which the Marinid sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf ordered the construction of a city, west of Tlemcen, that he named al-Mansura and in which he established his residence. In 1307/707 AH, Abu Yaqub Yusuf was assassinated. His successor immediately ended the siege and returned to the Marinid capital, Fes. Under the reign of Abu al-Hasan, the Marinids once again besieged Tlemcen between 1335/735 AH and 1337/737 AH and succeeded in becoming masters of the city for nearly a quarter of a century. During this period, Abu al-Hasan built the mosque of Sidi Bu Medyan. His son Abu Inan Faris built the mosque Sid El Haloui. These Marinid edifices had in common that they were all dedicated to Andalusian mystics, and were all located outside the walls of the Zayyanid capital.

In 1359/760 AH, the Zayyanid dynasty was restored by Abu Hammu Moussa II (1359-1389/760-791 AH) who managed to drive out the Marinids. He continued the building work of his ancestors towards the embellishment of the kingdom's capital. He raised the funeral mosque of Sidi Brahim who was adjoined to a madrasa called al-Yacoubiya, named after Abu Yacoub father of this sultan. However, the Zayyanids never regained their former splendor and glory. After Abu Hammu Moussa II, the rulers of Tlemcen, too busy preserving their power, did not bring any improvements to the kingdom. The century and a half, during which the dynasty continued to exist, was marked by a gradual weakening of the central authority. Most of the kingdom's cities became independent until the authority of the Zayyanids was limited to the capital and its surroundings. Noteworthy during this period of decline was the immigration of Andalusian Muslim and Jewish families to the Maghreb, fleeing the Christian Reconquista, many of whom took refuge in Tlemcen, bringing culture and traditions.

In the early sixteenth century, the Zayyanids were caught up in the conflict between Spaniards and Ottomans. The definitive taking of Tlemcen by the Ottomans, in 1555/960 AH, marked the end of the dynasty. The last Zayyanid sultan, Moulay Hasan, died of the plague in Oran in 1560/967 AH.

--Amine Kasmi, Department of Architecture, University of Tlemcen


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Et-Tenessy Mohammed, Histoire des Beni-Zeiyan, rois de Tlemcen, 2 vols. trans. by Jean-Joseph-Leandre Barges, Paris: Duprat, 1852 and 1887.

Ibn Khaldun, Yahya. Histoire des Beni 'Abd el-Wad, rois de Tlemcen jusqu'au regne d'Abou H'ammou Mousa II, 2 vols. trans. by Alfre Bel. Algiers: Imp. Orientale Pierre Fontana, 1903 and 1911.

Khelifa, Abderrahmane. Tlemcen, capitale du Maghreb central. Algiers: Colorset, 2011.

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.

Leo Africanus, Johannes (1556). Description de l'Afrique, tierce partie du monde. trans. by A. Epaulard. Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1956.

Levi-Provencal, Evariste. "Abd al-Wadids." In Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 1, B. Lewis, V. L. Menage, Ch. Pellat, and J. Schacht (eds), 5th Edition. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986.

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architectural history
history of architecture
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