Tlemcen - Encyclopedia

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TLEMCEN, a town of Algeria, the capital of an arrondissement in the department of Oran, near the frontier:of Morocco, 68 m. by road and 102 by rail S.W. of Oran. It stands 2500 ft. above the sea, on the north slope of the Lella Setta hills, which rise to a height of over 4000 ft. It is the chief town of a wide district exporting olive oil, esparto', corn and flour, wools and Algerian onyx; and has a population of (1906) 24,060. From Tlemcen the railway is continued westward to the Moroccan frontier at Lalla Maghnia, a distance of 44 m.

Among the cities famous in the annals of Arab-Berber, or Moorish, art and civilization, Tlemcen takes high rank. In architectural merits its monuments, though not so extensive, are worthy of comparison with those of Granada. The older walls and towers - there were three ancient lines of fortifications - are in great part destroyed, but a wall built by the French encircles the town.

The various quarters are grouped around the principal mosque - the Jewish to the south-west, the Moorish to the south-east, that of the merchants to the north-east, while the new town with the civic buildings lies to the north-west. Of the sixty-four mosques which existed at the period of the French conquest, several have disappeared. The great mosque (Jamaa-el-Kebir) has a brick minaret 112 ft. high, adorned with marble columns, and cased with mosaic of the most varied designs; a fountain of alabaster - of the kind known as Algerian onyx - stands in the alabaster-paved inner court; and 72 columns support the arches of the interior. This mosque was built A.D. 1136 to replace a much older building. The mihrab is finely ornamented with arabesques. The mosque of Sidi Ahmed bel Hassan, usually called Abul Hassan, built A.D. 1298, now transformed into a museum of antiquities, has two series of arches, which rest on alabaster pillars. The courts are ornamented by sculptures of great beauty and richness; the delicately-carved cedar ceiling bears traces of polychromatic painting. The exterior has been altered in French taste. Among the antiquities preserved in the museum are the epitaph of Boabdil, the last king of Granada, who died at Tlemcen in 1494, and the standard cubit measure - in marble - used in the Kissaria, bearing date A.H. 728 (1328). The mosque of El-Halawi (the Sweetmeat Maker), dating from 1353, is outside the walls of the town. It has eight magnificent columns of Algerian onyx, with richly sculptured capitals. The ceiling of cedar is richly carved, and there is a fine colonnade on each side of the court. The minaret is decorated with mosaics. The military authorities occupy the Meshuar or citadel, built in 1145, which separates the Jewish and Moorish quarters and was formerly the palace of the rulers of Tlemcen. Only the minaret of the mosque, dating from the 14th century, and the battlemented wall, flanked by two towers, remain of its former magnificence. The vast basin (sahrij) under the old walls, now dry (720 ft. in length, 490 in width and to in depth), was apparently made for naval exhibitions. At one period barracks of the spahis occupied all that remains of the Kissaria, the place of residence of European merchants from Pisa, Genoa, Catalonia and Provence. The barracks have been cleared away and a covered market made in the upper part of the Kissaria. The ancient college (medressa) where many learned Arabs taught - of whom Ibn Khaldun, author of a History of the Berbers, may be mentioned - has entirely disappeared. The church erected by the French is a fine building in the Byzantine style. Besides the large trade carried on there are native manufactories of cloth, carpets and leathern articles. A special manufacture is that of red shawls, used throughout the department of Oran by Jewish women when in mourning.

In the immediate neighbourhood of the modern Tlemcen are numerous remains of the fortifications of Agadir (vide infra), and the minaret of the mosque, a beautiful tower dating Sidi from the 13th century, the lower part of which is built Medin. of large hewn stones from the Roman Pomaria. More noteworthy, however, are the ruins of Sidi Bu Medin and of Mansura. Sidi Bu Medin (more properly El Eubbad) is a little over a mile south-east of Tlemcen. It was founded A.D. 1 337 by Ali V., the first of the Beni-Marin (Marinide) sultans who ruled Tlemcen, and commonly called the Black Sultan. The ruins of a small building, conjectured to be a palace of Sultan Ali, which commands a beautiful view, were excavated in 1881. The kubba or tomb of Sidi Bu Medin, near the palace, is held in great veneration by the Arabs. The roof and walls are covered with arabesques, and the legend El-Mulk Lillah, " the kingdom is God's," is repeated again and again. The saint himself was born at Seville A.D. 1126, and died near Tlemcen in his 75th year; his disciple Sidi Abd-es-Selam of Tunis lies near him. The adjacent mosque is a beautiful specimen of Moorish art. The large double doors of cedar wood, covered with bronze showing a geometric interlaced pattern, have been compared with those of Ghiberti at the Baptistery of Florence. The mosque is divided by columns into five aisles. Delicate lacework extends from the spring of the arches to the roof. The tile mosaics are believed to have come from Morocco. The medressa is a building resembling the mosque.

Mansura, which is about 12 m. west of Tlemcen, owes its foundation to the attempts of the Beni-Marin rulers of Morocco to extend their sovereignty. The Amir Abu Yakub Yusef besieged Tlemcen in the early years of the 14th century.

The siege lasted eight years, and Yusef turned his camp into a walled city. The siege being raised, El Mansura (the victorious), as the new city was called, was abandoned. It was reoccupied when (1335) Ali V. renewed the siege, which;this time proved successful. On the expulsion of the Marinides in 1359 Mansura was finally deserted. Besides the walls and towers, and the minaret of the mosque, little remains of Mansura, of which Ibn Khaldun has left a contemporary and graphic sketch. The minaret, notwithstanding that one side and parts of two other sides have perished, is one of the finest mosque towers in existence. It is 125 ft. high, and is built of hewn stone. The arches are circular or pointed. The upper part of the tower is ornamented with green and blue tiles and the entrance arch is beautifully carved. An inscription records that the tower was built by order of Abu Yakub Yusef. Of the rest of the mosque only the outer walls remain. It is about 320 ft. long by zoo wide and was divided by magnificent marble columns into thirteen aisles. Excavations made by the French brought to light some of these columns, which are now in the museums of Tlemcen and Algiers.


A Roman town, Pomaria, occupied a site east of the present town. It derived its name from the abundance and luxuriance of the apple, pear and other fruit trees in the neighbourhood. The Roman town was ruined in the period following the Vandal invasion, and at the time of the Arab conquest appears to have been deserted. Many inscriptions of the Christian era have been found, some as late even as the 7th century. The site was purchased from the Zenata Berbers, in the 8th century, by Idris-bin-Abdallah, who began the building of a new city named Agadir (Berber, the fortress). Idris, founder of the Idrisite dynasty of Fez, left his brother Suleiman in possession of Agadir, and the city was ruled by the Beni-Suleiman until 931, when it fell into the hands of the Fatimites. From the Fatimites it passed into the possession of the Beni-Yala, of the Beni-Ifren branch of the Zenata Berbers, who held it as vassals of the Omayyad rulers of Spain. In 1080 the Almoravide sovereign Yusef ibn Tashfin, after besieging and sacking Agadir, built a new town on the site of his camp. The new town, called Tagrart, became the commercial quarter, whilst Agadir remained the royal residence. The two towns when united received the name of Tlemcen. The Almoravides reigned sixty-five years, when, after holding Agadir four years against the enemy, they were overcome by the Almohades, who massacred the inhabitants, rebuilt, enlarged and repeopled the ruined town, and built a wall (1161) surrounding the double town. In 1248 Tlemcen was captured The by Abu Yahia Yarmorasen (Ghamarasan) who was Sultanate of chief of the Zenata tribe of Berbers and claimed Tlemcen. descent from the Caliph Ali. Yarmorasen, who died in 1282, founded the dynasty of the Abd-el-Wahid, who ruled the greater part of what now constitutes Algeria. Under their sway Tlemcen flourished exceedingly. The presence of Jews and Christians was encouraged and the Christians possessed a church. The bazaar of the Franks (kissaria) was a large walled enclosure, the gates of which were closed at sunset. As many as 5000 Christians lived peaceably in Tlemcen, and the Sultan included in his army a Christian bodyguard. In 1337 the power of the Abd-el-Wahid was temporarily extinguished by the Marinide sultans of Morocco. They left some fine monuments of the period of their ascendancy, which lasted twentytwo years. Once more, under the Abd-el-Wahid, now known as the Beni-Zeiyan, from 1359 to 1553, Tlemcen enjoyed prosperity. It had a population reputed to number 125,000, an extensive trade, a brilliant court and a powerful army. The Spanish occupation of Oran (1509) struck a fatal blow at the European commerce of the town. The Beni-Zeiyan, after the capture of Algiers in 1516 by the corsair Barbarossa gradually lost their territory to the Turks, while Tlemcen itself for forty years became tributary to the Spanish governor of Oran. In 1518 the town was held for a short time by Arouj Barbarossa, but Arouj was killed in a fight with the Spaniards. It is said that, while master of the town, Arouj caused twentytwo of the Zeiyan princes to be drowned in the sahrij. In 1553 the Turks under Salah Rais, pasha of Algiers, captured Tlemcen and the Sultanate of Tagrart, as it was still frequently called, came to an end. Under the Turks the town ceased to be of any importance. When the French entered Algeria the sultans of Morocco were disputing the possession of Tlemcen with the Kuluglis, who fought first for themselves and afterwards for France. In 1835 Abd-el-Kader, on whose appearance the Moors retired, sought to re-establish the ancient empire of Tlemcen, but he retreated before General Clausel in 1836. The treaty of the Tafna (1837) gave Tlemcen to Abd-el-Kader, but, war being renewed in 1842, Tlemcen was definitely occupied by the French, under whom it has prospered.

The commune of Tlemcen, which includes a number of villages near the city, had a population (1906) of 39,757, and the arrondissement, which includes nine communes, 149,467.

See Les Monuments arabes de Tlemcen, by William Marcais and Georges Marcais (Paris, 1903). This accurate and finely-illustrated work, one of the publications of the Service des monuments historiques de l'Alge'rie, cites the principal works dealing with Tlemcen, and gives a critical estimate of their value. (F. R. C.)

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