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The history of Tlemcen, long considered the most Andalusian city in the Maghreb, so much so that it deserved the nickname “Granada of Africa”
At the origins of Tlemcen
The area around Tlemcen has been inhabited since the Neolithic period, however the birth of today’s town nucleus dates back to the Roman presence in the region. Specifically, the first inhabited center was built at the end of the 2nd century AD. with the name of Pomerania and initially it was not conceived as a city but as a fortress. The latter was mainly used to control the region in a particularly tense period due to the many rebellions on the borders of the Empire, but over time it even became a bishopric.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Vandal invasion, this territory passed to the Amazigh/Berber confederation of the Zenatas, who, not surprisingly, were the ones they encountered the Umayyads who will be the first to bring Islam and the Arab world to today’s Algeria. After an initial idyll, in 765 the tribe of the Banu Ifran, then confederated with the Zenata, rose up against the new authority, adopting the Sufrite-style Kharijite Islam and giving rise to a real war against the Umayyads, which ended a few years later with the foundation of the Emirate of Tlemcen. This event was decisive for the history of the city, as it was thanks to them that it began to be a key place for caravan routes in the region.
After them came the Ibadi Rustamid dynasty, which boosted Tlemcen’s role as an economic hub in the region, attracting the ambitions of Idris I, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who took the city in 790. The conquest was very short-lived, but was then completed by his son Idris II, who, appointing his cousin Muhammad ibn Sulayman as viceroy of the region, gave life to the short-lived Sulaymanid sub-dynasty. In 931 the Fatimids succeeded in dethroning the Sulaymanids-idrisids, but this caused many problems, giving rise to a particularly turbulent period in which various powers fought over this territory.
In 1081 the Almoravid dynasty arrived here, which revived the entire city by placing it at the center of its imperial project, so much so that for a long time it was considered the “second capital” after Marrakesh; not surprisingly, they were the ones who built the Great Mosque of Tlemcen. With the arrival of the Almohads, who conquered it in 1145, the city enjoyed further great development, becoming the de facto capital of the central Maghreb.
The Kingdom of Tlemcen
Once the Almohads had fallen, Tlemcen finally found a stable and lasting peace under the Zayyanids, who formed the Kingdom of Tlemcen, active from 1235 to 1554. Unlike the previous rulers, at a military level the Zayyanids mostly chose a defensive policy, above all to block the Marinids, the new dynasty at the head of Morocco. In fact, this lineage will prove to be a real thorn in the side of the new sovereigns, arriving several times to occupy the city, without however ever being able to keep it for more than 11 years. However, it must be said that some of the most valuable architectural elements, such as El Mechouar Palace and the Tashfiniya Madrasa, were built precisely during this long period of clashes against the Marinids which lasted roughly from 1307 to 1420; between 1366 and 1375 it was also the home of Ibn Khaldun.
That date is extremely important for the fate of the entire Maghreb, as it was precisely then that Abu Said died, the last Merinid ruler to exercise effective control over his domains, which from that moment on will be prey to fratricidal struggles. The Kingdom of Tlemcen was able to take advantage of this, which even managed to occupy Fes in 1423, but was then forced to become a vassal of the Hafsids, a dynasty that roughly controlled today’s Tunisia and north-eastern Algeria. It should be emphasized that, precisely during this historical period, the city became one of the places where the largest number of Muslim and Jewish Andalusians emigrated fleeing Iberian persecution, so much so that it is often considered “the most Andalusian city in the Maghreb “. This characteristic is mainly due to two factors: closeness and friendship; starting from Murcia it took in fact just two days of navigation to reach the kingdom of Tlemcen, moreover the Nasrids, the last Andalusian dynasty, had deep family ties and friendship with the Zayyanids, which facilitated everything.
In 1509 the Spaniards conquered Oran, also trying to take possession of Tlemcen in 1543, however missing their appointment with history which will instead see a new protagonist appear: the Ottomans. The Sublime Porte had in fact conquered Algiers in 1516 and the conquest of Tlemcen soon became a strategic objective of primary importance to stop the Spanish advance from the North and that of the Sa’adians, the new Moroccan dynasty, from the West. The capture of the city took place in 1551 at the hands of Hassan Pasha, the son of Barbarossa, who soon even tried to occupy Morocco, however contenting himself with receiving an annual tribute from the Moroccan sovereigns.
Under the Ottomans, Tlemcen actually experienced a period of particular decline, as it lost its leading role in favor of Algiers, considered much easier to defend than the ancient capital of the Zayyanids. While losing its centrality, however, it became one of the places most inhabited by the Kouloughlis, the fruit of the union between local women and the soldiers of the new empire.
French occupation and liberation
In 1830 the French conquered Algiers and in 1836 they briefly occupied Tlemcen, conquering it definitively in 1842. Under the transalpine rule, the city experienced enormous depopulation, as most of the inhabitants preferred to emigrate to territories such as Syria, Turkey and Morocco rather than remain under a colonial domain; this process was particularly significant for the fate of this place, which took 50 years to regain the same number of inhabitants it had before the French invasion.
Although, unlike other coastal cities such as Algiers and Oran, it was less populated by European colonizers, at the same time it was one of those that suffered the most from the transalpine presence on an urban level; this is because the new arrivals destroyed or “transformed” a large part of the city’s architectural elements such as the El Mechouar Palace, which went from being the royal residence to a military post, or the Tashfiniya Madrasa, which was demolished in 1876 for urban planning reasons. With Algerian independence in 1962, the vast majority of local Jews decided to emigrate to Marseilles but, apart from this single detail, from then on Tlemcen stood out above all for being the last major Algerian city before the Moroccan border.
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