Tlemcen a city in north-western Algeria

Tlemcen a city in north-western Algeria

Tlemcen (/tlɛmˈsɛn/;[1] Arabic: تلمسان‎ Tilimsān; Berber languages: ⵜⵍⴻⵎⵙⴰⵏ) is a city in north-western Algeria and the capital of the province of the same name. The city has developed leather, carpet and textile industries, which it ships to the port of Rashgun (fr) for export. It had a population of 140,158 at the 2008 census, while the province had 949,135 inhabitants.[2]

The origin of the name Tlemcen is uncertain. One theory is that it is the feminine plural of Talmest, which means a certain type of well which naturally forms a small lake. Another theory traces the name to the Berber words Thala Imsan, which can mean "the dry spring" or "the fountain of lions". The name is sometimes spelled Tlemsen, Tlemsan, or Tilimsen.

Early years

A man of Tlemcen
Tlemcen became a military outpost of the Romans in the 2nd century CE under the name of Pomaria. It was then an important city in the North Africa see of the Roman Catholic Church, where it was the center of a diocese. Its bishop, Victor, was a prominent representative at the Council of Carthage (411), and its bishop Honoratus was exiled in 484 by the Vandal king Huneric for denying Arianism. It was a center of a large Christian population for many centuries after the city's Arab conquest in 708 AD.[3]

In the later eighth century and the ninth century, the city became a Kingdom of Banu Ifran of the Kharijite sufri.[4] These same Berber Kharijis also began to develop various small Saharan oases and to link them into regular trans-Saharan caravan routes terminating at Tlemcen—beginning a process that would determine Tlemcen's historical role for almost all of the next millennium.[5]

In 1082 the Almoravid leader Yusuf ibn Tashfin founded the city of Tagrart ("Encampment" in the Berber language), which merged with the existing settlement, now called Agadir and since then became known as Tlemcen (Tilimsan). Tlemcen probably passed from Almoravid to Almohad control in the mid-twelfth century. However, in the early thirteenth century, Ibn Ghaniya attempted to restore Almoravid control of the Maghreb.[6] In about 1209, the region around Tlemcen was devastated by retreating Almoravid forces, not long before their final defeat by the Almohads at the Battle of Jebel Nafusa in 1210.[7] Despite the destruction of Tlemcen's already-feeble agricultural base, Tlemcen rose to prominence as a major trading and administrative center in the region under the succeeding reign of the Almohads.

Kingdom of Tlemcen
Main article: Kingdom of Tlemcen

Entrance to Sidi Boumediene mosque, c. 1900
After the end of Almohad rule during the 1230s, Tlemcen became the capital of one of three successor states, the Zayyanid Kingdom of Tlemcen (1236–1554). It was thereafter ruled for centuries by successive Zayyanid sultans.[8] Its flag was a white crescent pointing upwards on a blue field. During the Middle Ages, Tlemcen not only served as a trading city connecting the "coastal" route across the Maghreb with the trans-Saharan caravan routes,[9][10] but also housed a European trading center (funduk) which connected African and European merchants.[11] In particular, Tlemcen was one of the points through which African gold (arriving from south of the Sahara via Sijilmasa or Taghaza) entered the European hands.[12] Consequently, Tlemcen was partially integrated into the European financial system. So, for example, Genoese bills of exchange circulated there, at least among merchants not subject to (or not deterred by) religious prohibitions.[13]

At the peak of its success, in the first half of the fourteenth century, Tlemcen was a city of perhaps 40,000 inhabitants.[14] It housed several well-known madrasas and numerous wealthy religious foundations, becoming the principal intellectual center of the central Maghreb. At the souq around the Great Mosque, merchants sold woolen fabrics and rugs from the East, slaves and gold from across the Sahara, local earthenware and leather goods, and a variety of Mediterranean maritime goods "redirected" to Tlemcen by corsairs—in addition to the intentional European imports available at the funduk.[15] Merchant houses based in Tlemcen, such as the al-Makkari maintained regular branch offices in Mali and the Sudan.[16][17]

Later in the fourteenth century, the city twice fell under the rule of the Marinid sultan, Abu al-Hasan Ali (1337–48) and his son Abu 'Inan. In both cases, the Marinids found that they were unable to hold the region against local resistance.[18] Nevertheless, these episodes appear to have marked the beginning of the end. Over the following two centuries, Zayyanid Tlemcen was intermittently a vassal of Ifriqiya (then governed by the Hafsid dynasty), Maghrib al-Aksa (then governed by the Marinid dynasty), or Aragon.[19] When the Spanish took the city of Oran from the kingdom in 1509, continuous pressure from the Berbers prompted the Spanish to attempt a counterattack against the city of Tlemcen (1543), which was deemed by the Papacy to be a crusade. The Spanish failed to take the city in the first attack, although the strategic vulnerability of Tlemcen caused the kingdom's weight to shift toward the safer and more heavily fortified corsair base at Algiers.

The ruler of Tlemcen is reported to have been advised by a Jewish viceroy named Abraham, who, in the time of the Inquisition of Torquemada, opened the gates of Tlemcen to Jewish and Muslim refugees fleeing Spain. Abraham is said to have supported them with his own money and with the tolerance of the king of Tlemcen.

Later years

Entrance to Sidi Boumediene Mosque

Sidi Bellahsen Mosque, Tlemcen
In 1554, the kingdom of Tlemcen came under Ottoman rule, which deposed the Saadi Moroccan rule but restored by Moroccans in 1556. The Ottomans were fighting a naval war against the Spaniards across the Mediterranean, and the Kingdom of Tlemcen became another vassal of the Sultan in Constantinople. Tlemcen and the Algerian provinces regained effective independence in their own affairs in 1671, although Tlemcen was no longer a government seat as before. The Spanish were evicted from Oran in 1792, but thirty years later they were replaced by the French, who seized Algiers. A French fleet bombarded Algiers in 1830, at which point the dey capitulated to French colonial rule; a broad coalition of natives continued to resist, coordinated loosely at Tlemcen. The great Berber leader Abd al-Kader, fought with incredible skill and valor, but his defeat in 1844 at Battle Isly ended the dream of a new independent Algeria.

Tlemcen was a vacation spot and retreat for French settlers in Algeria, who found it to be far more temperate than Oran or Algiers. The city adapted and became more cosmopolitan, with a unique outlook on art and culture, and its architecture and urban life evolved to accommodate this new sense. In the independence movements of the mid-twentieth century, it was relatively quiet, reflecting the city's sense of aloofness from the turbulence of Algiers.

In 1943 Tlemcen was little more than a railway halt. On January 13 a British and American train patrol was engaged in a skirmish with the retreating troops of the Afrika Korps. As the US Army marched eastwards from their Moroccan landing grounds, the British 8th Army drove westwards forcing the Germans into an evacuation pocket at Tunis.[20] Between 1942–1943 before embarkation Italy the US Army Medical Corps established two fixed hospitals at Tlemcen: 9th Evacuation (as station), 12–26 December 1942. 750 beds and 32d Station, 28 February-28 November 1943 500 beds.[21]

The most important place for pilgrimage of all religions into Tlemcen was the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town. Up to 10,000 people worldwide made the journey to the site. Nonetheless despite religious freedoms, their community had never numbered more than 5,000-6,000 during the 20th century, but laws of discrimination had been in force since 1881. After independence in 1962 most of the small Jewish population evacuated to metropolitan France.[22] The Berber tribes had historically professed Judaism. During the colonial period they had served in the French Army. French Jews of the Alliance Israélite Universelle paid for a local Jewish school which closed in 1934, perhaps owing to the rise of Fascism.[23] In 2009 it was reported by Jordanian sources that the Algerian government intended to restore the damaged Jewish tombs at the historic cemetery.

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