Ever since Islam arrived in North Africa, Tlemcen enjoyed a prominent position along the trade and pilgrimage routes between West Africa and the east. Although politically and militarily important throughout the Middle Ages, it was overshadowed by nearby Kairouan in neighboring Tunisia. However, during the 1100s, Tlemcen managed to establish itself as a pilgrimage city as well. Taking advantage of Sidi Bou Medienne, a well-known Islamic teacher who happened to die while passing through the city, Tlemcen co-opted his body and built a major shrine over it. Tlemcen has been the spiritual center of Algeria ever since. It remains to this day a major destination and transit point for Islamic pilgrims heading eastwards, and for many Algerians and Moroccans in particular Tlemcen is an important gathering point for travelers heading for Arabia.
After the conquest of Tunisia in the 7th century, the Arab armies racing across North Africa took a break for a few years to consolidate their phenomenally expanded empire. However, the introduction of Islam to the Berber tribes of the region made a continued westward march inevitable. Tlemcen was taken in 708 AD, and subsequently became a major transit point between Tunis to the east and Morocco and Spain to the west. It was also used as a base for expanding Islam into Mauritania, Mali and the Sahara Desert regions to the south. Because of its strategic position at several major crossroads, the city of Tlemcen drew large numbers of traders and pilgrims, the latter passing through on their way to the holy cities of the east.
During the 8th and 9th centuries North Africa grew increasingly independent of the authority of the eastern caliphates. Tlemcen, the most prominent city between Tunisia and Morocco in the Middle Ages, eventually broke away to form its own realm. Long a politically and geographically important city, Tlemcen also became a religious center in the 12th century, almost by accident, when a prominent Islamic theologian died there on his way home from visiting Mecca. Sidi Bou Mediene was considered one of the most influential mystics of his day. According to legend he was merely passing through Tlemcen on his way to Marrakesh when he died suddenly of unknown natural causes. Seeing opportunity, local leaders built him a beautiful tomb, erected a mosque in his honor and did their best to attract pilgrims.
After the Reconquista of Spain, Tlemcen was drawn into the great conflict between the Christians of Spain and the Muslim states of North Africa. At the behest of the city’s viceroy, Tlemcen became a haven for Muslims and Jews fleeing from the Inquisition. The viceroy, a Jewish man named Abraham, personally put up much of the money that brought both persecuted groups safely to Algeria. After Spain conquered Oran in the 16th century, they began to expand into the rest of Algeria. Tlemcen only barely held them off after an assault in 1543. Nevertheless this prompted the Algerians to move their capital city to Algiers, which was considered a more secure location.
For the next four hundred years, Tlemcen faded in importance as control of the city passed through the control of a series of foreign powers. The Ottomans took Tlemcen under their protection in 1553 and held it until 1671. The locals spent the next century frequently fighting with Spanish forces from Oran. Algeria briefly became independent in 1792, only to be conquered again in the 19th century, this time by the French. From 1834 to 1844, Tlemcen became the epicenter of resistance against the French occupation, but the rebellion was ultimately crushed. This put a final end to Tlemcen’s political importance. However, the Tomb of Sidi Bou-Mediene remains Algeria’s spiritual heart to the present day.
The Masjid Sidi Bou Medienne is a beautiful building and an exceptional example of the mosque architecture that can be found throughout the Maghreb region. Although smaller than similar pilgrimage mosques in Morocco and Tunisia, the construction and adornments are no less ornate. The eyecatching minaret uses the square construction typical of the area, and visually dominates the mosque. One unusual feature of the minaret is its lighting. The mosque features a deep orange-red lighting, as opposed to the more standard bright white lighting, which makes the place appear like a giant warm candle at night.
Much of the interior is constructed of or decorated in white marble trimmed in brilliant mosaics of local tile. Portions of the exterior are similarly decorated. Adornments of gold and precious materials are used liberally throughout the interior decorations. The body of Sidi Bou-Medienne is interred in a casket in the main hall of the mosque.
The Masjid Sidi Bou Medienne is located about a mile or so east of the old center of Tlemcen, approximately 275 miles west of Algiers. It is open to Muslims and occasionally to non-Muslims depending on the day and time of visit and the current political climate of the region. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: www.tlemcen-dz.com (official tourism website of Tlemcen)
In addition to the Mosque of Sidi Bou-Medienne, Tlemcen is also the location of the Tomb of Houari Bou Medienne. Houari Bou Medienne was a hero of the uprising against the French occupation of Algeria, and served as the modern country’s second president. He is highly honored among Algerians.