The zâwiya of Sidi Boumédiène in ‘Ubbâd, Algeria

In April 2004 my anthropologist colleague John Shoup and I were invited to Oran by Prof. Mourad Moulai Hadj of the CRASC (Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle) in order to present some of our research at the university there. We were extremely well received and took the opportunity to visit two major Sufi shrines in western Algeria: the zâwiya of Sheikh al-Alaoui Bentounès in Mostaghanem (subject of the next post) and the zâwiya of Sidi Shu’ayb Abî Madyan in the village of ‘Ubbâd, above Tlemcen.

Abû Madyan Shu’ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansarî (1116–1198), more commonly known as Sidi Boumédiène (common French transliteration), was an important Sufi master. He is believed to be the first to develop Sufi thought and practice in the western part of the Muslim world (the Maghreb). He was the master of ‘Abd al-Salâm b. Mashîsh (1140-1227), who in turn was the master of Abû-l-Hasan al-Shâdhilî (1196-1258). Abû Madyân also figures in the “chain” of initiation of many other great Sufis, including Ibn ‘Arabî (1165-1240). Born near Seville, in Andalusia, Abû Madyan studied in Fez, at the Qayrawiyyin Mosque-University and then under ‘Alî b. Hirzihim. He eventually settled in Béjaïa, a city on present-day Algeria, where he taught. His reputation as the preeminent Sufi shaykh of his time brought him to the attention of the Almohad sultan Abû Yûsuf Ya’qûb al-Mansûr (reigned 1184-1199) who summoned him to Marrakech. He did not make the appointment. On his way to Marrakech he died in the village of ‘Ubbâd, where he was buried. His shrine and the other places discussed in this post can be viewed by downloading this Google Earth (kmz) file.

Ubbad 2‘Ubbâd sits on the slope of Jabal Mafrush, 2 km southeast of Tlemcen. Abû Madyan’s tomb there immediately attracted a circle of resident Sufis and much popular local devotion. He soon became the patron saint of Tlemcen. It is Al-Mansûr’s son, Sultan Muhammad al-Nâsir (1199-1213), who built the first mausoleum over the tomb.

View of the mausoleum of Sidi Boumédiène from the roof of the neighboring madrasa (ph. Eric Ross)

Sacred well in the antechamber to Sidi Boumédiène’s tomb. The well and the columns are of imported Italian marble, a hallmark of imperial Merinid patronage (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the tomb chamber’s mihrâb (ph. Eric Ross)

From right to left: the shaykh of Sidi Boumédiène who welcomed us inside the zâwiya, Prof. John A. Shoup, anthropologist at Al Akhawayn University, and Mr. Karamustafa, our host in Tlemcen (ph. Eric Ross)

When the Almohad Empire fell Tlemcen became a contested border city. It was the capital of the Zayyanid sultanate (1236-1554) established by Yghomrâcen but it was repeatedly attacked and besieged by the neighboring Merinids, based in Fez. Yghomrâcen fortified the mashwâr (parade ground) and made it the seat of his court. He and his successors encouraged trade and scholarship by creating such civic institutions as qaysariyas (hostels for merchants) and a madrasa (college). Eager to consolidate his newly founded state, Yghomrâcen had the shrine of its capital’s patron saint restored and embellished.

In 1338, after the Merinids had taken the city, Sutlan Abû-l-Hasan ‘Alî expanded the mausoleum into a monumental complex which included a mosque and a prestigious madrasa. The Merinids bestowed their patronage on religious scholarship and the tombs of Sufis with equal measure. They established madrasas (architectural jewels, all of them) in every city in the realm. They also refurbished the tombs and sanctuaries of major holy men in their numerous cities and provinces. In Tlemcen, they combined the two policies. Rather than build their madrasa in the heart of the city they included it in the greatly refurbished shrine complex in ‘Ubbâd.

Entrance portal to the Ibn Khaldûn Madrasa, across the street from the entrance to the mausoleum (ph. Eric Ross)

The ‘Ubbâd Madrasa is built around a courtyard. It has a prayer hall and 32 cells for resident students. The renowned scholar Ibn Khaldûn (1332-1406) taught there and the institution, now a museum, is named for him.

View of the southeast corner of the courtyard of the madrasa (ph. Eric Ross)

The Merinid complex included the “Dâr al-Sultân,” a house to accommodate Sultan Abû-l-Hasan ‘Alî during visits. The little palace, directly behind the mausoleum, has long been in ruins.

View of one of the upstairs apartments of the Dâr al-Sultân from the roof of the mosque (ph. Eric Ross)

Just to the west of monumental Merinid complex in ‘Ubbâd stands a small shrine to Sidi ‘Abad. I do not know the story of this saint, nor of his relation to ‘Ubbâd or to Sidi Boumédiène. The shrine stands on a steep slope, in an acute street corner, beneath an ancient tree.

The shrine of Sidi ‘Abad in ‘Ubbâd consists of a mausoleum and a tree (ph. Eric Ross)

Prior to the building of the Sidi Boumédiène complex, the Merinid penchant for monumental architecture had already been exhibited, in imperial style, in Al-Mansûrah. Al-Mansûrah was a heavily fortified military camp built by Sultan Abû Ya’qûb Yûsuf (reigned 1286–1306) during the first extended siege of Tlemcen (1299-1307). The sultan hoped his new city would supplant the older one. No effort was spared to equip it with the requisite water systems, fortifications and civil institutions. The sultan directed the siege personally, and Al-Mansûrah was thus the seat of Merinid government and court life for the duration. When the siege was finally lifted and the Merinid forces withdrew, Al-Mansûrah was “mothballed;” a hypothetical right of the Merinids to use of the city was maintained even though it stood empty.

When Merinid sultan Abû-l-Hasan ‘Alî began to besieged Tlemcen in 1335, he revived Al-Mansûrah. He held court in Al-Mansûrah’s rebuilt palace and prayed in its restored mosque. During both interludes of Merinid rule: 1335-1348 and 1351-1358, that rule was exercised from Al-Mansûrah. The new city was given every measure of royal patronage. Merchants, no longer able to trade in besieged Tlemcen, were encouraged to set up shop in Al-Mansûrah instead. Perhaps, before his imperial project went awry, Abû-l-Hasan ‘Alî had even envisioned eventually moving the Merinid capital to Tlemcen permanently. Had the Merinid expansion of the city in early 14th century succeeded, Tlemcen may well have become the largest metropolis in North Africa and would certainly have rivaled Fez, the Merinid capital.

This mode of expanding or supplanting older cities with newer ones, by erecting well endowed military camps, was quite common in medieval North Africa. The city of Cairo grew through just such a process (the successive accretions being Al-Fustat in 641, Al-Askar in 751, Al-Katai in 870 and Al-Qahira in 969 CE). In 1276 the Merinids had added a whole new palace-city to Fez: Fâs al-Jadid. In fact, Tlemcen itself had already experienced this type of military urbanization.

Tlemcen His_1The original city, called Agadir, occupied the site of the 4th century Roman colony of Pomaria. It’s Friday Mosque, now reduced to a ruined minaret, was built by Moulay Idris I c. 790 CE. Agadir had been the capital of a khâhrijî state, established by the Bânû Ifrân, until the Almoravid leader Yûsuf b. Tâshfîn besieged it in 1079. He built his military camp (tagrart in Berber) just west of the walls of the city. When Agadir fell, Tagrart remained. It was better fortified and equipped than the old city, and the institutions of Almoravid rule were established there. Its mosque, built in 1082, is still Tlemcen’s main Friday Mosque.

Tlemcen His_2By the time of Abû Madyan, at the height of Almohad rule, Agadir and Tagrart had been united as a single city, Tilimsân. It was a thriving commercial city, benefiting from privileged access to Sijilmasa and trade in trans-Saharan gold which it had enjoyed since the khârijî era.

Tlemcen continued to prosper under the Zayyanids, who equipped their capital with the requisite military infrastructure. Firstly, the city’s defenses were greatly strengthened. A new qal’a (fortress) neighborhood housed the numerous detachments of soldiers necessary for the city’s protection. Other fortified encampments extended up the slopes of Mafrush Mountain. The court too moved “up town.” Yghomrâcen’s initial palace, the Mashwâr, was put to use as a prison for captives, some of high rank, while a succession of newer palaces were nestled amidst the gardens on the slope above. A large cistern, the sahrij, was built in the western part of the city. Tlemcen’s walls were further reinforced by many rings of outer ramparts only alluded to on the map below. These largely withstood the repeated pounding of wars and sieges until Sutlan Abû-l-Hasan ‘Alî’s ferocious assault of 1337.

Tlemcen His_3Ibn Khaldûn arrived in Tlemcen in 1366 to serve the ‘Abd al-Wadid sultan, Abû-l-‘Abbâs. He served the dynasty as a diplomat until 1375, suffering imprisonment by the Merinids at one point. At the time, Tlemcen was enmeshed in a tight diplomatic web involving the Merinids, the Nasrids of Granada, the kings of Castille and Aragon, and the Hafsids of Tunis.

Despite the ravages of the Merinid wars, the Tlemcen of Ibn Khaldûn’s day was a city on the rebound. After two interludes of Merinid rule, it was once again the capital of a revived Zayyanid dynasty and a thriving commercial city. Christian merchants from across the Mediterranean traded in their own qaisariya in the commercial heart of the city. The building had consular status.

On the other hand, the failure of the Merinid political project doomed Al-Mansûrah as an urban one. Ibn Khaldûn would have found the state-of-the-art military camp-cum-city stripped bare and abandoned, as it largely remains today. Apart from the heavily bastioned walls of the city, parts of which stand to their original height, the most important ruin is the large Friday Mosque (60 x 90 m).

The ruined masonry minaret of Al-Mansûrah’s mosque still stands 50 meters tall (ph. Eric Ross)

The Mosque’s central entrance, embellished with marble columns, sculpted stone and ceramic inlay, is located at the base of the minaret (ph. Eric Ross)

Tlemcen is a great gallery of Merinid architecture. Apart from Al-Mansûrah and the Sidi Boumédiène’s complex in ‘Ubbâd, there is also the shrine complex of Sidi Al-Halwî, built on a slope just below the city’s northern wall. Sidi Al-Halwî was an Andalusian scholar and mystic. He died in Tlemcen in 1337, the year the city fell to the Merinids. In 1353 Sultan Abû Inân Fâris (reigned 1348-1358) built a mausoleum over his tomb and paired it with a new mosque. I understand a carob tree stands over Sidi Al-Halwî’s mausoleum, but our hectic one-day tour of Tlemcen did not include a visit to this shrine. Dommage!

Tlemcen His_5

On Sidi Boumédiène, ‘Ubbâd and Tlemcen

  • Vincent Cornell (1996), The Way of Abû Madyan: The Works of Abû Madyan Shu’ayb, Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society.
  • Sheila S. Blair (1990), “Sufi Saints and Shrine Architecture in the Early Fourteenth Century,” in Muqarnas, vol. 7, pp. 35-49.
  • Sid Ahmed Bouali (1984), Les deux grands sièges de Tlemcen, Algiers: Entreprise National du Livre.

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in field trips, map work, shrines, Sufism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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