New Moorish architectural identity in Tlemcen, Algeria

Fatima Mazouz, Manar Triqui

Cite this article
Mazouz, F., Triqui, M. (2024) ‘New Moorish architectural identity in Tlemcen, Algeria’, Architecture Papers of the Faculty of Architecture and Design STU, 29(1), pp. 9-18.



In Algeria, the city of Tlemcen is home to 60% of the country’s Arab-Islamic architectural heritage. This heritage is also known as Moorish. During the French colonization, the rich Moorish historical and architectural heritage was largely erased and destroyed. The architecture of Tlemcen’s historic old town was gradually replaced by classical architecture in the early days of colonization, and then by modern architecture from 1940 onwards. After 1962, the year of the country’s independence, the city was faced with a succession of emergencies and has carried out huge programs of building facilities and new housing, based on the principles of modern architecture. In 2011, Tlemcen was designated a Capital of Islamic Culture and, in preparation for this international cultural event, new cultural facilities and hotels have been built, inspired by Moorish heritage. Given the heterogeneity of references and in particular the identity crisis ensuing in architecture in Tlemcen, the international Islamic cultural event was the key moment for validating a stylistic choice, which directly recounts the history of the city. The question is: what authenticity is expressed by the current use of the Moorish referent? Is it technical and material authenticity, or merely symbolic and cultural genuineness? This article looks at the question of identity in architecture. It analyses the new Moorish-style buildings in Tlemcen and highlights their contribution to the quest for a local identity and the ambition to produce local architecture. This article supports the hypothesis that architecture is an effective means of expressing identity, and that it has always had, and continues to have, a close relationship with memory. The methodology adopted for this study is based on a combination of several investigative tools: surveys, photographs and archive consultation. These tools helped develop a building analysis grid, which serves as a repertory for describing the buildings, according to two levels of reading of the architectural work: firstly, the basic principles of Moorish architecture which are geometry, light, architectural elements, unity on the inside versus expressiveness on the outside and, finally, introversion. Secondly, the decorative elements of Moorish architecture which are the building materials, the use of colour, the calligraphy, and the plant and arabesque elements. For our study, we have chosen three Moorish buildings (The Great mosque of Tlemcen, Sidi Belhacen mosque and Sidi Boumediene mosque) and four contemporary buildings (the Andalusian Studies Center, the Abdelkrim Dali Palace of Culture, the Mohamed Dib regional library and the Marriott hotel), to which the different criteria of the analysis grid are applied. The results of the analysis of the new buildings inspired by the Moorish style show that there are both similarities and differences observed between the design of contemporary buildings and the Moorish architecture. The decorative registers used on the exterior of the buildings are sober and faithful to Moorish tradition. All the decorative richness was introduced inside the buildings. Nevertheless, calligraphic inscriptions are virtually absent in the Mohamed Dib library, and new materials and construction techniques have been used in their architectural expressions. The architecture of three of the four buildings studied is extraverted, which goes against the logic of the introverted Moorish buildings of old Tlemcen. What is more, the three contemporary cultural buildings are public facilities for study, reading and meeting. These functions require a high level of visual comfort: hence the need for a high level of illumination, enhanced from the presence of large glazed openings. The buildings maintain a high level of brightness in keeping with their functions. The results of analysing the new Moorish style-inspired buildings show that, in a way, they have enabled to establish continuity and dialogue with the Moorish heritage, and above all to forge an orientation for architectural practice in Tlemcen, until then variable and very open to all kinds of foreign influences. Through these contemporary buildings, the architects have adopted an architectural style that rehabilitates the Moorish tradition. The architects have expressed their desire to break with colonial and post-independence traditions, which reproduced imported occidental models, and to reclaim a prestigious past dislocated by the colonial enterprise. Tlemcen must be able to fully embrace its new Moorish architectural identity. To achieve this, a number of measures need to be taken. Among other things, a corpus of Moorish architecture needs to be drawn up, identifying all the reference elements to be used. This corpus will serve as a dictionary of local architecture. It will have to be integrated into architects’ training programs. To answer the initial question, we believe that the authenticity expressed by the current use of the Moorish referent in contemporary buildings in Tlemcen is not a technical and material authenticity –the use of new construction techniques and materials–, but only a symbolic and cultural one. These contemporary creations are a rewriting of Tlemcen’s prosperous Moorish past. Their architectural identity has been drawn from Moorish heritage.

Keywords: Moorish-style, revival, authenticity, contemporaneity, identity