About 1.6km southeast of the city centre, as the crow flies, lies one of Algeria’s most beautiful complexes, the mosque and tomb of Sidi Boumediene, which remains a place of huge spiritual significance for Algerians even today. It was restored by craftsmen from Fès in 1986. If the gates of the mosque or medersa are locked ask around for the key man among the shop owners as you approach the complex.
The complex is dedicated to Abu Madyan Shu’ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansari, who was born near Seville around 1115 and studied with Islamic mystics in Morocco before settling in Bejaya on the north Algerian coast and creating his own Sufi circle. A mystic, poet and man of great integrity – he was called the Sheikh of Sheikhs and the Nurturer – Abu Madyan, or Sidi Boumediene, as the Algerians call him, died in Tlemcen in 1197, on his way back to Marrakech.
His tomb has become a place of pilgrimage and his cult was still sufficiently strong for former Algerian President Mohamed Boukharouba to have adopted the name Boumediene as his nom de guerre during the independence struggle. The sidi’s tomb is down steps on the left as you enter the complex. The tomb is a simple affair, Boumediene on the right, Sidi Abdelsam el-Tonsi on the left. The tiled antechamber houses a worn, marble well, its water believed to bring blessings from the sidi. Beside the tomb, a doorway leads to the Dar es-Soltane. Abou el-Hassan, the Merinid ruler of Fès, refused to live in Mansourah, so had this residence constructed beside the saint’s tomb. The rooms are ruined – a little carved stucco remains in some corners, enough to suggest vanished grandeur – but there is no mistaking the beauty of the site and the wonderful views over the plain.
Across the way stands the mosque, built by Abou el-Hassan in 1328. The building is both grand and beautiful. A stairway leads to a massive entrance porch and, through massive bronze-clad cedar doors, to the mosque, an open-sided, rectangular prayer space, beautifully proportioned and finely decorated in tiles and carved stucco. A madrassa (Quranic school) was built above the mosque by Abou el-Hassan in 1347. The courtyard is elegant but undecorated, surrounded by 25 cells for students. It was here, soon after it was finished, that the great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun gave classes.