Outside the city of Tlemcen stand the remains of the ancient fortress of Mansoura, built by the Sultan of Fez in the early 14th century. Many of the walls and ramparts have crumbled, but the abandoned city’s most striking feature remains: the 120-foot tower of the minaret, known as the Tour du Juif (Jew’s Tower) because of the legendary fate of its architect.
Mansoura: When Sultan Abou Yakoub of Fez besieged Tlemcen beginning in 1299, he filled his free time by turning his army's camp into a city.1 By the end of the seven-year siege, the fortifications were imposing (the ramparts were 39 feet high and 5 feet thick), but when Tlemcen surrendered the sultan abandoned Mansoura.2 After a different dynasty took possession of Tlemcen in 1359, Mansoura began to fall to ruins.
The Architect: The Tour du Juif owes its name to the Jewish architect whom the Sultan hired to build it. After the tower was completed, the architect was trapped at the top of the tower. Stories differ as to whether the sultan had him imprisoned in one of the tower’s galleries or whether he could not descend from the tower because the stairs led directly to a prayer room which he, not being Muslim, was forbidden from entering.3 According to legend, he attached wings made of feathers and wax to his arms and leaped from the top of the tower to escape. The sun melted the wax and, like Icarus in the Greek myth, he fell to his death. The road where he landed still bears the name le col du Juif, “the Jew’s pass”.4
A Traveler’s Account of Mansoura: An American visitor to Algeria in 1889 wrote a detailed description of the Mansoura ruins and the Tour du Juif: “Mansoura is another city, a city that has perished all but its walls. During one of the long sieges of Tlemcen, nearly 600 years ago, the chief in command turned his military camp into a city by building around it a wall forty feet high, enclosing about 250 acres. At points, about 100 feet apart, high towers were erected, battlemented and pierced. From the plateau I counted eighty towers yet remaining. It was a beautiful scene, that broad plain bounded by hills, in its centre the twin cities, Tlemcen and Mansoura, the one living, the other dead. High above the walls and towers rises the great minaret of the mosque Abou Yakoub commanded to be built. It is about 120 feet high and is called ‘by far the most beautiful monument of Moorish times in Algeria.’ It is half in ruins, but has been strengthened by the French…As to its color an artist writes: ‘Photographs may help you a little to imagine the place; but, having looked at them you must shut your eyes and color minaret and walls with richest, reddest ochre; you must clothe the hills in living green, fill the space between hill and sky with soft warm skies of southern blue, and then set the whole picture floating and palpitating in golden mists. This minaret is unlike anything else in the world. It is like a gigantic monolith of solid Indian gold, and is as wonderful as the pyramids’”.5