“North Africa's Best Kept Secret”
Algeria has now been promoted to the largest country in Africa since the recent break- up of Sudan; it is also one of Africa’s least visited countries. Situated on the southern Mediterranean rim, Algeria is a repository of resplendent cultural and archaeological history, with influences from the Berbers, the Romans, the Ottomans and the Arabs. Tourism here is in its infancy, unlike its immediate neighbours, Tunisia and Morocco, who have embraced mainstream populist tourism with open arms. Ingrained xenophobia has effectively isolated Algeria for decades until quite recently. This situation in effect offers a propitious opportunity to discover a country brimful of uncrowded sites, mercifully free from the vagaries of banal tourist tat and aggressive salespeople. World class destinations await the adventurous traveller in a country blessed with an abundance, all awaiting the visitors they so richly deserve.
A Brief History
Tens of thousands of years ago, whilst Europe was shivering in the grip of the last Ice Age, what we know today as the Sahara Desert was a lush green environment with a panoply of lakes and forests. Around this time, somewhere between 15,000 and 10,000 BC the earliest record of permanent settlement in Algeria is to be found. It is from these early Neolithic settlers that North Africa’s indigenous peoples, the Berbers, are believed to be descended.
Strategically located on the North African coast, Algeria was always going to be an attractive proposition to any powerful sea-going civilisation. The first major power to colonize Algeria were the Phoenicians in around 1000 BC, they arrived seeking staging posts for their maritime trade in the Mediterranean basin. By the 4th century BC a large tract of the North African coast, including Algeria, was controlled by the powerful city-state of Carthage (in current day Tunisia). The rise of the nascent Roman Empire eventually led to a clash with Carthage, resulting in the Punic Wars of the 2nd century BC. Ultimately Carthage was defeated, its centuries old domination of the region forever broken, leaving Rome to eventually attain primacy across the entire Mediterranean sphere. By the 4th century AD, tribal rebellion was endemic across North Africa and the writing was on the wall for Rome’s domination of Algeria, and for the inevitable ebbing away of the Roman Empire as a whole.
The next to inscribe their names across the pages of Algerian history were the truculent Vandals, who had been in the forefront of the atrophy and dismantling of the Roman Empire. They swept across the region leaving a trail of destruction expunging all in their wake.
The end of the 7th century saw the arrival of Islam as the Arabs swarmed across North Africa, converting the predominantly Christian ethnic Berbers to Islam and leaving an indelible mark on the region, evident until today.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 16th century and this sees the imposition of Ottoman rule in Algeria, initially through the pirate Barbarossa (Red Beard), who conquered Algeria in the name of the Ottoman sultan.
The French occupation of Algeria dates back to 1830, as King Charles X craved a foreign military success to aid his declining popularity at home. French troops rampaged through the Algerian capital Algiers, rapidly overcoming the paucity of resistance; eventually French occupation became a purloined annexation of Algeria in 1834. By 1840 the French had over 100,000 troops stationed in Algeria, equating to almost one third of the French army being stationed in the country. Algeria’s quest to regain its sovereignty manifested itself in the War of Independence (1954-1962), during this brutal conflict it is estimated that as many as 1 million Algerians were killed, as well as 20,000 French soldiers. Since then the Independence road has not been an easy one to navigate for Algeria, littered with a litany of civil war, military dictatorship, massive corruption and the specter of terrorism.
The Arab Spring arrived in Algeria in January 2011, resulting in countrywide protests and riots. This culminated in governmental reforms rather than the toppling of the incumbent government, as was the case in many of the other Arab countries affected by the Arab Spring upheavals.
The adventure starts in the capital city of Algiers. The city has an edgy feel to it, we are informed that the streets can be dangerous, should you get lost then you will most likely be robbed, especially in the famed Casbah; women going out in the evening on their own is a non-starter. Whilst all of this might seem like good advice there was never any point at which this felt like a problem. For much of our trip we were accompanied by armed guards, this is a government ruling and is obligatory for all foreign tourists due to the fact that there are still areas of Algeria that are deemed “bandit country”.
The city tour commenced with a visit to the Islamic Arts Museum, followed by the Algerian National Museum. Algiers is a far more modern city than I had expected, many beautiful French style buildings, especially along the huge crescent bay where the corniche sweeps elegantly along the shore line. This tour of Algiers will just be a short superficial introduction to the city, the main exploration will take place when we return at the conclusion of the trip.
This morning it’s an early start, up at 4.30am to catch an internal flight to Annaba in the east of the country, close to the Tunisian border 120km away. The nearby ancient remains of Hippo Regius came to prominence as an important trading port during the Roman occupation of North Africa. The site itself requires quite a bit of imagination, there are a scattering of columns, some mosaics, the remains of some Roman villas and a ruined basilica. Hippo Regius flourished under Roman rule, but with Rome in decline, it fell to the Vandals in 430 AD and thereby commenced a rapid decline into perdition and thereafter obscurity. Towering above the ruins on a hill is the grand Basilica of St Augustine. Built by the colonial French at the end of the 19th century, its soaring nave, enormous arches and wonderful stained glass windows stand as a magnificent tribute to the 4th century bishop, Saint Augustine, who greatly influenced the advancement of early Christianity.
Today is a lengthy day on the road, we leave Annaba and drive through an extremely green and fertile landscape, this region is known as the bread basket of North Africa. Our primary destination today is the ancient site of Madaure. Originally built by the Numidians, then added to by the Romans and the Byzantines, Madaure is a very impressive site and one of the oldest Roman colonies in Africa. Substantial amounts of intact structures give a reasonable insight into how it once may have looked and functioned. As with most of the sites we will encounter during our peregrinations there are no other visitors here than ourselves, leaving the site a pleasure to explore and photograph. Our next stop is a visit to the ancient ruins of Khemissa, founded in the 2nd century AD, the town was constructed pyramid-like on top of a 950m mountain. The site is splendidly replete with substantial remains, including a superbly preserved Roman theatre, a forum, baths, various temples and a 7th century Byzantine fortress. Khemissa was destroyed by the invading Arabs in 907 AD, disappearing into obscurity until it was “re-discovered” and excavated in 1850.
Guelma is a town with a rich Roman past, achieving colony status in 283 AD. The modern town is a rather sleepy place with very little to show for its illustrious past. The main point of interest is the Roman theatre and the adjacent museum. Most of the building material from the ancient theatre was appropriated for other purposes down the centuries, so what you see today dates back to a 1902 reconstruction. Having said that this is still an impressive structure, a soaring stage backdrop, flanked by exquisite statues of Neptune and Aesclepius and enclosed by rows of tiered seating with room for 4,600 spectators. The theatre is still in use today and regularly stages cultural events. A wonderful distraction from our long day on the road is a stop at the hydrothermal wonder of Hammam Debagh. This thermal spring is a fantastic example of tectonic activity along an active fault line, producing a florid deposition of travertine and hot springs. Another brief stopping point is the Mausoleum of Massinessa, an impressive stone structure built in the 2nd century BC. Massinessa was the son of the chieftain of a small Numidian tribal group who rose to become the first king of a united Numidia. Having allied himself with Rome in the Punic Wars against Carthage, Rome’s victory and subsequent largesse enabled Massinessa to unite the disparate tribal factions and establish the Kingdom of Numidia.
Our final destination at the culmination of a long days travelling is the city of Constantine. Situated high above the Oued Rhumel River valley, ancient Constantine was the one time capital of the Kingdom of Numidia, it was destroyed by the Romans in 311 AD. The Sidi M’Cid Bridge is present day Constantine’s iconic monument - completed in 1912 -it spans the deep gorge linking the old city and the Casbah on one side, to the modern city on the other. The city’s most prominent building is the Mosque of Emir Abdelkader, built in 1968 its towering twin 107m high slender minarets are a visible lodestar for miles around. One of the world’s largest mosques, this shimmering white marble structure is a dream to photograph. Travelling around Constantine is a nightmare, the roads are gridlocked with traffic and vehicles crawl forward literally inches at a time. After being stationary for some time our ubiquitous police escort puts on its sirens and proceeds to drive the wrong way up a one way street straight into the oncoming traffic. With lights flashing, sirens blaring and our tour bus in tow, we clear the gridlocked traffic feeling like a presidential cavalcade – I just knew this police escort would come in useful at some stage during this trip.
The little visited Roman site of Tiddis was a fortified village built on the side of a hill dating back to the 3rd century AD. The first thing you notice on arrival is the strikingly coloured red earth of the site; the substantial spread of the village’s partially ruined structures cling to the hillside and cascade down into the valley below. You enter the site through a classic Roman arch constructed from massive stones. There are various tombs, sanctuaries to Roman gods, villas and later Christian buildings. Much of what remains is little more than ruins, but this is still a fascinating site to explore and photograph.
One of the true highlights of North Africa and a classic paradigm of Roman town planning is to be found at the condign UNESCO World Heritage Site of Djemila. The history of Djemila follows a similar pattern to many other sites we will visit in Algeria. First occupied by the Berbers, developed substantially by the Romans, overrun by the Vandals, finally falling rapidly into obscurity after the Arab invasion of North Africa. Occupying a hilltop position 900m above sea level, this amazing site contains a substantial collection of intact structures to marvel at. There are colonnades, bath houses, paved roads, a market place, a forum, a theatre, plus assorted villas and temples. The 2nd century theatre and the 3rd century Temple of the Severan Family are just a couple of the highlights that rank this resplendent Roman site alongside the likes of Leptis Magna and Sabratha in neighbouring Libya.
It’s a bright, crisp and frosty morning as we leave our hotel in the town of Setif, but before leaving there is a brief stop at Setif’s most renown attraction. The Ain Fouara is a fountain that sits in an island on the towns’ main thoroughfare. The fountain is a wonderful piece of extravagant French bijou decoration, but its real attraction is the figure of a naked woman that sits perched on the top of the fountain. This display of public nudity seems somewhat out of place in a strictly modest parochial Muslim town like Setif, particularly as it is situated virtually in the shadow of the Grand Mosque. We head out of town towards our first stop of the day, the Mausoleum of Medracen. This is one of Algeria’s great archaeological mysteries, a circular edifice with a conical roof, constructed from a vast number of finely cut stones laid over a rubble core. Measuring 18.5m high and 59m in diameter, this imposing structure is believed to date to around the 4th century BC. A hidden entrance leads via a stairway to an empty burial chamber, the identity of the original occupant remains a mystery.
Algeria’s premier tourist attraction is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Timgad. Founded in 100 AD by the Emperor Trajan as an encampment for his 3rd Augustan Legion, it is a supreme example of Roman urban planning at its zenith. During the 2nd and 3rd century AD Timgad was at the height of its powers and stood as an indomitable example of Roman power in North Africa. Amongst its numerous architectural highlights are the baths, the theatre, the public library, the latrines and the magnificent Trajan Arch. As the light begins to fade at the end of a very long day on the road, we drive through the El Kantara Gorge. This is the access point through the Atlas Mountains and the gateway to the Sahara Desert. We enter the oasis town of Biskra as the setting sun casts a magnificent orange glow across the surrounding mountains. During our long journey today from Setif to Biskra there were 13 changes of our military escort. At each changeover there is effusive greeting and kissing exchanged amongst the exclusively male guards – cannot quite see that happening at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace!!
Today we drive through some classic desert scenery, a flat stony landscape punctuated with wind sculptured sand dunes. The lofty viewpoint from the village of Ghoufi is a not to be missed photo opportunity. The panorama is a wonderful mixture of mountains and desert, with picturesque abandoned Berber villages across the valley below. By late afternoon as the soft orange sunlight baths the landscape and makes my camera finger switch, we arrive at the sublimely picturesque village of Ksar Temacine. Built around the 15th century, the traditional mud brick houses were reduced to ruins in the 1990’s by heavy rains, forcing the village to be abandoned and the inhabitants to be rehoused nearby. The mosque and its minaret have been rebuilt and protrude skywards amongst the eerily dilapidated buildings that lay around it. This eastern part of the Sahara is a productively fertile region, here palm groves produce dates, olive trees abound and potatoes are cultivated, all flourishing in this harsh desert environment. Nestling amongst the sand dunes is the city of Touggourt, our overnight stop and one of the finest examples of desert town planning, it is also one of the largest cities in the Sahara. Touggourt’s claim to fame is that it was the starting point for the first motorized expedition across the Sahara, which journeyed from here in 1922 to the legendary Timbuktu in Mali.
Today we head deeper south into the Sahara, its hour upon hour of driving through the unforgiving desert landscape. We have our usual convoy of armed guards, today they are bristling with AK47’s. Our destination this morning is the UNESCO World Heritage setting of the M’Zab Valley, home to five fortified villages, founded over a thousand years ago by the breakaway Muslim Ibadi sect. The village of Beni Isguen is one of the pentopolis of Mozabite desert settlements, built in the typical desert architectural style, with overt influences redolent of Sudanese and Malian building designs. The inhabitants jealously guard their ancient unique culture; from their separate interpretation of Islam, their enforced separatism and isolation, through to their acceptance of tourists on their own terms. The wearing of traditional clothes is ubiquitous, for men it’s a white tunic and baggy pleated trousers, the women are shrouded in white fabric covering them from head to toe with just one eye exposed through a full veil. The village has its own primary school and secondary school, as well as a university; education for all is free. A variation of Sharia Law operates here, the village committee chooses people from within the community to be advanced into positions of authority. Situated on a rocky outcrop and surrounded by ramparts 2.5km long and 3m high, the village appears to cascade down the hillside with its historic mosque and minaret perched at the very top. Distinctively coloured houses and steep narrow alleyways make a visit here a true delight. Beni Isguen attracts many visitors, mostly Algerians, although we do encounter a group of Japanese tourists on our visit; this is the first and only other tourists we will encounter during our entire journey around Algeria.
Ghardaia is the administrative and commercial hub of the M’Zab Valley, the most important of the five Mozabite towns. Built in the form of a pyramid, with the mosque at the summit and a distinctively square minaret which is inclined off centre towards Mecca. Around this pyramidal form the streets are arranged in a circular configuration, forming a pattern of atmospheric winding alleyways. The alleyways and houses are ingeniously designed to control the effects of the summer heat, creating wind tunnels and deep shadows to lower the ambient temperature.
The village of Melika is home to a most curious cemetery where Sidi Aissa and his family are buried. Sidi Aissa was a Malakite Muslim who converted to Ibadism after a visionary dream. Looking like the set of a science-fiction movie, the burial complex is a strange series of eerie white conical tomb structures resembling turrets that project benignly skywards, they make for a surreal photographic experience.
An early morning flight takes us from Ghardaia back to Algiers, the starting point of this amazing sojourn. The much vaunted Casbah, built between the 16th and 18th century, is the heart of what was the old Ottoman city. Today very little remains from that past, now it’s a rather ramshackle walled residential area with a scattering of shops and a reputation it finds hard to live up to. Many of its historic buildings have been lost down the years, and currently restoration is ongoing to save what remains. This regeneration has produced a couple of interesting museums based in renovated Ottoman period town houses. The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions and the Museum of Calligraphy are both architectural and cultural totems in the Casbah’s regeneration. The Notre Dame D’Afrique is a Byzantine inspired basilica, built at the end of the 19th century by the French at the height of their pomp in Algeria. The colonial French saw the basilica as proof of the victory of the cross over the crescent. The building has recently undergone a 3 year restoration project, at a cost of 5 million Euros, partly funded by a subvention from the French government. Perched high up on a hill the basilica overlooks the Bay of Algiers, providing a magnificent sweeping viewpoint of the cityscape below.
Travelling out to the west of Algiers we reach the Mausoleum of Mauritania. Built in the 3rd century BC, it is purportedly the final resting place of Berber Juba II and his wife Cleopatra Selene II, the last king and queen of Numidia. The tomb is built entirely from stone, circular in form it sits on a square base and is topped by a pyramidal roof. This is a substantial structure, the base measuring 60 metres square and the roof rising to a height of 40 metres. The centre of the mausoleum has two vaulted chambers accessed by a short passageway. Architectural embellishments on the tomb are redolent of Cleopatra’s Egyptian heritage (she was the daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and the Roman consul Mark Anthony).
Our final site visit of this wonderful holiday is to the ancient ruins and necropolis of Tipaza, situated 70km west of Algiers. The real kudos of this site is its spectacular setting around a picturesque bay. Tipaza reached the zenith of its powers under the Severan emperors in Rome, particularly Septimus Severus (193-211 AD). Many of Tipaza’s spectacular buildings were erected during this time. Among the marvellous complex of ruins are an amphitheatre, a basilica, a forum, baths, residential villas and a theatre. With the decline of the Roman Empire, Tipaza suffered the same fate as all of the other Roman sites in Algeria. After falling to the Vandals in 372 AD the city rapidly fell into decline, much of its building material being ultimately used in the construction of Algiers. Being in such close proximity to Algiers the site is more popular than other Roman sites in Algeria, having said that it was axiomatic we were still the only foreign group there amongst the many locals visiting on a day trip out from the capital.
My overall impression was that this odyssey was a true adventure, being one of the first organized visits to the country it was almost a pioneering venture. To have so many visitor experiences where you were the only visitors on site was a real pleasure, from a photographic point of view it was just heavenly. This trip had its fair share of Roman sites, although there was never really a case of being “ruined-out”. There is always a quintessencial romanticism associated with visiting a country endowed with a desert landscape; sit on a camel and you can hear the strains of music and as you head off into the desert you instantly become Lawrence of Arabia.
Algeria is almost virgin territory as far as the tourist world is concerned, even more reason to visit sooner rather than later before it turns into another Morocco or Tunisia. At that point that recherché commodity of freedom of access and the seminal sense of adventure will become a thing of the past, and Algeria will become just another destination for mass tourism.