On reaching the town of al-Jazair (Algiers) we camped outside it for some days, until the shaikh Abu Abdullah and the son of the qadi arrived, when we went together through the Mitija to the mountain of the Oaks…..
The End. His dismissal of this beautiful city of approximately 5 million people, would be surprising were it not for the fact that in the 14th century, there was no ‘Algeria’; there were sultanates and regional power centers in what is today Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (the Maghreb), and Algiers itself was rather unimportant. It came into its own when it came under the control of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, and while Algiers still has several mosques and large courtyard houses typical of that period as well as a casbah like no other, it is the city built by the French that makes it the impressive capital city that exists today. Algiers sits on a magnificent Mediterranean bay ringed by hills and in the 132 years of French rule from 1830-1962, they built a showcase city of broad boulevards flanked by imposing, Beaux-Arts arcaded buildings, and brilliant white apartment buildings with blue-shutters and iron-railed balconies. THE CASBAH :: UNESCO World Heritage site. But back to the Casbah. It would not have been built when Ibn Battuta visited although if he did go inside the city gates he would have found a couple of mosques including the 12th century Sidi Ramdan, currently under renovation, and the 11th century Great Mosque where he would have prayed. Casbah means ‘fortified place’, and when the Ottomans built it, they used the natural defensive capability of the hills to create a labyrinthine world of houses one seemingly on top of the other. Narrow alleys and steps separated the levels. It is this aspect that makes it so unusual – the Casbahs of Tunisia and Morocco are on flat ground. At the top of the Casbah is the citadel or palace of the dey, also under renovation. The audience room here became the center of a political storm called the “coup d’eventail” in 1827 when the dey slapped the French Consul with his fan during an official visit. It was a costly mistake as it set the stage for the French invasion of the country three years later. This picture shows how the Casbah needs help. This is an old courtyard house which has completely collapsed. It is one of many.
The Casbah was classified a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, but it needs funds to renovate its 50 hectares. From the 1950s on, many houses were abandoned due to their owners being either unwilling or financially unable to renovate them, or in some cases because they were already in too advanced a state of delapidation. But during the1990s when a bloody civil war tore the country apart, many villagers fleeing the countryside took over the abandoned houses where they still remain as squatters. Funds are needed to re-house such families and to assist the owners of the houses to repair and restore the existing structures. An organization called Fondation Casbah has been set up and is working with local specialists such as Mr. Omar Hachi to formulate a working plan to “save the casbah”. (Mr. Hachi mentioned that Algiers experienced an earthquake in 1325 – since this is the year Ibn B. visited, it may explain why he does not mention coming into the city.) If you would like to know more about the work of the Foundation, the casbah, or how you can help in its restoration, contact Abdelhakim Mezianisecretary general of the Foundation who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or +213 71 30 19 19. I visited the casbah twice – once by myself, and the other with Noureddine Saudi, whose family had a house in the ‘Basse Casbah’ – the lower part which was razed by the French to build the modern city of Algiers. He went to school here and his grandfather was buried in the little cemetery next to the Mausoleum of Sidi Abderrahman. The mausoleum has become something of a destination for local women who come to ask for ‘favors’ and who promise to do something, or give something up, in return for their wish being granted. It is a tiny place, a little haven of calm with blue and white tiles of calligraphy, Venetian glass chandeliers and bronze and copper Mosque lamps. Outside in the walled cemetery however that calm had been disturbed; many of the tombstones were in pieces, smashed by “integristes”, or Islamic fundamentalists, during the civil war. One of those smashed was that of Noureddine’s grandfather. GETTING ROBBED, THEN GETTING SAVED IN THE CASBAH! On my earlier visit to the Casbah I walked for a couple of hours through tiny alleys where the buildings on either side almost touched in the middle (the result more of earthquake than design). I was looking at doorways when two youths of about 15 or 16 years old brushed past me on some steps then continued down through a covered alley. I was about to continue down the steps when I saw the boys stop and look back in my direction and I hesitated. I only kept going because other people were around. It was of course stupid, and to add insult to injury, I fell for the oldest trick in the book - “what time is it?” As the first boy looked at my watch the other boy who had been around the corner began to rifle through my backpack, which I felt immediately. I swung round and saw him take something black before he fled – I started to run after him, and promptly fell flat on my face in the dirt, not a shred of dignity involved – spread-eagled, face down in the Casbah. I was fouled - tripped from behind. I relate the story because of what happened next. I picked myself up and continued to run after the boy, shrieking in French - “stop him, stop him, he robbed me” – (it sounds better in French). Common sense returning however, I realized I should forget about catching him and had better see what was missing. As people gathered round to commiserate, a young man came towards me holding out what had been taken – my black headscarf to visit mosques, and a flashlight. I felt grateful, stupid and embarrassed in equal measure; grateful that someone had bothered to run after a petty thief – and for a stranger, stupid because it is foolish to walk in disadvantaged areas alone since being a foreigner you are automatically considered to be wealthy (if only they knew…), and embarrassed because I am sure most of them thought I must be completely insane. The only reason I can come up with for my madness since I would not have walked alone in such an area in my own country, is simply that it never occurs to me in the Arab world that I will be robbed, and in over 30 years of traveling, I haven’t been. I also cannot imagine anywhere else where someone would run after a thief and give you your things back ……..