Algeria--Mysterious and Modern
Algiers!!! The Casbah!! The words evoke intrigue, illicit romance, tantalizing danger. It is scenes of Hedy Lamarr draped languorously over a couch in an illegal gambling parlor with Charles Boyer gazing in adoration in the 1938 movie Algiers. It is the vivid depiction of Algeria’s brutal and bloody war for independence in the 1966 movie Battle for Algiers. It is tales of the mysterious Casbah, with narrow winding streets twisting and turning past narrow doorways that lead into a warren of tiny apartments. It is a city of historical importance, perched above a spectacular Mediterranean waterfront. For all these reasons and more, it was a place I’d dreamed of visiting. When the opportunity came, I grabbed it. And later figured out how many flights it would take to get from Cleveland to Algiers.
Three flights and many hours later, my first views of the city were its spectacular hilly setting, jumbles of houses interspersed with open spaces and never-ending traffic, even on a Saturday afternoon. The airport is a sprawling Chinese-funded project, with long immigration lines and an inordinate amount of document-checking, and unexpected visa/passport problems, at least for the three of us joining up for the trip. Questioned repeatedly, separated from our luggage, passports taken, it was not an auspicious beginning. Copies of our visas and letters of introduction meant nothing. Others were let through, but not the women traveling independently on US Passports.
Hours later, after rescue by our guide amidst a flurry of confusion and arguing, the streets offered a possible answer to our dilemma. We had arrived during the second week of what became a series of anti-government demonstrations. For over four months the city was in lockdown from Friday through Sunday. Our arrival was on Friday afternoon. The drive to our hotel, the El Aurassi, was past beautiful French colonial buildings and large, peaceful crowds of protestors.
The El Aurassi is a cavernous building, probably built with major conferences in mind, and located outside the heart of Algiers. My room was huge but had seen better days with rather shabby furnishings. Other rooms were better appointed—the hotel was trying to renovate as best it could. Scattered along several floors were some a la carte restaurants with no one in them. Our group of about a dozen was assigned to the buffet restaurant—passable if not inspiring.
The initial exploration of Algiers the next day was supposed to start at the Casbah, then include the wonderful museums, palaces, and villas of Old Algiers. Saturday morning is usually a good time to explore the intricate little streets of the Casbah, and delight in the amazing views over the Mediterranean. The buildings are interesting, the views fantastic, the old stories still interesting, but with the people of Algiers in the street demonstrating, Casbah, museums, and shops were closed and shuttered. Time to implement Plan B and hope everything will be open later. Thankfully there are wonderful places to see just a short drive from the city.
The first trip to see Roman ruins is usually to Italy. That first trip usually means grabbing a glimpse of the Colosseum before the next tour bus group crowds out the view, visiting Pompeii on timed visits with hundreds of other travelers, gazing on the beautiful Roman floor of the Pantheon and trying to get a picture without someone else in it. Italy is the perfect introduction to Roman ruins, but the best ones are not in Italy, they are across the Mediterranean in north Africa, including Algeria, where one can wander for hours amidst the remains of an entire Roman city, the only “crowd” being your small group of fellow travelers, or a family enjoying a day outing and picnic away from the capitol.
Tipasa, an hour drive from Algiers, is an archeological gem in a spectacular setting. The ancient walled city faced the blue Mediterranean, with cliffs that would have provided excellent fortification from invasion, and today provide splendid photo ops. The site has everything one would want to see in the remains of a Roman city. There are villas and homes built inside a wall a little inland from the sea. Some of the villas and large houses even have visible floor tiles. In a few places there is a little of the original paint.
Close to the sea, outside what would have been the walls, is the theatre and a small colosseum facing remnants of the stage from which the gladiators fought. There are classic baths with their different temperature rooms. Outside the city walls there are remnants of a large marketplace, a sewer system, stone pillars to tie up the horses. There are even remnants of the local jail. In yet another area, behind a cliff, are museums reflecting a long history. The earliest dates from Etruscans, then Phoenicians, to Romans and later to Christians.
Overall the site is perfect as a view of city life almost 2000 years ago.
The Romans knew the value of the North African coast, with cities and fortifications all along the coasts and northern regions of today’s Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Djemila, or Cuicul, is a little visited and wonderfully preserved city, considered one of the flowers of Roman architecture in North Africa. Founded near the end of the first century A.D., the sprawling city grew to almost 20,000 inhabitants by the 3rd century as one of the most important defensive cities along this stretch of coastline.
Djemila is a huge sprawling site, with all the landmarks of classic Roman architecture, but adapted to the unique mountainous constraints of the region. There are the baths, marketplaces showing the economic prosperity of the region, large senate and court houses, a drainage system for sewage and toilets. There are remains of multiple houses and temples, some with intricate mosaics. There is a large Arch of Triumph, theatre buildings and arena that could hold 3,000 spectators. The baths, and the halls of the heating structures, are well preserved. There is even a defined brothel area marked by the classic carving of phallus in the entryway. The entire site bears testimony to Rome’s classic urban planning, and the use of multiple construction methods and decorations. They used marble to line the baths and built columns fourteen meters high.
In other countries, a place like Djemila would be packed with busload after busload of people, standing in groups of 50 under the strong Mediterranean sun while their guide tried to lecture over competing guides on the significance of the ancient city. On a warm March day there were only the ten of us, and a few local families. The families, out enjoying a picnic on the expanse of grass between the different buildings, were a wonderful reminder that this was once a living city, and 2000 years ago, families might have enjoyed a similar outing on a nice day. With one major difference. Like young people everywhere, the teen-agers wanted to take selfies and share photos with their foreign visitors.
Constantine, known as Cirta in ancient Rome, is the foremost city in northeast Algeria, occupying a strategic site that has been important for thousands of years. From the Phoenicians who founded the city, to the Numidians, to the Romans, the Ottoman Empire, and eventually France, the city has always been a center of culture and commerce. The setting is dramatic, atop high cliffs, with historic ruins, the huge Ben-Badis Mosque, the fascinating Cirte Museum, and a wonderful bridge over the gorge.
At the end of a long drive to get to Constantine, donning a robe that had been worn by untold others in order to visit the mosque was not on my list of favorite things to do, nor my companions. Our efforts, though, were rewarded with entrance to an exquisite building with columns of Moroccan tiles, Egyptian carvings, and a classic high-domed ceiling. The best part was watching adorable children running around inside the cavernous building as if it was their private playground. It was between prayer times, and considering they were in a building larger than any local playground, the children were making good use of the available space.
A combination of old and new, Constantine is not only archeological sites and cavernous mosques, it is also a thriving city with a fun (if small) Casbah to explore. The little shops have the usual array of household items, clothes, a few utilitarian carpets. The difference from the big markets of Morocco is the local people. Here Americans are a rarity, and our presence elicited excitement and a stream of friendly greetings, as we encountered all over Algeria. Everyone understands that anyone who travels this far is interested in the people, the culture, the country. The politics are left behind.
Before we left Constantine the next day there were a couple of surprises. The National Museum of Cirte (the old name for the city) is a treasure-trove of artifacts. There are rooms tracing the ancient history of the region, room after room (and floor after floor) of Hellenic and Roman artifacts, even treasures from the Ottoman period. My personal favorite are the tiled walls and floors from multiple sites. Or maybe it was the women displaying their art in a special ground floor and our ensuing conversations that made this museum visit very special.
Perhaps the reason our visit to Constantine was special had nothing to do with the casbah, the archeological sites, or the beautiful setting. (It certainly had nothing to do with our mediocre hotel.) It might be the delicious lunch we enjoyed before experiencing an Algerian domestic flight to Ghardaia. I wish I could say the food was typical Algerian, but the owners are Syrian. Still, the mezes, the wonderful hot bread, the fresh fish was a very welcome change from the hotel dinners forced on foreign visitors.
Flying into Ghardaia from the north of Algeria is both traveling to a different land deep into the heart of Algeria, and into a different time. The landscape and architecture are also different, with construction reminiscent of the curved mud brick walled turrets of Mali. We are hot, dusty, and our “traditional” accommodations, with a steep dark stairwell leading to a small warren of uninviting rooms lined with old carpets and with rudimentary facilities, not what anyone expected. I guess “charming” or “authentic” is the usual word description. Still, our host tried his best to be accommodating. Seating at dinner, in a carpeted room of pillows and low tables, was also a challenge, at least for a few members of our group.
The M’Zab Valley is another World Heritage site. It is known for delicious dates, fortified cities built on hillsides with winding narrow streets, and the mysterious secretive religious practice with white-clad women showing only one eye from beneath the flowing robes. That photos are strictly forbidden became the source of clandestine attempts from our small bus, resulting in furious vocal condemnations. It seemed the photo police were everywhere, making sure no images of the women were captured on some hidden cell phone.
The villages in this area belong to the Ibadi sect of Islam and were designed with identical planning. They were fortified to be inaccessible, and while military defense is no longer an issue, visiting tourists are, and they are not welcome. To visit the traditional cities of El Atteuf and Beni Isquen requires an appointment and a local guide. Our group lucked out. Our French escort in El Atteuf was not only a wealth of information, but somewhat of a comedian, making sure everyone had appropriately posed from various vantage points that could be a house entryway, a cemetery, or the 14th century mosque. In Beni Isguen we were able cap off our explorations with a hike to the top of the watch tower for amazing views of the entire region.
Our long day ended with dinner under the stars, a delicious couscous, and hot soup to keep us warm while sitting in the cool desert air.
Flying back into Algiers, going from the desert to the Mediterranean, was traveling across centuries as well as different terrain. Certainly, the modern plumbing and hot showers in Algiers were appreciated, the noise and traffic less so. Unfortunately, our plane landed on a Friday afternoon, the beginning of the Sabbath and the beginning of another weekend of student demonstrations. Saturday, our last full day in Algeria, was a day of seeing whatever museums or historic sites were open. The occasional frustrations of another “closed” sign were alleviated by a wonderful lunch of delicious appetizers, fresh fish, and wine, followed by some last-minute shopping.
On this last day, unlike the first, the Casbah was open and full of people. Three of us begged our exhausted guide to take us back to wander the streets, up and down the hills, and remember all the stories and tales of a mystery-clad Algeria. Our wanderings did not disappoint. We had a lively exchange with several young women wanting to practice their English, a fun encounter with the merchant surprised to see three American women interested in his small shop with silver jewelry, a delicious stop for tea at the shop perched atop the winding streets with an unparallel view of the lower city and the Mediterranean. As we left the Casbah, our guide Sidi gave us one last memory of his city—the house where he grew up, where he spent those war years, reminding me of my decades long fascination with Algeria, and why finally experiencing it was so special.