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Maghreb houses and palaces and the former Ottoman-legacy Casbah mingle with buildings from the French colonial period in Algiers, an astonishing bilingual and multicultural city.
When I think of Algiers I’m plagued by uncertainty because it doesn’t square with either the traditional image of Africa I have in my mind or with the other Islamic countries or the usual Mediterranean atmosphere. How then to describe a city that is half-desert, half-seaside, in a country that is unique unto itself? Where to start? For this is no longer the city of either Albert Camus or Muhammed Dib but rather a new civilization that has begun to rise over its own ashes.
If a list were made of the cities in this world still waiting to be discovered, cities that strain the limits of the imagination and offer their visitors surprisingly more than they hoped for, then Algiers would surely have to be at the top. As described in world-class architect Le Corbusier’s words, “if urbanization is a sign of life, then Algiers is a masterpiece of the architecture of human change”, this city has for a long time been off the list of touristic ‘places to see’ due to the recent periods of unrest in the country. But this isolation has been turned to great advantage now that it’s business as usual again. Why? Because when it finally opened its doors to a world in search of novelty, its sheer unfamiliarity made it one of the most alluring cities in the world.
CITY OF GREEN AND BLUE
You can see the blue of the Mediterranean in all its vibrancy from the neighborhoods on the shore. As you enjoy the view along the coastal strip, you can eat your fish in the company of a uniquely African modernism, if not exactly a Cote d’Azur ambience. And as you gaze on that landscape, you will realize why the French call this place ‘the Marseilles of the Maghreb’. At the point where the mountains in the background fade from view, Algiers will strike you as a city of two colors, blue and green. The sea’s turquoise, and the green that splashes gardens and flowers with its innumerable hues.
Although Algiers is situated on a bay surrounded by the ‘Al-Jazair’ hills, its name actually means ‘island’. The pungent aroma of spices will follow you wherever you go here. And this fragrance, which permeates both soil and air no matter where you are in the city, will overpower the scent of the sea and the desert.
THE CASBAH, HEARTBEAT OF THE CITY
To save time, I recommend that you hire a guide to help you see the city. I think you should start your tour in the Casbah, where the city’s heart beats and which has been classified as a UNESCO world heritage site. The Palace of Hasan Pasha (Dayı), which sets the tone in the Casbah, a quarter that was founded in the Ottoman period, remained in use until the French took the city in the 1940’s and the building was practically destroyed. Restoration is currently under way. Among the other structures you will see here are the remains of the once magnificent Grand Mosque, on whose interior that of the New Mosque, built in the 17th century, was modelled. Between these two mosques stands the area formerly known as the Coffeehouse Quarter. When you follow the road from ‘the Grand’ to ‘the New’ you will come first to the Saida Mosque and then to the Ketchaoua Mosque on the edge of the Casbah. The interesting thing about this mosque, whose name comes from the Turkish ‘Keçiova’, is that it was converted from the Cathedral of Saint Philip, which was built over the ruins of earlier mosque that once stood here. I suggest that you take a look in particular its marble columns, which are said to be left from the original mosque, in other words, from the 1600’s.
In the Upper Casbah especially, the city was until the 19th century and is today surrounded by defense walls, parts of which are still in evidence. By opening a breach in them, the French set in motion the destruction of these walls, and their once proud splendor exists only in pirates’ tales today. As you stroll through the port area especially, it is de rigueur to recall the name of the intrepid Ottoman naval commander Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, an acknowledged naval genius who was admired even by enemy admirals.
We return now to the Upper Casbah where there stands a ‘must-see’ house, ‘La Maison du Millénaire’, a classic Algerian home designed by architect Léon Claro. Built entirely of stones left from houses that stood here once but in time were destroyed, it is enhanced by the addition of faience tiles of incredible beauty. A little lower down in the same quarter stands the Safir Mosque, the first Turkish mosque to be built here. Restored in 1791 by Hasan Pasha, it is noteworthy for its octagonal shape.
NATURE AND CULTURE AT HAMMA
As I mentioned at the outset, Algiers is a city that surprises visitors, because it offers far more than you expect, more than what you’ve read or what others have told you. You know what to expect in the Casbah, for example, but then Hamma suddenly appears before you. This district, perched again on a hill, is an amalgam of two fundamental elements: nature and culture. With the Culture Palace at its center, Hamma offers a breath of fresh air with its Nature Museum and gardens - especially if you’ve just come from the cramped lanes of the Casbah.
If truth be told, what really surprised me was not the details and traditional texture I described above but rather, strangely, seeing a bust of Cervantes and the words, “Cervantes hid here” inscribed on a wall. That’s all well and good, I thought to myself, but what was Cervantes doing here? It appears that Cervantes, long before he wrote Don Quixote, came to Algeria to fight as a soldier in the Spanish queen’s army and hid in a cave in the vicinity until he was captured. What a small world...
And then there is the food... A friend of mine used to say that North Africa was ‘a vegetarian’s nightmarel’. This is certainly the case with Algiers. Every dish has meat in it; what’s more, this meat is tasty even in the most humble establishments. One of the best things about traveling in the Muslim countries is that you usually find good meat. But the food might take a few days’ getting used to because of the oils used, and the methods of cooking, and especially the spices. For snacks during the day you can make use of the little grocery shops that stand on every corner. Except in the posh neighborhoods along the coast, everything is reasonably priced, and the people are very friendly and patient.
THE MARTYRS’ MONUMENT
I would like to conclude with the Martyrs’ Monument, newly recovering Algier’s memorial to the struggle for Algerian independence. When viewed from a distance its simplicity takes on an even more aesthetic dimension in contrast with the women passing by in their gaudy attire. Part and parcel of this soil, it is arguably one of the most colossal monuments ever erected to human freedom and, at the same time, a symbol of pain and suffering, despite its somewhat incongruous appearance. As if it is about to reach out and touch the clouds, it seems to stand in stubborn defiance of the French colonial houses. What more appropriate place to end your tour...