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Algiers and Tlemcen


Algiers has become another Rome to me. Like the eternal city, every street and hill of its complex topography echoes with some dramatic scene from history. Here is the “J’ai compris” speech De Gaulle made half way through the “savage war of peace”, here the safe return of the squadron of Algerine galleys, lone victorious survivors of the devastation of Lepanto. In this alley of the Kasbah, I imagine some casual atrocity as portrayed in Pontecorvo’s film the Battle of Algiers, here the plotting amongst the Allied High Command after the Casablanca landings and here the attempted escape of the white slave Cervantes (on his way to write Don Quixote). On the shore I hear the ferocious Naval bombardment by Lord Exmouth in 1818 and the failed Crusade of Charles V, his invasion fleet smashed by an autumn storm, his sodden tent protected by German, Italian and Spanish knights from yet another assault by Barbary cavalry. Nor can the muse of history be seen to have taken much of a cat-nap in recent years. The vast, oil-rich Republic of Algeria is emerging from a twenty-year-long state of emergency which at times seemed on the point of rumbling towards civil war.

On the day we tried to cross Algiers, the city was once again in animated convulsion. Students were dancing on top of buses, grandmothers ululated from shuttered windows, policemen cheered as young men, draped in the green tricolor, danced their way through the streets, joyfully igniting cans of hairspray as personal flambeau. Car horns, fireworks and ten thousand music stations all set at full volume unleashed a raucous cacophony. Egypt had just been trounced by Algeria in the World Cup. As a foreigner all you had to do was wave something green, or slowly lift three fingers, in reference to the war-cry of “1, 2, 3 Viva Algerie,” to be applauded like Caesar before the Senate. If it felt a little like witnessing a North African VE day, there was a flicker of truth to the analogy, for here at long last was something that the whole nation could celebrate together. Algerian political life is faceted in a way that defies glib analysis: old command socialists, pan-Arabists, mujhadine veterans of the Independence War, one-nation secularists, textual fundamentalists, Berber regionalists and Harvard-educated technocrats all swim within the body politic, beneath a ‘divan’ of powerful career generals. Beneath the surface alliances exist the powerfully magnetic ties of family, clan and kinship networks, embellished by enduring urban rivalries between Oran, Algiers, Annaba and Constantine.

We had a taste of how strong regional differences could be, for every time we passed from one governornate to another, we were formally passed from the protection of one police force to another, sometimes to the blare of sirens and motorcycle outriders, at others with a friendly shake of a hand and the opportunity for a coffee and a cigarette break. You could almost taste the tension as you passed the roadblocks that led into the Kabyle mountain district. They had the air of Londonderry in the bad old days: armoured cars, ferro-concrete control posts, high-wire and body-armour a plenty. In the so-called triangle of death of the 90s, the provincial cities of Miliana, Blida and Medea just to the south of Algiers are policed by a grid of armed watchtowers on neighbouring hilltops, breeze-block versions of the mile forts that once sat astride Hadrian’s Wall.

In complete contrast the coastal city of Oran, just a days drive to the west of the triangle, seems to exist in its own political microclimate. Here the corniche-front skyscrapers, art deco city centre and crumbling old Hispanic quarter overlooked by ancient Spanish fortresses, looked virtually untouched by the civil strife. Not even the presence of the neighbouring naval base of Mers el Kebir, or a re-reading of Camus’s The Plague, gave Oran a sinister edge. Indeed I was told that it was sailors on their shore leave that helped kick-start the Ain el Turk beachfront into becoming one of the fusion melting pots of the whole Rai music phenomenon.

Half a day south of Oran, perched on the edge of a forested swathe of the Atlas mountains, beckons the city of Tlemcen. Once connected by an easy road and railway journey from the nearby eastern frontier of Morocco, this medieval city has effectively been closed to travellers for decades. As long as the age old rivalry between Morocco and Algeria remains a mainstay of North African diplomatic life, this sense of isolation will continue. At the moment, the former accuse the latter of political instability and fostering Islamist terrorism, the latter accuse the former of drug smuggling. Their mutual land frontier (but not their airports) is firmly shut. Even if these issues are calmed, there are a fistful of other disputes ready to take their place: the fate of the Polisario in the Western Sahara, the whole ethos of Monarchy versus Republic, of evolution versus revolution, not to mention the disputed boundaries of the oil bearing Central Sahara.

Rather than appearing as a balm to contemporary politics, the medieval monuments of Tlemcen (the goal of my Algerian travels) reinforced an ancient political fault line. For this was as far west as the Ottoman Empire, in its 16tth -century heyday progressed. The fortified palace quarter - the Mechouar - was once garrisoned by a detachment of Ottoman janissaries who held the frontier against a charismatic Moroccan dynasty who claimed the Caliphate of Islam itself. It was also from these walls that Barbarossa, the great corsair admiral, having overstretched his power-base by advancing too far inland, tried to make his heroic headlong dash for the protection of the sea.

On the western edge of the city stands the Mansourah, another age-old enclosure. Here the mellowed 14th-century golden-red battlements are seen against a blue-green haze of ancient olive trees. This fortress is dominated by a time-battled tower, which though half fallen, is none-the-less one of the surviving jewels of Maghrebi architecture. In size, ornament, confidence and design, it is a brood sister to the celebrated Hassan tower of Rabat, the Giralda of Seville and the Koutoubia of Marrakech. Less of a spiritual beacon than its older sisters, it served primarily as a highly visible watch-tower used by an alien garrison. This army had been imposed upon the citizens of Tlemcen by the upstart Merenid dynasty of Morocco, desperate to prove themselves the true heirs of the old Almohad Empire.

In total contrast, but of almost exactly the same date, the eastern edge of Tlemcen still preserves a complex of 14th-century Merenid courtyards assembled above a tomb. This group of prayer halls, baths, pilgrim hospice and halls for teaching was built hard against a limestone escarpment. Overlooked by high ground, it never had any military capability, but it has no need, for it shelters the tomb of one of the most revered Muslim scholar-poets of all North Africa. As testimony to its sanctity the vast bronze doors and chandeliers with which it was originally endowed remain in place. By another quirk of fate, the name of this revered saint (Sidi Bou Midyan who can be transliterated in a bewildering number of ways) was taken as the nom de guerre by Algeria’s great post-war leader, Houari Boumeddienne.

But the greatest survivor in Tlemcen is the great mosque, a unique testimony to the artistic achievement of the 11-th century Almoravid Empire. All other architectural evidence of this first Fundamentalist Empire of faith (which once ruled a state stretching from the banks of the river Niger to the foothills of the Pyrenees) has been obliterated by the jealousy of its successor state. Having climbed many mountains, in both Spain and Morocco, in pursuit of the traces of the Almoravids, to finally be able to stare up into a complete dome with all its delicate ribbon-like tracery of decorative detail and calligraphy intact, was like the answering of a quest. The fusion of delicacy with an underlying strength of purpose was even more sublime than I had imagined.

The Almoravids had originated in a desert monastery, perched at the very furthest reaches of Islam, on the Atlantic shore of the Western Sahara. So remote was the Ribat of the Almoravids, their fortified headquarters, that it has never been found, though their northern forward base of Marrakech is now almost too well-known by the rest of the world. My Algerian guide seemed delighted by my enthusiasm for things Almoravid, though he couldn’t resist adding that the best of all the mosques built by the Almoravids had been perched above the rocky tidal shore at Algiers.

“Why didn’t we see that?” I exclaimed. Muhammad batted back his reply with a smile, “It has been reduced to rubble by your Lord Exmouth”. Normally my enthusiasm for coincidence and historical inter-connection runs rampant, but on this occasion I managed to refrain myself from boasting how my street back home in London, Exmouth Market, was named in his honour. Not for the first time, I remembered that “one man’s admiral is another man’s pirate”. And now, every time I walk under the sign of the Exmouth Arms pub, a bit of Algiers swings in the wind of a London street.

Barnaby Rogerson travelled with Eastern Approaches, run by the archaeologist and historian, Warwick Ball. 5,Mill Road, Stow, Galashiels TD1 2SD, Tel: 01578-730361, Fax: 01578-730714, E info@easternapproaches.co.uk, W www.easternapproaches.co.uk

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