Icosium

Vous croyez sans doute, comme tout le monde, que la Casbah est un quartier? Eh ben non, la Casbah n’est pas un quartier, c’est un état d’esprit. C’est la conscience endormie  de la civilisation.

Like everyone else, you probably think that the Casbah is a neighbourhood? Well, no, the Casbah isn’t a neighbourhood, it’s a state of mind. It is the sleeping conscience of civilisation.

Carnets d’orient : le cimetière des princesses – Jacques Ferrandez


The word casbah conjures up hundreds of exotic images in the mind, doesn’t it?

Old black and white films with a moustache-twirling villain, probably wearing a fez, carrying off a swooning maiden, trailing diaphanous veils and screaming prettily.  She will, of course, be rescued by the dashing young sheikh in the final reel. Or perhaps Humphrey Bogart wearing a fedora and smoking a cigarette, sitting in a shabby bar waiting for the Germans to come?

The French are best at producing atmospheric films set in the Casbah, like the 1937 film Pépé le Moko, starring Jean Gabin as the eponymous anti-hero. It was remade by Hollywood in 1938 as Algiers, starring Charles Boyer, with his famous invitation, “Come wiz me to ze Casbah.” This was to be most people’s introduction to the picturesque alleys and souks of the old city of Algiers.

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Algeria’s capital city is located on a sweeping crescent bay, surrounded by steep hills and facing north over the Mediterranean.  Its beating heart is the Casbah, the old town that spreads, like a scattering of dirty sugar cubes, up the slope of a hill just behind the waterfront to a hill-top citadel, from which it takes its name. It is a warren of narrow winding alleys and densely packed white-washed houses, and, as an English sailor, imprisoned within the walls of the Casbah three hundred years ago, was to recall, “From the sea, it looks just like the topsail of a ship.”

The Casbah was built on the ruins of old Icosium, founded, according to Greek legend, by twenty of Hercules’s companions.  In fact, a Phoenician trading post called Ikosim had occupied this site as early as the sixth century B.C., to be renamed Icosium by the Romans when they arrived six centuries later. The arc of a Roman amphitheatre can still be traced in the walls of the buildings in the lower Casbah.

Berber tribes were soon re-occupying their territory, abandoned by the Romans when the Vandals overran coastal Algeria in the fifth century.  From the tenth to the fourteenth century, Algiers belonged to them. They constructed a wall around the city, cutting it off from the rest of the world, with five heavily-guarded entrance points or gates,  from Bab el Oued in the west to Bab Azzoun in the east. Little of the old Berber city exists now, except for the foundations of the oldest mosques and the remnants of the city wall.

Earthquakes in 1364 and 1716 caused many of the older constructions, built without foundations, to collapse, and most of what is standing today dates from the late Ottoman period. Many of the prominent buildings — the mosques and the grand mansions of the wealthy classes built during the period of allegiance to the Ottoman sultan from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century — have survived, as they had been built on the more level ground between the shoreline and the hill. Poorer people had to walk uphill.

The Casbah’s twisting alleys that wind between the mud-brick and stucco houses still follow, however, the original footpaths. Those of the lower part of the town traced the Roman streets, but, as the town climbed the hill, the Berbers built houses on either side of gullies that formed natural sewers. Clay pipes or stone or brick channels were added  to the gullies, and they were later covered over to form the streets and pathways of the city.

The upper stories of houses extend over the street to within inches of one another, as often seen in medieval European cities.  They sometimes even meet in the middle, having settled with time, or as a result of occasional earthquake tremors, so that many of the streets are actually vaulted by houses, leaving hardly a scrap of blue sky to be seen.

In the tenth century, Bologhine bin Ziri, the first ruler of the Ziride dynasty,  founded a new city on what was left of the old one, after he had vanquished the Zenata confederation of Berber tribes. He called it El Djazaïr, which means “the islands” in Arabic, referring to the string of islets off the coast that form a natural breakwater for the harbour.

After the Barbarossa brothers captured the city in 1516, Algiers became a fabled redoubt of Barbary pirates, who plied the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, even venturing as far as the English coast. For any given year throughout the seventeenth century, there were hundreds of European captives being held in Algiers, many kidnapped directly from their own coastal settlements by the privateers. The city’s wealth came from the proceeds of this piracy and from its position as the terminus for the trans-Saharan caravans.

When the French colonised Algeria in 1830, one of the first things they did was to cut the Casbah in two, demolishing many ancient buildings in order to create a central thoroughfare so as to allow easy access for their troops in the event of insurrection. They surrounded the Casbah with colonial-style buildings, destroyed the walls and tore down much of the lower part of the town to build the colonial neighbourhood of Bab el Oued.

If your taste runs to grittier, more realistic movies about Algiers, then watching La Bataille d’Alger is a must. It depicts, in brutal detail, the campaign of urban guerrilla warfare in Algiers during the independence war, and was filmed in the Casbah itself in 1966. It tells the true story of freedom-fighters like Saadi Yacef, leader of the Algiers military wing of the FLN, and Ali la Pointe, Yacef’s chief Casbah operative, as they took refuge in the impenetrable depths of the old city, inaccessible to French troops. In Yacef’s memoirs of the Battle of Algiers, he describes his twelve-year-old nephew—who served as a lookout and who died at Ali’s side— as très jeune, very young.

Some older Casbah residents explain that they escaped French paratroopers by living in the walls –  “In the walls, you understand?” After independence, the streets were renamed in honor of Algerian heroes, many of them dying on those very pavements, with plaques marking the spot.

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Still from the film La Bataille d’Alger

One of the stories about this period that moved me to tears is told by a resident of the Casbah who, as a young boy, lived close by the notorious Barberousse prison. He said that whenever freedom-fighters were to be guillotined at dawn, he would hear the voices of the other prisoners singing one of Algeria’s most famous hymns to freedom, “From our mountains, the voice of liberty is rising…’” (Min Djibelina). His mother would cry, his father’s face would turn pale, and they would tell him to go back to sleep. But he heard that same song ninety times in one year, for the ninety prisoners who were executed.

During the Black Decade of the nineties, when Islamist extremists brought terror once again to the streets of Algiers, the Casbah served as their hiding place. The old city became a no-go area, marked by insecurity, bomb attacks and police raids. Its residents say they lost practically eight years of their lives, many moving out to suburban housing estates.

The Casbah is the soul of Algiers. Amid these whitewashed walls, paved streets polished by time and steps worn smooth by the passage of thousands of feet, the memories persist. It is peopled not only by its current residents, but also by the ghosts of all those who have lived there. At its heart, the patron saint of Algiers, the marabout Sidi Abderrahmane, lies in his Byzantine mausoleum, lit by chandeliers that were a gift from Queen Victoria.

Although declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Casbah is crumbling away, with many building collapsing on to their inhabitants. Property developers are already eyeing up its unique location overlooking the stunning Bay of Algiers, with talk about luxury apartments or even office blocks taking its place. It would be a tragedy for Algeria, indeed for the whole of humanity, if that were allowed to happen.

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