HomeBBC NEWSTravelThe fortified cities on the fringes of the Sahara

    The fortified cities on the fringes of the Sahara


    In the largest country in Africa, the inhabitants of five ancient cities are doing their best to protect and preserve their traditional way of life.

    Algeria is 10 times the size of the UK

    Situated between Morocco and Tunisia, across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe, Algeria is the largest country in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. Its vast and diverse landscape includes towering mountains, blazing deserts and ancient Roman ruins and covers nearly 2.4 million square kilometers, 10 times the size of the United Kingdom. Much of the country – about four-fifths – is engulfed by the Sahara Desert, the world’s largest hot desert, an astonishingly barren wilderness of volcanic massifs, gravel plains and the Dahlgrens, or a constantly changing “sea of sand”. The largest of these is the Grand Erg Occidental (pictured), whose seemingly endless wind-blown dunes cover an area twice the size of Belgium. (Photo credit: Simon Erwin)

    A collection of centuries-old cities in the M’Zab Valley are known as the Pentapolis

    Although few Algerians live in such harsh terrain, a remarkable series of hilltop settlements exist on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert: five historic ksours, or fortress cities, in the M’Zab Valley. Collectively known as Pentapolis, these magnificent, centuries-old fortresses were built along the Wadi Mzab, a partially dried-up riverbed where the water level rises every three to five years. These towns include El-Atteuf, the oldest built in 1012; Merica; Bunula; the holy city of Beni Isken; and Ghardaïa (pictured), the valley’s main settlement and commercial center. in 1982, M’Zab was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its highly distinctive culture and architecture.”

    Ancient Algerians had been exploring this area since roughly the 8th Century

    With a modern population of over 360,000, the city of M’Zab was founded by the Mozabites, a semi-nomadic people with their own unique language, Tumzabt. The Mozabites explored this part of Algeria as early as around the 8th century, but faced with the increasing desertification in the region, they chose to settle and adapt to the harsh conditions. They built their cities between the 11th and 14th centuries, each centered around a mosque with a towering minaret and watchtower. At the bottom of the valley, the Mosabites established palm groves that could also be used to escape the heat. “It’s incredible how their society thrived in such a desolate climate,” Meghnen said. “That’s why people cherish their culture. It has survived against all odds for more than 1,000 years.

    Some streets in these ancient cities are only wide enough to accommodate a donkey

    In each city, the Mozabites built a compact network of streets: the narrowest street was only wide enough to accommodate a loaded donkey, while the main passageway in and out of the market was built to accommodate a camel. Their box-shaped stone houses contained a goat, which provided milk and ate leftovers. “Other than the advent of electricity in the late 1950s, daily life in the historic center has changed little since the city was founded, and that’s how people like it,” Meganin said. “The queuing etiquette at the pumps remains the same: children first, then women and men. The practice of painting outdoor walls blue to keep the space cool and discourage mosquitoes has continued to this day.” Another practice is that women spend most of their time in the high-walled courtyard that provides necessary privacy. “At Beni Egan, this was visible from the watchtower, so outsiders were forbidden to enter the city and climb the tower after the afternoon prayers. It ensures that women can still spend the day outdoors without being seen,” Meghnen said. (Photo credit: Simon Urwin)

    Residents of the M’Zab Valley are known for their community solidarity and tolerance

    Many centuries ago, the Mosabites converted from Mutazila Islam to conservative Ibadi Islam, and the M’Zab Valley is now one of three important Ibadi communities in North Africa – along with Djerba and Jebel Nafusa in Tunisia – in Libya. “The Ibadis are known for their community unity and tolerance,” explains Elghali Laggoun, a local guide. “Historically, they have always coexisted and worked well with others. In the past, they would leave their shepherds in the care of the Arabs outside the city; the Mozabites were not born shepherds, but the Arabs were. Likewise, they would go to the Jews to buy their brass and jewelry. There is also a Jewish community here, as well as a Christian church. In order to survive in the desert, the

    Buildings in Beni-Isguen’s central square were forbidden from being turned into shops

    Religious councils have long controlled M’Zab, and each assembly includes important community figures, including imams (or worship leaders), muezzins (who call Muslims to prayer), and madrasa (Koranic school) teachers. In Beni-Isguen, the most conservative city, the city council is called upon to pass judgment on a variety of spiritual and moral issues. “Recently, some businessmen wanted to turn some of the buildings in the central square (pictured) into stores,” Meghnen says. “The council banned it because they see the square as a place of social cohesion. In any other part of the world, it would be full of gift stores, but here it’s still a quiet place to sit with your family and get to know your neighbors. Meeting at the Plaza is considered a necessity. There is even a local saying, “Anyone who doesn’t go must be sick or have a bad debt.” So the religious council decided to help the community stay strong. It’s more important than money.” (Photo credit: Simon Urwin)

    Across the M’Zab Valley, haggling over prices is frowned upon

    In the larger city of Ghardaïa (pictured), trading is allowed in and around the central market square, but modern signage and advertising are prohibited in order to keep the city retaining its original 11th century appearance. By local decree, the side streets could only specialize in one product – carpets, fruits and vegetables, or gold. “The Mozabite merchant doesn’t consider other stores to be competitors,” Laggoun explains. “Instead, he enjoys the company of other vendors and knows that together they help cement strong community ties.” Selling merchandise and bargaining are frowned upon at M’Zab and elsewhere. “This stems from the Ibadis’ strong belief in equality: sellers respect buyers equally, so they are honest with them and offer fair prices from the start. The importance of equality here also goes beyond trade. At social events, you can invite the richest and poorest people in the valley to attend. But they will eat and drink together because all are seen as equals,” says Lagoon. (Photo credit: Simon Urwin)

    Many residents here still opt for more traditional dress

    While some of M’Zab’s younger generation is slowly adopting Western-style clothing, many residents still opt for more traditional garments. Conservative women will step out in a white wool wrap called a haik, while boys and men wear tchachit, or brimless hats, and saroual loubia – frilly, baggy pants, much like harem pants. “The saroual are practical because they keep the wearer cool and are flexible enough to move around during any kind of physical work,” a local English teacher told me. “I also like them because they are part of the uniqueness of the M’Zab identity. After all, if everyone wore jeans and soccer shirts, we’d look like the rest of the world.” (Photo credit: Simon Erwin)

    There are punishments for those who take more water than their fair share

    With over 100,000 palm trees in the valley, the palm groves, like the city, are subject to their own strict rules. A special water committee monitors the use of supplies from the deep Sahara aquifer and penalizes those who exceed their fair share. “Between 2008 and 2017, not a single drop of rain fell in M’Zab, so it’s no surprise that water is considered more precious than gold,” says one palm forest farmer. “That’s why these rules are taken so seriously, and why those who break them can be thrown out of the community for committing serious misdeeds.” Another rule prohibits the cutting of any live date palm, or “sacred tree” as it is known locally. “Kill a palm in M”

    Eating dates has a great spiritual significance for local residents

    Each year the palm farmers of M’Zab follow an ancient pattern of planting and harvesting. Their trees are hand-fertilized in April, when the male inflorescences are linked to clusters of female flowers, and prayers are said to ensure a good harvest. Dates begin to appear in May and June, with the first season reserved for Ramadan. “It is said that the Prophet would break the fast during Ramadan by eating ripe dates before prayers,” the farmer said. “So eating them in the same way still holds a lot of spiritual significance for us.” The discarded kernels are traditionally used as animal feed or roasted and ground to make a form of mozabit decaffeinated coffee. “Even though we can buy coffee at the grocery store, we are essentially desert people. We can always find a way to make sure that whatever God has given us doesn’t”

    There are now about 30 homestays across the M’Zab, with tight limits on tourist numbers

    In Beni Isogen, where there are no hotels, restaurants or coffee shops, simple tourist facilities spring up in the nearby palm groves. “M’Zab is not a resort. It’s a real place, full of real people,” says Salah Daoud, manager of a homestay family (pictured). “Staying with family provides an authentic, immersive valley experience. The food is homemade: the local lady makes steamed couscous for us and we buy camel meat from the [local] butcher, so the experience also includes the wider community.” There are now about 30 such host families throughout M’Zab, and the number of visitors is strictly limited. “There is a clear understanding here of the difference between mass tourism and sustainable tourism with a conscience,” Daoud says. “We focus on the latter.

    All visitors can only enter the five fortified cities with a local guide

    A rule encouraged by the Valley Tourism Board stipulates that all tourists, including Algerians, can only enter the five fortress cities with a local guide. “We see this not as a job, but as a responsibility,” Meghnen said. “We do this to protect the cities because we cherish the way of life.” Tobacco has long been banned in the historic center for religious reasons, and many signs indicate other prohibited behaviors, including taking selfies, wearing indecent clothing and using cell phones. “We are very friendly people and very welcoming to visitors, but we implore them to respect the Mozabite way of life,” Meghnen said. “It is, after all, our home, not just a backdrop for Instagram posts. We don’t want M’Zab to turn into some kind of Saharan Disneyland.”

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