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April 03, 2011

Activists Fight to Save Crumbling Algiers Casbah

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Algiers' historic Casbah, or old quarter, bears the hallmarks and the scars of the country's turbulent past.  During the bloody "black decade" of Algeria's 1990s civil war, the Casbah was the feared bastion of Islamist terrorists. Now that ordinary residents and a few visitors have returned, and a new battle is underway to save what one historian calls the "heart" of Algeria.

Preservation effort

Sounds of construction fill the air as Abdelkarim Bouchouada, secretary-general of the Casbah Foundation, a local preservation group, takes me on a tour of Algiers' historic Casbah. The oldest quarter of Algeria's capital is a maize of narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses, graceful fountains and the occasional, stunning Ottoman palace.

As one walks past a renovated and magnificent 15th-century palace, Bouchouada tells the story of a princess who once lived there. She was known as "Khedaoudj the blind."

"Because she was so beautiful, the legend says, that she put mirrors everywhere in the house. And everywhere she went, she was fixing her hair and appreciating how beautiful [she was]. And one day... looking at herself in the mirror and she went blind," explains Bouchouada.

Rich history

The Casbah is full of these kinds of stories - true and false.  It once was the stronghold of North African corsairs, better known as Barbary pirates, who roamed the Mediterranean several hundred years ago. It was also home to Algeria's resistance fighters and the epicenter of the decisive battle of Algiers, leading to the country's 1962 independence from France. Now it is the target of a new campaign to restore its crumbling buildings before it is too late.

Historian Belkacem Babaci says more than just architecture is at stake.

Babaci says the Casbah is the heart of Algeria, because it embodies the architectural memory of this North African country. Babaci, 72, is president of the Casbah Foundation.  He was born in the Casbah, and says area is in his blood.

Monumental effort

The task of rescuing the Casbah is immense. Foundations are literally melting away because of water and other erosion. It means moving out chunks of the quarter's more than 30,000 residents, and restoring old buildings street by street.

In 1992, the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO added the Algiers Casbah to its list of World Heritage Sites. But the move came as Algeria plunged into a bloody civil war, pitting the country's military-backed government against Islamist radicals. Local residents fled as the Casbah became a no-man's land, occupied by the Islamists.

Babaci says that in 1999, his preservation group was among the first to enter the Casbah after the fighting died down. They ventured in with police protection to prepare a plan to save the area.

Revitalization

Today, life has returned to the Casbah.  People are on the streets.  Some old residents have returned, although the population is changing. After years of campaigning by the Casbah Foundation, Algeria's Ministry of Culture is now in charge of restoration efforts, which Babaci estimates will take at least a decade.

Babaci says old festivals and old crafts are returning to the Casbah. So are some tourists - although they walk around with escort, since there is still petty crime. Even as his foundation seeks to preserve the Casbah's brighter history, Babaci says, it's time to bury its more recent and grimmer past.