News / Africa

Activists Fight to Save Crumbling Algiers Casbah

A recently restored street in Algiers' Casbah.
A recently restored street in Algiers' Casbah.

Multimedia

Audio

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

Archaeologists work at a dig at Martyrs' Square located in the low Casbah in Algiers' historical neighborhood (File Photo)
Archaeologists work at a dig at Martyrs' Square located in the low Casbah in Algiers' historical neighborhood (File Photo)

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.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs