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

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed 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.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs