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

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life 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.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs