Algiers is located on series of terraces that clamber up the hillsides from the sea, towered over by the ramparts of the medieval Casbah, the Old City. Full of flowers, beautiful villas and luxuriously green gardens, the geography of this Mediterranean city is best understood as a huge triangle.
The seaside European quarter is its wide base, which narrows as it ascends the close winding lanes to the Moorish quarter, eventually coming to a point at the city’s old fortress high above.
Island of the Gull.
The first settlers on the coast of Algiers, aside from the native Berber tribes, arrived around 400 BCE. These were Carthaginian merchants in search of a convenient harbour in the western Mediterranean. During the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, this settlement, known as Ikosim (“Island of the Gulls”) fell to the Roman Empire.
The most significant moment in the city’s history came with the conquest of the Late Roman Numidian Kingdom by the Muslim Arabs around 700 CE. The official founding of the city did not take place until 935 CE, when the Berber tribes (by then converted to Islam) named their harbour Al-Jazir (“White Island”). The city extended no further than what is today the Old City of Algiers, the Casbah.
A bastion for pirates.
After the Moors were driven out of Spain in the fifteenth century, Algiers was the launching point for numerous military expeditions to the Iberian Peninsula, but the Moors were never able to regain control of Spain. In fact, the Catholic Spaniards conquered Algiers instead, taking control of the city in 1509. The city suffered under Christian oppression for ten years before Ottoman Khaireddin Barbarossa recaptured Algiers in 1519 in a daring naval assault. The city and country would henceforth be part of the Ottoman Empire.
In the following years, Khaireddin Barbarossa built Algiers into one of the most powerful bastions on the Mediterranean. Up until his death 1546, he used it as the base for countless raids along the Mediterranean coast, besieging Spanish as well as Moorish cities, and bringing all of Algeria under his control. In Europe, the name Algiers became synonymous with a pirate’s den. In France, however, this was not the case. The French had long been in league with Khaireddin.
From allies to conquerors.
Although European nations tried again and again to recapture the city, all attempts failed miserably. Then, in the 19th century, the French gave it another try. Their conquest of Algeria began with the landing in 1830 at Sidi Fredj near Algiers. The final subjugation tool over fifty years.
After Algiers became a French colony in 1882, a huge influx of French companies and workers arrived and the city grew exponentially. The European residential areas built at that time still shape the cityscape of contemporary Algiers particularly at the base of the “triangle” along the 2-km-long boulevard along the harbour.
In the Casbah. The interplay between Berber pride, Ottoman organization and French sophistication lends Algiers a special charm. Visitors climbing from the French-influenced harbour district up to the Old City of the Casbah experience the city’s different cultures as well as its history.
Built around 1500 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, the Casbah is the old citadel of the Ottoman governors of Algiers. The higher one climbs, the more narrow and twisting the lanes become. The houses are crammed so close together that they nearly touch, and balconies are connected to one another above street level. Several important mosques are located in the midst of this confusion, including the Grand Mosque, the New Mosque and the Ketchaoua Mosque. All are renowned for their antiquity and architectural diversity.
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