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The Casbah in context: World Heritage Site under threat

The Casbah in Algeria’s capital Algiers is a World Heritage Site steeped in History, but overcrowding and neglect now threaten this ancient neighbourhood

With petrol at a fraction of UK prices, generous non-interest loans from French carmakers and a complete lack of traffic lights, you would expect Algiers’ traffic to be interesting. It is in fact in continual gridlock from 7am every day except Friday. The hilly city geography adds to the frustration. You might be able to see your destination just across the valley, but it needs an hour of driving to get there. Blue uniformed policemen with whistles stand at junctions of stationary traffic, blowing idiosyncratically and waving you on in a surreal display of justifying their jobs.

The Casbah, however, is a car-free labyrinth of interconnected houses, palaces, merchants’ dwellings, mosques, small shops, workshops and a university.

Peaceful, friendly and quiet, the Casbah rises up steeply from the harbour, so the ideal approach for a new visitor is from the upper entrance. On an assignment to record the new British embassy, I was asked by its architect John McAslan to take some photographs there to document the historical context of the new building.

Entering through the encircling wall, you immediately come across one of the lesser palaces or townhouses, characterised by an extraordinary timber buttress structure. The entrance has a low vestibule leading off to the side (for privacy) with a riotous collection of tiles decorating the walls and integral benches, where friends and business visitors might have waited. The square atrium with its second floor loggia makes it feel perfectly Florentine. One particular house had a vast upper-floor bath area, uniformly clad with Dutch tiles in a cooling, minimal layout of hundreds of ships.

This period decoration is a result of the persistent aggression of the Ottoman corsairs, also known as the Barbary pirates, a highly disciplined and self-regulating bunch of North African privateers that preyed on non-Muslim vessels. The peak of privateering was controlled from Algiers in the 1600s, and the corsairs ranged throughout the Mediterranean and later into the Atlantic as far as Iceland and the United States, resulting in the two Barbary Wars in the early 1800s. At least a million slaves were captured over the 300-year period of piracy, and apparently during a mere seven years from 1609 to 1616, England lost 466 merchant ships to Barbary pirates. Stretches of coastline in Italy, Spain and the Balearic Islands were abandoned for decades.

Effectively a fortified city, the Casbah was founded on the ruins of the Roman settlement of Icosium in 146BC, and developed from the base of the hill in the harbour. In the 5th century AD the Vandals conquered, and then Algiers was re-taken by the Byzantine Empire before the Arab conquest of the 7th century. In the early 1500s the Spanish occupied several Algerian coastal towns, and sought help from the corsairs who had previously supported Andalusian Muslims and Jews to escape Spanish oppression in 1492. Instead they joined the Turks and Algiers was liberated in 1516 to become part of the Ottoman Empire until 1830, when the French colonised and established the current borders. Opinions differ as to why Spain did not return to control the country.

During the Algerian struggle for independence between 1954 and 1962, the complex layout of the Casbah was crucial to the insurgency planning of the National Liberation Front and others, providing shelter and escape routes back from terrorist attacks on French citizens and other targets. This brutal guerrilla warfare was memorably reconstructed in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.

As you make your way down through the warren of streets, the Casbah appears to be an extremely attractive place to live - dense but secluded and rich in the conjunction of steep lanes, cranked alleys and steps.

And also more socially open. At the mausoleum of the city’s Sufi patron saint Sidi Abderrahmane (1384-1469), female pilgrims worshipped energetically, but I was allowed to take pictures of the interior with them present. In the Casbah you sense an underlying liberal culture that is completely absent in wider Algiers.

The city, however, is struggling to maintain the integrity of the Casbah. It may be a World Heritage Site, but many of the buildings are in very poor structural condition and there are no funds to restore much of the private housing. Overpopulation exacerbates the problem, but there is no clear idea of the Casbah’s exact population - estimates vary between 40,000 and 70,000 - and squatting is rife. Tighter control of planning is apparently preventing the repetition of recent brutal additions, but the area is still in need of investment and a realistic preservation strategy. At the lower end, the historic Casbah merges into the French colonial architecture and streets of the ‘European’ city, where you are advised to put away your camera and watch your wallet. Paradoxically, like some South African townships, the Casbah seems a safer and more civil place to be.

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