A Week at Algeria’s World Heritage Sites
Algeria is not one of the countries that sparkle tourists’ interest, but if you intend to visit important places in the world, then you can’t leave out this amazing country. To the authorities in Algeria, security is key, so don’t be put off if you have to face a little hassle with getting necessary clearance for a visit.
When I first visited the country, the airport was my first shock; it was simply Spartan. The Houari Boumediene International Airport was devoid of high-end stores, restaurants and souvenir kiosks.
Of course, it was clean and welcoming, but the noticeable absence of this distraction told me there is no time for loitering there. After clearing with custom, I was able to change my money before leaving the airport. Outside the airport, there were many black market money changers—you’ll need to be smart and have done your research plus understand some French to deal with these guys.
If you are a first time visitor, please hold some Euros and if you have to change money with the black market moneychangers, ensure you only change enough to get a cab to your destination.
Carol Drinkwater wrote this about Algeria: “I had not known what to expect. Camels and sand dunes, of course, but the hand-beaten jewellery, the tattooed tribeswomen, the breath-taking landscapes, the generosity, the fine classical ruins and the silence of the Sahara made this one of the most intoxicating experiences on earth. To see this extraordinary country before tourism imprints, one visit will simply not do.”
Carol’s perspective prepared me for my first trip and when I finally got to my hotel, I only needed a few resting hours before setting out to explore.
7 a.m. the next day, I was up and ready to go. My friend was around early enough to pick me at the hotel and we later joined a group of tourists who were set to visit the Casbah. We set out for this World Heritage Site after a brief orientation.
The Casbah is an old town perched on a precipitous hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The site is a maze-like alley with dense sea of houses, domed mosques and minarets some of which dates back millennia. As we explored the area, we met old people who were eager to tell us the history of the place especially the insurgence phase leading to Algeria’s independence. This visit brought the reality of the 1966 movie, the Battle in Algiers, to me, as I was right at its setting.
We were done well after noon, and returned to our hotel to freshen up and prepare for our next trip. By 4:45, we were at the airport for a flight to Ghardaia to visit the M’Zab Valley, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The flight to Ghardaia was about an hour. When we touched down, it was obvious we have reached a different world. That night, we lodged in a hotel around Palmerie (grove of Palm trees), but before it got dark, I joined a few other guys to wander through the palmerie.
We began our tour of M’Zab valley—Beni Isguen and Ghardaia specifically, the next day. M’Zab is a deep and narrow oasis valley within the Sahara. Five walled towns—Ghardaia, Melika, Beni Isguen, Bou Noura and El Atteuf, called the Pantapolis, made up the area. The towns were established in the 11th century, built on knoll that rises steeply from the oasis-filled valley by Mozabite Berbers who had migrated from Tahert after a devastating fire destroyed their homes in 909.
The five towns spread some 10km along the Valley and form an amazing connection to original Algerian culture. Of the five towns, Ghardaia is the capital and main town, El-Ateuf is the oldest settlement, while Beni Isguen is the most enigmatic and traditional.
What’s common to these towns is the way they’ve preserved their original culture and cohesion throughout the years; virtually unaffected by the outside world.
Carol was right, to say “to see this extraordinary country before tourism imprints, one visit will simply not do.” I had barely finished exploring two cities of M’Zab valley when I got a call to run another assignment. But I am definitely going back.
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