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A first time visit to Algeria

“The Romans always got it right,” said our guide full of respect.

He was spot-on. The stunning surrounding countryside proved his point; it was easy to see why it had been named Djemila, which means beautiful in Arabic. Whilst the setting and the extent of the ruins were quite remarkable, so too the fact that there was no one else there. It was a privilege to be there, a pleasure to have them all to myself. Such is Algeria: so little is known about how much it has to offer.

Yet the Romans knew what the country could yield. Unlike our western preconceptions of a dry arid country, the Romans knew the north to be
fertile, productive land – throughout my short travels in the north, I was struck by how green everything was, by the amount of agricultural acreage under cultivation. It is thus little wonder that the region is host to such a proliferation of Roman sites, from Tiddis, perched like an eyrie on a hillside to the flat plains of Tmgad and its site impressive for its order and scale and from the stunning location of Tipasa which overlooks the crystal-clear sea to my personal favourite Djemila.

Nestled in the hills and surrounded by woods, Djemila stands out for its location. Yet it is also impressive for the extent of its remains, its triumphal arch, the Temple of Jupiter and its amphitheatre which seats 3,000. It is perhaps the market which is most notable; I do not think that I have seen such a well preserved Roman market before.

I lost myself in imagining the barter and frenzy of market but was awoken from my reverie by the guide’s mobile phone ringing as he received a text. Initially annoyed by this intrusion, I was then amused by the thought that the Roman use of abbreviation in many of the dedications is very reminiscent of our ‘text speak’ of today.

Whilst the sites themselves speak volumes of the reach, the power, the audacity of Rome, it is the mosaics that shout loudest of all. Their beauty and their intricacy hint at astonishing wealth and an extraordinary civilisation. The Bardo Museum in Tunis is world famous – and rightly so – for its comprehensive and impressive collection of mosaics taken from all over Tunis. However the one small site of Djemila has alone bequeathed a collection worthy of comparison with the treasures of the Bardo.

The most exquisite of all mosaics lies in the Museum of Setif. The “Triumph of Dionysus” is superlative. It is supreme not just because it is unique, an interesting portrayal of a giraffe, but because of its finesse, its skill and its craftsmanship. It is an object of beauty to rival the finest paintings of Titian, the pixilation of its detail the envy of many modern cameras.

One may question what has happened to this level of sophistication today, especially given the plague of plastic that pollutes many of the towns of Algeria. Has modern day Algeria got it right? The short (term) answer would be no. But then you have to remember that this is a country recovering from a savage war of independence, albeit fifty years ago, and more recently from a brutal civil war. It is a country coming to grips with both capitalisation and globalisation and the consequent exposure to foreign markets.

Change is beginning. An infrastructure has been put in place; the fields of crops in the north and oil in the south are productive. There is so much potential, its people want so much. The tragedy is that the government is not listening. Not because it can’t afford to – Algeria thanks to its oil revenue has no debt – but because it seems uncertain of the future, unsure of what to do and thus the status quo remains the default position.

The Kasbah of Algiers is a case in point. Rundown and dilapidated, the Kasbah is falling apart yet little is being done about it, the Kasbah, as yet, denied the ‘riadification’ of other North African cities such as Marrakech. Billowing blinds, blue shutters and rusting balconies adorn soiled white buildings whose decay has resulted in a forest of mushrooms, a profusion of satellite dishes.

Although neglected, the Kasbah is a great place to wander around. One of the joys of Algeria is that when you do walk around you are not hassled. Not because Algerians are unfriendly, far from it. The Algerians I did meet and talk to were without fail friendly and generous. They were both interesting and importantly interested in what you have to say.

The people aside, I loved negotiating the Kasbah’s steep and winding steps, investigating alleyways, peering into doorways, peeping into poorly-lit poky workshops. The young are returning to these cramped workshops and traditional crafts that their parents and grandparents abandoned with independence and a false belief of a different, even better, life. A brave but perhaps misplaced rear-guard action to the invasion of Chinese goods?

However there is some hope and in the lower Kasbah I came across the beginnings of renovation. Dar Mustapha Pacha, as with most Arabic
buildings, looks inauspicious from the outside. Although there was one tell-tale sign of the wealth hidden within: the height of the door knockers was beyond the reach of the average man on foot and designed for someone on horseback, the mode of transport of the rich. Within the Dar (traditional house) had been refurbished to its former glory.

Another Palace that has been restored and well worth a visit is that of Bey Ahmed in Constantine. I found this tranquil oasis reminiscent of Andalucia. A veritable retreat from Constantine which could be a delightful city with its old buildings crowding the tops of the sheer faces of a gorge but much of it is disfigured by rubbish and plastic.

One other blight of the country is the police escort, a hangover from a controlling administration and the misguided protectionism of a nascent tourist industry. Perhaps blight is too strong a word and it should read constraint. The country is not unsafe but rather, the government, indeed the people of Algeria, want nothing ill toward to happen to you. They are proud of their country and want the best for you.

Whilst, to quote our guide, “the police are allergic to photos”- a wonderful understatement – they were sympathetic to us, merely following orders. One young police offer was particularly interested in what I knew and felt of Algeria before arriving and whether my views had changed since being there. What I felt mattered to him, especially when he discovered that, like him, I was a father of three, had similar concerns about schools and faced issues juggling the work/life balance.

Peoples across nations, across boundaries and cultures are not so different. And so too stereotypes: we came across an unofficial car market – there was not a woman in sight.

Yes we travel to understand and appreciate the past but also to learn about the present. Algeria has lessons for us all.

For more information about visiting Algeria please contact our specialists on 01285 880 980 or see our group tour to Algeria with our sister company The Traveller.