The Jedars of Frenda: Thirteen Once Grandiose Pyramid Tombs Were Fit for Royalty
Around 30 km (18.6 miles) south of the Algerian city of Tiaret stand the Jedars of Frenda (Djeddar of Frenda), thirteen tombs dating back to Late Antiquity. They’re funerary monuments, probably those of one or more princely families of the time.
Three of these ancient structures (denominated A to C) stand on Jabal Lakhdar, with the other ten (D to M) situated on top of Jabal Arawi, two hills in the mountainous Frenda area. These rather lackluster alphabetical labels had to be given after earlier confusion and incorrect allocation.
Scholars agree that the elevated positions, as well as the size of the structures themselves, indicate that they were constructed for royalty, and generally agree that they date between the fourth and seventh century AD.
Unfortunately, the jedars (Les Djeddars in French) have been thoroughly looted for many centuries and are in a state of ruin and any evidence pointing to who they were built for, and by whom, has been lost. Their similarities with smaller Berber tombs in the area, however, suggest that they are of Berber origin.
A Varied Assortment of Materials Were Used To Construct the Jedars
Constructed largely in the dry stone method without much use of lime mortar, the monuments have hardly any foundations, but were built directly on the surface of the hills. A variety of materials were used, such as local sandstone and limestone, and remains from older necropolises found in the area.
Entrance to one of the jedars ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
All of the thirteen Berber mausoleums have a square base – the smallest being 11.55 meters (38 feet) and the largest measuring 46 meters (151 feet) – and are thought to have been the shape of a pyramid. Although the tops of the tombs are no longer in one piece, the base and shape determine that a couple of the tombs were up to 13 meters (42.6 feet) in height.
Some of the jedars have funerary chambers which are reached via removable steps on one side which concealed a passage leading down into the chambers. It is believed that the solid jedars contain a single tomb excavated into the bedrock. Most of the jedars were surrounded by walls and a courtyard, some of which still remain. A smaller tomb is found in the east-facing extension of the larger monuments, which may have been used as a special area for experiencing divinatory dreams.
Inscriptions Are No Longer Legible
The jedars display a large range of stonecutters' marks, from single letters to partial names, although the full names recording who was buried there have all but weathered away over time. Incomplete words in Latin or Tifinagh (an Abjad script used to write the Berber languages), a few discreet Christian symbols and a couple of roughly carved hunting scenes, similar to many other rock carvings found not far away, are all that remain.
A passage with a jedar ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The largest of the jedars has religious murals associated with Mediterranean Christianity indicating that either the ruling class had by then become Christian or that the occupants of these tombs were not themselves Christian but ruled over Christian subjects. These jedars also contain many Latin inscriptions on the recycled tombstones and other stones dating from the time of Septimius Severus and up to 494 AD.
The thirteen jedars share many features. There are also many similarities with much smaller Berber tombs which are common in the area, which shows that they represent indigenous Berber architecture even though they used Roman architectural techniques and Mediterranean Christian iconography.
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A similar royal mausoleum of the Berber Kings, Numidia, Algeria ( Mimouni, Z, CC BY 4.0 )
From the study of the stonemasons' marks it is believed the three jedars of Jabal Lakhdar are the oldest. The largest, with funerary chambers, known as Jedar A, was built first, and very soon after solid Jedar B was constructed by possibly the same workmen. Jedar C is believed to have been hurriedly finished and its occupant laid to rest a generation later.
The only jedar on Jawal Arawi which they tried to date is the largest, Jedar F. Unlike the singular tombs on Jabal Lakhdar, it was possibly built to hold multiple occupants, with the smaller jedars surrounding it built for lesser nobility.
First Explorers of Jedars in Tiaret City Did Enormous Damage
These monuments have received little attention despite their impressive appearance. The earliest known reference to the jedars is in the lost Tarikh, by the 11th-century historian Ibrahim ar-Raqiq.
In 1842, French military expeditions in the area described the monuments, but it was not until 1875 that Jedar A was roughly opened by men who failed to publish their research. In 1882, Professor La Blanchère from Algiers University published a study on the jedars, although he attributed them to the Berber king Massonas, which is not believed correct today.
In the early 1940s, an anthropology student, Dr. Roffo, obtained permission to excavate and used explosives to open Jedar B, where he found a skeleton inside a wooden coffin from a tomb excavated beneath the building. He did the same with one of the smaller jedars at Jabal Arawi. These skeletons are now lost and Dr. Roffo apparently burnt most of his notes after an argument with the Director of Antiquities (who may have chastised him for his unprofessional methods).
During the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962, the jedars were closed by the French military who filled in the entrances and laid mines in the area.
From 1968 to 1970, Fatima Kadria Kadra, studying at the University of Aix-Marseilles, made the first archaeological study of the jedars using modern techniques. A book based on her thesis was published by Algiers University in 1983 and her work remains the most complete reference on the Jedars. Further work has been discouraged by the unstable situation in Algeria since that time.
Top image: Jedars of Frenda Source: (Mus52, CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Camp,G . Djedar. Encylopedie Berbere.
Prabhat Prakashan, P. 2017. The Project Gutenberg Encyclopedia . Project Gutenberg
2018. The historic Jedars of Tiaret Province. Algeria.com