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The oldest city, El Atteuf

M'Zab Valley: A Pentapolis That Has Inspired Many Celebrated Architects

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M’Zab valley is a deep, oasis located within the Sahara, consisting of five fortified towns 600 km (370 miles) south of Algiers, the capital of Algeria. M’Zab achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 1982 for its outstanding urban planning, for its Ibadi cultural values, and for remaining a settlement culture which has succeeded to the present century.

M’Zab was designed for community living while respecting the structure of the family, and the locals have retained much of their tradition and customs. It is a source of inspiration for today’s urban planners and has influenced many well-known architects such as Le Corbusier, Fernand Pouillon and André Raverau.

The M’Zab cities have turned a limestone plateau into a man-made refuge that lies amidst the desert landscapes, attracting tourists to this region of great contrasts. Apart from the tourism interests, the area also draws anthropologists, architects, researchers and historians to explore its rich cultural, anthropological and architectural uniqueness.

The Five Cities Serve as Separate Urban Centers of One Large Pentapolis

Each of the five towns - Ghardaïa, Melika, Beni Isguen, Bou Noura, and El Atteuf - are spread along the valley over a distance of about 10 km (6 miles). They are independent of each other, although remarkably similar in layout and design.  Founded between 1012 and 1350 AD, the cities are unassuming, functional and well adapted to the environment which is known to be harsh and at times, hostile. These cities sit within an oasis filled with palm and fruit trees thanks to the ingenious system for the capture and distribution of water.

Panoramic view of Bou Noura (Fotolia)

Panoramic view of Bou Noura (Fotolia)

M’zab Architecture

Each town’s center sits on a rocky knoll and contains a large mosque which has a tall minaret that doubles as a watchtower. The mosque doubled as a fortress, the last stronghold of resistance in the event of an attack. Other public buildings such as the central market occupy the space and from this central area, narrow alleys weave down the hill in a remarkable labyrinth towards the fortified outer walls. The homes, built in concentric circles, are tightly packed, with narrow alleyways and covered passages winding between them. The layout promotes communal living within a democratic social structure and equality of the residents, while still respecting family privacy. 

The majority of the houses on the sides of these hills are two stories high and each has its own courtyard and terraces. The houses are built to admit sunlight into every room as there is a belief that inhabitants of the house where sun comes in will never see a doctor. Chimneys are also built so that they do not intrude upon the comfort of neighbors.

Traditional Ghardaïa rugs (CC By SA 2.0)

Traditional Ghardaïa rugs (CC By SA 2.0)

Ghardaïa, the main town and capital of the M’Zab, is renowned as the entire city is mostly made up of original medieval architecture that has been preserved remarkably well. It is a major center of date production, with nearly 60,000 palm trees. The wood of dead palms is used to make roofs; living trees are not cut down as they are considered living beings that sustain the inhabitants. Another important industry is the manufacture of rugs and cloths. The rugs of the area are so popular that every year the ‘National Day of Rugs’ is held in March.

Traditional architecture, Ghardaïa (CC BY 2.0)

Traditional architecture, Ghardaïa (CC BY 2.0)

El Atteuf is the oldest settlement in the region. The architecture of El Atteuf was greatly influenced by the Ibadi principles of functional purism, which adheres to a strict organization of surrounding space and land. 

Beni Isguen is the most enigmatic town in the M’Zab UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s considered very holy and until recently, only residents of the town were allowed to enter after dark and at night the gate was shut. Although this is no longer so, Beni Isguen remains the most traditional town in M’Zab and taking photographs of the woman is strictly forbidden.

The Evacuation of the M’Zab Jews

The Jews of the Algerian M’Zab are thought to descend from the Jews from Tahert, an ancient metropolis destroyed in 902 AD. Once, residing mainly in Ghardaïa, the Jews were goldsmiths as well as suppliers of ostrich feathers to Europe.

The Jews of Ghardaïa lived in their own quarter, were only allowed to wear black, and were not allowed to farm or to buy rural land. Because the French could only grant citizenship to Jews in their sphere of influence, M’Zab Jews were not beneficiaries of the 1870 decree which granted French citizenship to Algeria's Jews of the other regions.

The M’Zab was not under French control until over a decade later and it was only in the early 1960s that the Crémieux Decree was extended to include M’Zabite Jews. In 1962 the French granted Algerian Muslims independence and on the eve of the independence, half of the 6,000 M’Zabite’s Jews relocated to France.

In June 1962, based on information that Algerian rebels in the south intended to harm the 3,000 remaining Jews of Ghardaïa, 2,700 agreed to leave immediately and they were eventually evacuated safely.

Ghardaïa’s airport (Public Domain)

Ghardaïa’s airport (Public Domain)

Visiting this Incredible Man-Made Oasis

Fly into Ghardaïa’s airport which was named for Moufdi Zakaria, the author of Kassaman, the Algerian national anthem and choose from the many traditionally built hotels in the area. Ghardaïa is well-connected with buses headed to different parts of the country, but unless you like extreme heat, avoid the middle of the year as temperatures can soar up to 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

Top image: The oldest city, El Atteuf                          Source: (Fotolia)

By Michelle Freson


Kaushik.2015. The Fortified Towns of M'Zab Valley. Amusing Planet
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M’Zab Valley. UNESCO
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2018. Ghardaia - A Masterpiece of Medieval Architecture.
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2018. M’Zab Valley – Algeria. African World Heritage Sites
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Michelle Freson's picture


Michelle Freson is a professional writer and editor and has spent many hundreds of wonderful hours working with and learning from fiction writers based all over the globe.

Born in July, 1971, Michelle has long since stopped working out her... Read More

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