Few North African cities have captured the imagination in the way that Algiers has. Algiers was the city of the Barbary pirates, who held European shipping in the Western Mediterranean hostage for centuries; it is the city where Muslims first threw off the yoke of foreign occupation in the post-war era; and it is the city of the Kasbah, the great fortress and labyrinthine medina that has been romanticized everywhere, from Islamic literature and poetry to Hollywood and the silver screen. For many years it was also one of the great meeting places of the Muslim and Christian worlds. Today, Algiers is the capital of the second largest nation in Africa. The world famous Kasbah, now older and more worn, yet remains one of the great romantic places of the Muslim world. The Kasbah of Algiers is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city of Algiers is actually a relative latecomer to the major cities of North Africa. It was not founded until the mid-10th century, well over two hundred years after Tlemcen was established. Algiers was the region’s second city after Tlemcen until the 1500s. It was occupied by the Almoravids in the 11th century, and it was during this period that the city began to become something more than a provincial capital. Situated along the eastern frontier of the Almoravid Empire, new fortifications were erected to protect the city from the incursions by the Fatimids and other hostile powers. The oldest of the Kasbah’s fortifications dates from this time, as does the city’s Great Mosque.
During the late Middle Ages, Algiers was occupied alternately by various Muslim powers as well as by the Spanish. It subsequently became one of the most important points of contact between the lands of Christianity and Islam. The port of Algiers was one of the largest and most important centers of shipping and trade in the Western Mediterranean. Its importance grew even greater during the later years of the Reconquista and Inquisition in Spain, when huge numbers of Spanish Muslims fled to Algiers for safety.
The arrival of refugees from Spain, coupled with incursions of the Spanish army and navy into North Africa, drove the local leaders of Algeria to seek military and economic assistance from the Ottoman Empire. Instead they found salvation in the form of the Barbarossa brothers. These two ruthless pirates from the east came to Algiers in 1516, promptly seized the city, and established their own private kingdom nominally answerable to the Sultan in Istanbul. Within a few decades they had set up a pirate empire that endured for more than three centuries, with Algiers as its capital.
It was during this period that Algiers became one of the best known, most feared and most romanticized cities in the Islamic world. The great walls and main palace of the Kasbah date from this time, as do most of the city’s major mosques. The Kasbah remained the political heart of Algiers until the French showed up in the 19th century. During the colonial period, the Kasbah became a stronghold of local Algerian culture. It is for this reason that the Kasbah looms large in the cultural imagination, particularly after being featured in several major films during Hollywood’s golden age. Algiers still looms large among travelers from around the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who wish “fly away to the Kasbah”.
Officially the word Kasbah refers specifically to the original fortress which marks the southern boundary of the Old City of Algiers. Unofficially it refers to the entire old city between the fortress and port, including, most importantly, the vast, labyrinthine streets and alleyways of the ancient medina. The citadel, which crowns the main hill overlooking the old city, is in a state of severe disrepair. Parts of the fortress can still be visited. However, the main points of interest are in the Old City.
Algiers’ medina is one of the most phenomenally confusing and at the same time magical in North Africa. Its huge jumble of buildings are literally piled one on top of the other on the slope beneath the fortress. Amidst the endless homes and shops are a number of real architectural gems, notably the Masjid Metchoua, the most storied mosque in the city. According to legend, a Christian monk who refused to convert was once buried in its walls. Next door is the Dar Hassan Palace, one of the many splendid Ottoman-era residences that still adorn the city.
The Kasbah district is located towards the west side of the modern day city of Algiers. It is, for the most part, an open site. While the Kasbah welcomes all visitors, the area has become a hotbed of Islamic activism in recent decades and less friendly towards westerners than it used to be. There is obviously no cost of admission. Web: www.algeria.com (unofficial travel website of Algeria)
There are a number of sites of Muslim interest clustered between the old city of Algiers and the port. The city’s oldest and most important mosque is the 11th century Masjid El-Kebir by the waterfront. Two other important mosques, the Masjid Ali Bichine and the Masjid El-Jedid, round out this medieval district.