This itinerary provides an outline of the proposed daily program. Participants should note that the daily activities may be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate changes in museum opening hours, flight schedules & road conditions. Meals will be taken in hotels and in restaurants; at times picnic lunches will be provided. All meals are included in the tour price and are indicated in the itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=dinner.
Algiers - 3 nights
Day 1: Sunday 13 March, Arrive Algiers
- Arrival Transfer for participants arriving on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
- Welcome Meeting
Participants taking ASA’s ‘designated’ flight are scheduled to arrive in Algiers around midday. After transferring to the Hotel El Djazir, located near the National Museum of Antiquities, there will be a period of rest followed by a welcome meeting and an evening meal at the hotel. (Overnight Algiers) D
Day 2: Monday 14 March, Algiers
- National Museum of Antiquities and Islamic Arts
- City Orientation Tour including the Kasbah of Algiers
- Colonial Cathedral of Notre-Dame d’Afrique
- Welcome Dinner
We begin our journey in the Algerian capital with a visit to the famed National Museum of Antiquities and Islamic Arts. Founded in 1897 by the French Colonial government, this museum holds a spectacular collection of artefacts from sites across northern Algeria. The museum is split between two late-19th century French pavilions, built to resemble the earlier Ottoman palaces of the region. The pavilion on the left holds the Islamic collection and a superbly complete numismatic collection, with coins representing every dynasty from the Numidians and Mauretanian kings of the 1st millennium BC, to the first currency of the newly independent Algeria in 1962. A flight of stairs leads to the second story, which holds the gallery dedicated to Islamic material. The collection includes ceramics from medieval Iran, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, imported by the Zayyanid Algerian elite. A superb array of ethnographic material includes 18th-century Ottoman childrens’ clothing in silk; a spectacular selection of tribal jewellery and traditional dress for men and women; an extraordinary pair of hamam-slippers made from mother-of-pearl, and beautiful fragments of silk illuminated with elegant calligraphy from Yemen, Egypt and the Maghreb dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries AD.
The antiquities pavilion to the right, stands in a small garden filled with tombstones and mortuary inscriptions in Latin, Punic, and Tifinagh (the original Berber script.) The pavilion was designed by the French to resemble a Roman villa of the sort that once littered the coast of the richest Roman province of the 1st – 5th centuries AD. The portico of the pavilion contains a small selection of mosaics, but the galleries running around the central courtyard hold the real treasures. The first room to the left of the entrance is dedicated to Roman metalwork and contains some stunning and rare examples of classical bronzes, including a beautiful statute of a nymph, or goddess, bending to readjust her sandal-strap. The galleries leading off the ‘Bronze Room’ contain an array of material from sites across Algeria, including a few examples of the famous ‘Albertini Tablets’. These objects are an extraordinary and nearly unique snapshot of provincial Roman life at the end of the 5th century, when the provinces of Roman North Africa were ruled by Vandal kings from their capital at Carthage. 34 wooden tablets dating between 493 – 496 AD were discovered hidden in a stone wall in 1928 near Tebessa, close to the modern Tunisian border. This cache of documents surprised scholars once they had been translated and published in 1952, revealing a previously unrecognised level of literacy and continuity of Roman life in Vandal North Africa. The letters are legal documents relating to land ownership, wills and dowries of the inhabitants of a small, agricultural village. The cache was presumably hidden at the very end of the 5th century during a time of civil unrest and the letters were never retrieved by their original owners for reasons unknown. In the next chamber of the museum are a splendid array of mosaics including examples of the Triumph of Dionysus, the Rape of Europa, and the Triumph of Venus from Roman towns across Algeria. The final gallery contains examples of Roman marble sculpture, including fragments of enormous cult statues, busts of provincial worthies, Roman emperors, their wives and heirs, and objet d’art that once beautified the villas and town houses of the Roman provincial elite.
Following lunch at a local restaurant we take a tour of the city. The country’s largest urban centre, modern Algiers, is a bustling Mediterranean port that can trace her origins back to Carthaginian traders of the 4th century BC. Dominated by the imposing walls of its great citadel, the kasbah is a wonderful collection of meandering alleyways, palaces and mosques that now fall under the protection of UNESCO, whilst, away from the old town, the city’s French colonial heritage embraces a collection of grand buildings and wide boulevards that sweep around the coastline.
The famed Kasbah of Algiers was built primarily during the early 16th century as an Ottoman fortress and palace of the local rulers, the Beys of Algiers, including the famed pirate ‘Redbeard’. It constitutes a unique form of medina or Islamic city, located in one of the finest coastal sites anywhere on the Mediterranean. Divided into an upper, cramped, traditional ‘High Kasbah’ and a more open ‘Lower Kasbah’ rebuilt by the French colonial regime, this area remains the heart of historic Algiers. In amongst higgledy-piggeldy buildings stand the remains of Redbeard’s citadel, mosques, zaouia (Algerian Sufi shrines and madrasas) and Ottoman palaces, as well as vernacular urban architecture inhabited by the same families for generations. The Algiers Kasbah was the site of some of the most infamous fighting during the Algerian War of Independence and the civil war of the 1990s. Pontecorvo’s 1967 thrice Oscar-nominated movie The Battle of Algiers was shot here on location, and many of the ‘actors’ were in fact local people of the Kasbah who had been involved in the events depicted in the film. We include visits to ‘Dar Hasssan Pacha’, an 18th-century Ottoman palace; ‘La Maison du Millénaire’, an ‘Ottoman’ palace built using traditional materials, techniques and styles by a French colonnaire during the 1930s; the zaouia of Sidi Aberrahmane, patron saint of Algiers – all on foot, walking through the atmospheric, narrow, switchback streets of the old city.
Later in the afternoon we explore the 19th-century French colonial Cathedral of Notre-Dame d’Afrique, perched high on a cliff-top overlooking the sea and the neighbourhood of Bab El Oued. Notre-Dame d’Afrique combines Victorian-era classical Roman architecture with Byzantine motifs, conveying a uniquely ‘African’ feel to this ecclesiastical space. We watch the sun begin to set over the sparkling Mediterranean and ‘Alger la Blanche’. (Overnight Algiers) BLD
Day 3: Tuesday 15 March, Algiers – Cherchell – Tipaza – Algiers
- Tomb of the Christian
- Seaport town of Cherchell and its Archaeological Museum
- Roman city of Tipasa
This morning we depart Algiers and drive for some 70 minutes to the picturesque Roman city of Tipasa, set on the shores of the Mediterranean. En route we make a stop near the village of Sidi Rachid to view the striking ‘Mauritanian Tomb’. This so-called ‘Tomb of the Christian’ is a pyramid-like structure, which actually dates to the 3rd or 4th century BC and is believed to have been a Numidian royal tomb, possibly later used to house the bodies of Juba II of Numidia and his wife Queen Selene Cleopatra, daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra Ptolemy.
We then drive to Cherchell, the former Roman port of Caesarea, with its world-class archaeological museum, containing some of the most beautiful Roman mosaics found anywhere in North Africa.
Following a splendid fish lunch at a local restaurant overlooking Tipaza’s harbour, we explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Tipaza. Tipaza (in Roman times, ‘Tipasa’) was an ancient Punic trading post conquered by Rome and turned into a strategic base for its client kingdoms of Numidia and Mauretania. The site comprises a unique group of Phoenician, Numidian, Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine ruins, alongside indigenous monuments such as the Kbor er Roumia, The Great Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania, all set on a glorious wooded hillside overlooking the sea. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to wander the site at will before returning to Algiers for our overnight stay. (Overnight Algiers) BLD
Sétif - 1 night
Day 4: Wednesday 16 March, Algiers – Sétif
- The Archaeological Museum of Sétif incl. 3rd-century AD mosaic Triumph of Dionysus
We depart early this morning and drive 300 kilometres east to Sétif. The city, at an altitude of 1096m, is located in the Hautes Plaines (High Plains), in the Atlas Mountains south of Kabylia. Sétif was originally a Numidian town, named after its local Berber word for ‘black’ in recognition of the incredibly fertile soil. It was refounded as ‘Colonia Nerviana Augusta Martialis Veteranorum Stifensium’ in 97 AD by the Emperor Nerva, who initiated development of a huge city and the capital of the province of Mauretania Setifensis. Sadly, much of the imperial Roman city was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 419 AD and then further ravaged by the Vandals in 520 AD. Sétif was, with the Berbers of the Aurès, one of the two locales which began the Algerian War of Independence on 8 May 1945, resulting in gruesome massacres of 45,000 Algerians and the beginning of the end for the French colonial regime in Algeria.
Our hotel, the new Novotel, is opposite the Sétif Museum, allowing us plenty of opportunity to enjoy the extraordinary collection of mosaics and artefacts excavated from the Roman city. A highlight is the intricate and richly coloured Triumph of Dionysus, one of the most beautifully executed mosaics excavated anywhere in the Roman world, depicting the transport of wild animals from Africa. (Overnight Sétif) BLD
Batna - 3 nights
Day 5: Thursday 17 March, Sétif – Djémila – Batna
- Roman city of Djémila
- Djémila site museum
We depart Sétif early this morning. Our journey of approximately 60 kilometres takes us through a fertile landscape that once made Sétif one of the wealthiest cities in all Roman North Africa, to the site of Djémila: ‘beautiful’ in Arabic.
Roman Cuicul is considered one of the most outstanding of all the Roman urban centres in the entire Maghreb: a spectacularly preserved example of Imperial Roman town planning, specifically adapted to an unusual triangular hillside setting. Situated at 900m above sea level, Djémila contains an impressive array of full-height forum temples, basilicas, triumphal arches and houses, a Byzantine baptistery, Roman theatre and bathhouses. We also explore the spectacular range of mosaics in the small site museum.
In the late afternoon we journey south for approximately 2.5 hours to Batna, capital of the Aurès Massif, the Algerian continuation of the Moroccan Atlas Mountains. (Overnight Batna) BLD
Day 6: Friday 18 March, Batna – Balcons de Ghoufi – Biskra – Sidi Oqba – El Kantara – Batna
- Gorge of Tighanimine and Les Balcons de Ghoufi (Canyon de Ghoufi)
- Mosque of Sidi Oqba
- El Kantera Gorge
Today we explore the hinterland of Batna, including the glorious Aurès Mountains. In the morning we drive south to the beautiful gorge of Tighanimine and the Balcons de Ghoufi. This stunning mountainous region is known for its plunging gorges, twisting canyons and the lush date palm plantations which sit on the valley floor. From a scenic lookout point we may view the villages of traditional houses, constructed in local stone, which cling to the surrounding hillsides.
En route we stop at a commemoration carved into the living rock by Hadrian’s Roman engineers in the 2nd century AD, before driving on to a monument commemorating the Berbers of the Aurès Mountains who fired the first shots for Algerian liberation in the War of Independence in 1954.
We then drive out of the Aurès towards the ancient trading city of Biskra, once the interface between the sophisticated Roman urban world of Numidia and Mauretania and ‘barbarian’ desert tribes. Biskra is surrounded by huge palmeraies and sits astride a broad, almost permanently dry riverbed – a river that floods dramatically in spring and whose waters are stored and utilised to irrigate the famous local date palm plantations.
Following a light lunch at a local restaurant in Biskra we make a short visit to the Mosque of Sidi Oqba. This building is arguably the oldest Islamic structure in the Maghreb, contemporary to the related Great Mosque of Kairouan in modern Tunisia. This mosque commemorates the greatest commander of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya, Oqba ibn Nafi, who steamrollered the Christian Byzantines and Berber petty-kings of North Africa in the mid-to-late 7th century, thoroughly incorporating the Maghreb into the Islamic world. Sidi Oqba famously rode his armies to the shore of the Atlantic in 682 AD, declaring: “Allah! If this sea had not prevented me, I would travel west forever, a new Alexander the Great, upholding your faith and destroying the infidel!’” Returning to his newly-founded capital of Kairouan in 683, Sidi Oqba was ambushed and murdered by the troops of a Berber king while out hunting near Biskra. He was buried at the spot of his murder in the same year and the mosque developed around Sidi Oqba’s mausoleum. Sidi Oqba’s descendants ruled the Ummayad Muslim province of Ifriqiya as one of the earliest Islamic elites, taking the name ‘Fihrids’, many off whom were instrumental in the first Berber-Arab Islamic invasion of Spain in 711 AD.
The mosque itself is very simple and reflects the earliest traditions of mosque construction, resembling the private houses of the 7th-century Arabian peninsula. Inside the whitewashed interior stand a series of simple columns defining the area in front of the qibla for the prayer-carpets of the faithful. Some of the earliest pillars are simple palm-tree trunks protected by a lime wash against insect damage and covered in stucco. The mihrab is decorated with finely-carved stucco of simple geometric patterns and arabesques, crowned with a half-dome containing fluting that radiates out from the prayer-niche. The column capitals are also fluted, mirroring the decoration of the mihrab, and further emphasising the original palm-tree pillars. Two domes crown the body of the mosque, including one directly above the tomb of Sidi Oqba himself. A stunning 9th-century two-leafed door of carved cedar decorates the entrance to the shrine. Outside the mosque is a small fogger – or underground cistern – which almost certainly predates the mosque complex. Beyond the mosque stand the remains of ruined mud-brick houses deliberately blown-up by the Colonial French at the end of the 1950s in reprisal for local Algerians protesting for independence. The houses have been left as a very tangible reminder of Algeria’s troubled recent history.
From Sidi Oqba our journey takes us north past Biskra. Just beyond the city stands a great salt mountain, exploited from Roman times and still producing delicious Saharan crystal salt, sold from stalls besides the road. As we follow the route of the old Roman military road into the foothills of the Aurès, we cross through the stunning El Kantera Gorge at sunset; a gorge traversed by a Roman bridge dating back nearly 2000 years and restored by the French Emperor Napoleon III in 1844. We continue onto Batna, where we enjoy dinner at our hotel. (Overnight Batna) BLD
Day 7: Saturday 19 March, Batna – Timgad – Batna
- Timgad: Roman city of Thamugadi, Museum & Byzantine Fortress
Timgad, or ‘Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi’ was constructed by order of Emperor Trajan in the first century AD to house veterans of the III Augusta Legion, based at Lambaesis. Here, we explore the splendidly preserved buildings that were built to commemorate the emperor’s Trajan’s late mother and beautify an otherwise ordinary, small provincial Roman city. Timgad’s pièce de résistance is the breathtaking Arch of Trajan, but the site is equally notable for examples of almost every edifice included in a traditional Roman urban centre. Thoughtfully excavated, the full-size ruins are extraordinarily atmospheric and entirely deserted.
We explore the Imperial Roman city together, before heading out to the splendidly preserved Byzantine fortress constructed as part of Justinian’s reconquest of Roman North Africa in the 6th century AD. Plenty of time will be allowed to explore the site at leisure and special access to the spectacular (and normally closed) archaeological site museum will hopefully be arranged. This museum features an extraordinary array of mosaics including The Triumph of Venus, surrounded by a grand decorative border, and the mosaic of Filadelfis Vita, in which the god Jupiter chases Antiope. (Overnight Batna) BLD
Constantine - 3 nights
Day 8: Sunday 20 March, Batna – Lambaesis – Medracen – Constantine
- Roman City of Lambaesis
- Lambaesis Mosaic Museum
- Mausoleum of Medracen
This morning we visit the nearby sprawling site of Lambaesis, once the primary Roman military camp defending the rich cities of North Africa from Saharan raiders. Founded in the 1st century AD, the city was built on the orders of Marcus Aurelius and later became the capital of the Roman province of Numidia. Although badly damaged by the French colonial regime, the site still contains an impressive array of ruins. Spread over a large area, surviving monuments include the remarkably well-preserved Camp of Hadrian, the Arch of Commodus and a number of Roman temples, including an asclepion (healing temple sacred to the god Asclepius, the Grecian God of Medicine). We then explore the wonderful mosaics in the small museum of Lambaesis.
A short journey north of Batna through flat farmland, takes us to the mysterious and atmospheric ‘Medracen’ – a vast tumulus mausoleum that dominates the valley into Batna and was probably the resting place of Numidian kings in the 3rd century BC. From here we continue a further 100 kilometres north to the great city of Constantine, where we enjoy dinner at our hotel. (Overnight Constantine) BLD
Day 9: Monday 21 March, Constantine
- City of Constantine: 6 Bridges (incl. Roman Kantara Bridge), Ruins of the Antonian Roman Aqueduct, Grand Mosque & Kasbah
- 19th-century Ottoman Palace of Ahmed Bey
- Constantine’s Cirta Museum
The city of Constantine was originally a foundation of Phoenician traders, eager to exploit the rich agricultural hinterland for the growing city of Carthage. The Phoenicians named their trading colony ‘Sewa’, meaning ‘Royal City’. The city was captured by the Numidian king Syphax, who made it the capital of his Numidian Kingdom, renaming it ‘Cirta’ following the defeat of Carthage by Rome in the Third Punic War. In 112 BC the Numidian King Jugurtha defeated his half-brother Adherbal in a battle for the throne and slaughtered a colony of Roman merchants while occupying Cirta. In reprisal, the Roman generals Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus and Gaius Marius captured Cirta in their war against Jugurtha. When King Juba I was deposed and the remaining supporters of Pompey in Africa in 46 BC vanquished, Julius Caesar awarded special rights to the citizens of Cirta, which became known as ‘Colonia Sittlanorum.’ During the civil war between emperor Maxentius and usurper Domitius Alexander (a former governor of the Roman Province of Africa) Cirta was destroyed. The city was subsequently rebuilt and renamed after the Emperor Constantine the Great in 311 AD, who had defeated Maxentius. Captured by the Vandals in 432 AD, Constantine was in turn liberated by the generals of Justinian and became an integral city of the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa from 534-697 AD. Constantine was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century AD and renamed ‘Qusantina’.
Constantine has remained the most important urban centre in northern Algeria for over 2000 years and its rich history is still visible in the architecture of the modern city, with buildings from the Roman imperial era, Ottoman rule and French colonial governance combining in a beautiful and dramatic cityscape.
We visit the six bridges suspended over the spectacular Rhummel Gorge, including the remains of the 2nd century AD Roman ‘Kantara Bridge’ (a former aqueduct); the exterior of the spectacular Great Mosque of Constantine; and we meander through the narrow lanes of the medieval and Ottoman Kasbah on to the 19th century Ottoman Palace of Ahmed Bey.
Recently renovated, the Ottoman Palace of Ahmed Bey, is considered one of the finest Ottoman-era buildings in the country. The palace contains a series of courtyards filled with olive and orange trees, surrounded by arcades decorated with Tunisian and French tiles.
We complete our exploration with a visit to Constantine’s excellent Cirta Museum. The collection includes archaeological remains from Tiddis, a seated terracotta figure from a 2nd-century BC tomb, and an exquisite marble bust of a woman known as the ‘beauty of Djemila’. (Overnight Constantine) BLD
Day 10: Tuesday 22 March, Constantine – Tiddis – Constantine
- Tiddis – Roman ‘Castellum Tiditanorum
- Time at leisure
We drive for around one hour in the morning to the small hillside Roman site of Tiddis – ‘Castellum Tiditanorum.’ Originally a fortified settlement constructed to protect Roman Cirta, Tiddis is an excellent example of the small urban centres which made North Africa the wealthiest provinces of the Roman 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Colonnades, a triumphal arch and the cardo are among the surviving remains of this imperial centre of Roman culture. Here we may find elements of a lost, cosmopolitan Roman provincial world, with a surviving Mithraim dated to 330 AD and a tangible connection to the UK.
Tiddis was the home of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, born to a Numidian landowning father and Roman citizen. Quintus fought with the 2nd and 22nd Legions in Germany before first being appointed Consul and then Governor of the Roman Province of Brittania under Antinious Pious. During his rule as Governor, Quintus Lollius Urbicus constructed the Antonine Wall across lowland Scotland, demarcating Rome’s northern-most direct rule in continental Europe. Quintus died in 144 AD and dedicated a number of structures in Tiddis to the memory of his Numidian/Roman family.
Following a picnic lunch at Tiddis, we return to Constantine where the remainder of the afternoon is at leisure to further explore the city centre. (Overnight Constantine) BLD
Ghardaia - 3 nights
Day 11: Wednesday 23 March, Constantine – Ghardaia
- Massinissa Tomb, Soumaa El’ Kheoub
- Fly Constantine to Ghardaia (AH6350 1425-1555)
This morning we drive to the small, austere limestone mausoleum of Massinissa, one of the most significant historical figures of late second-millennium North Africa.
Massinissa was the first Amazigh (Berber) king of a united Numidian kingdom, fighting in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) – first with his Punic-speaking Carthaginian kinsmen and then switching sides to join Rome. For his loyal support Massinissa was provided assistance to pacify his Roman-client Kingdom of Numidia, and in turn proved his loyalty at the decisive Battle of Zama in 202 BC, his famed Numidian cavalry defeating the forces of Hannibal. After the battle had been won, Massinissa, who was in love with Sophonisba – a renowned beauty, Carthaginian noblewoman, and former wife of the western Numidian enemy, King Syphax – attempted to persuade the victorious Roman commander, Scipio Africanus, to free Sophonisba into Massinissa’s custody. Africanus famously refused, demanding instead that Sophonisba be taken to Rome in chains and paraded through the streets in formal triumph, as glorious evidence of the final submission of Carthage. In a moment captured in literature and painting, Massinissa famously entered Sophonisba’s tent and persuaded her to drink poison rather than submit to this final Roman humiliation. Following Massinissa’s death in 148 BC, his kingdom was split into smaller client-kingdoms and his descendants include the famed Numidian and Mauretanian kings Juba I and Juba II: whose capital we visit at ancient Caesarea/Cherchell and mausoleum we explore at the so-called ‘Tomb of the Christian.’
This afternoon we fly from Constantine to Ghardaia, capital of the M’Zab valley. On arrival we transfer to our hotel surrounded by the M’Zab desert landscape. (Overnight Ghardaia) BLD
Day 12 & Day 13: Thursday 24 March & Friday 25 March, Ghardaia
- The UNESCO World Heritage setting of the M’Zab Valley
Ghardaia, as the M’Zab valley is usually called, after its largest city, is unlike anywhere else in Algeria. Separated by both distance and culture from the Mediterranean north, or even the Algerian Sahara of Tamanrasset, the M’Zab is a distinctive environment that has preserved and fostered an equally distinctive society. The rocky landscape is irrigated by ingenious indigenous techniques, creating huge palm groves, harvested by the local Mozabite people. These hardy folk follow the Ibadi sect of Islam and have constructed five fortified cities in the valley, to keep out ‘heretic’ overlords, bandits and slavers alike.
The Mozabites were Berber people who retreated to the M’Zab valley in the 12th century following the collapse of the Rustamid state centred on Tiaret. The Mozabites built concentric fortified cities, surrounding central, fortress-like mosques whose minarets were used as watchtowers. Dwellings, storerooms and other structures ring the main mosque in expanding clustered circles, emphasising family privacy and communal egalitarianism and some of the towns are still protected by high walls. The Mozabites were isolated from the rest of the Maghreb for many years and are proudly Berber, rather than Arab. The Ibadi sect emphasises the aspect of peace in Islam and the community is very welcoming to outsiders who respect their religious and cultural traditions.
We spend two days exploring the small cities of El Atteuf, Melika, Ghardaia and the ‘Holy City’ of Beni Isguen. Women in M’Zab traditionally would turn to face the wall when passing a stranger and while today, cultural norms are more relaxed, photography of the local population is strictly forbidden without their express permission.
The market of Ghardaia provides an opportunity to explore a traditional working Maghreb souq, with all the colour and variety of the larger Moroccan counterparts and with none of the hassle or touts – an experience unlike anywhere else in North Africa: haggling for example is not only unwelcome but considered impolite, and prices are both low and fair.
We also visit ancient mosques and wander the stone-lined streets of these extraordinary desert towns, soaking up the atmosphere of a unique culture and built urban environment. (Overnight Ghardaia) BLD
Taghit - 2 nights
Day 14: Saturday 26 March, Ghardaia – Bechar – Taghit
- Fly Ghardaia to Bechar via Algiers (AH6201 0815-0945, AH6132 1445-1700)
- Drive to Tahgit
We leave behind the Moazabite people of the M’Zab and fly over the barren wastes of the central Algerian Sahara, westwards to the desert town of Bechar. From Bechar we drive south for about 60 miles to the stunning oasis village of Taghit, where enormous golden dunes are poised like waves over the eastern end of the village, tranquil date palms rustle in the desert breeze and an ancient mud-brick fortified citadel dominates the oasis skyline. Our 4-star hotel offers the perfect environment in which to relax and soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the stunning Saharan night sky. (Overnight Taghit) BLD
Day 15: Sunday 27 March, Taghit
- Fortified citadel (Ksar)
- Oasis tour on foot: Targhit’s red mud-brick village
- Optional climb of dunes at sunset
This morning we drive to the base of the pinnacle on which a tiny, and atmospherically photogenic, mud-brick fortified citadel (‘ksar’) and ancient mosque dominates the oasis. These small citadels still litter the rocky high points of the Algerian Sahara and are a tangible reminder of the great wealth that once flowed north and south across the desert. Camel caravans laden with the gold of west Africa, slaves, and salt once traversed this most hostile of landscapes, while bandits and raiders predated upon this now-forgotten ancient highway.
We then enjoy a leisurely exploration of Taghit, a small, desert town, constructed from traditional red mud-brick architecture – perfectly designed to counter the extreme summer heat.
In the late afternoon we have the option of relaxing at the hotel, or for the more energetically inclined, scrambling to the top of the giant dunes that threaten to engulf the oasis of Taghit and view the roiling Sahara of popular imagination. (Overnight Taghit) BLD
Timimoun - 2 nights
Day 16: Monday 28 March, Taghit – Béni Abbès – Timimoun
- Walk through palmeraies & white village, Béni Abbès
- Sahara Museum, Béni Abbès
- ‘La Fraternité’ – the small hermitage of Père de Foucauld, Béni Abbès
We leave behind sleepy Taghit and drive across the Sahara for around two and half hours before arriving at the oasis town of Béni Abbès. Known as the ‘Pearl of the Sahara’, Béni Abbès is constructed from traditional mud-brick architecture, but unlike most of the nearby oasis settlements, Béni Abbès’ buildings gleam white under the Saharan sun and her inhabitants are Arab, rather than Berber, or African.
We wander the sleepy town and explore the museum of the Sahara, gaining an insight into a time when this landscape was once green and filled with giraffe, hippos and lions – the ‘Green Sahara’ recorded forever on beautiful rock-paintings.
We also visit a small hermitage dedicated to Charles de Foucauld. This extraordinary man has been called by Douglas Porch “a modern-day Augustine” and by Ali Merad “a Christian marabout”. De Foucauld was a graduate of France’s prestigious military academy (1876) and the French cavalry school at Saumur (1878). As a young officer, Foucauld initially led a decadent and dissipated life, but the people and cultures of the Maghreb left a positive, lasting impression while he served with the French occupation forces. He left the Army to explore Morocco and the western Sahara disguised as a servant of a Moroccan rabbi. This journey resulted in his book Reconnaisance au Maroc, 1883-84 (1888). Foucauld developed a deep appreciation of Islam, asceticism, spirituality, and the shared commonalities of the Abrahamic faiths. He travelled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage and entered a Cistercian Trappist monastery. Although asked to leave by the Trappists, as temperamentally unsuited to life in the Order, he was ordained in France in 1901 and the same year moved back the Sahara. Initially, Foucauld set up a hermitage at Béni Abbès to work with the local Arabs and Berbers. He quickly came up against stiff resistance from the French colonial authorities, who were deeply disturbed by Foucauld’s insistence on educating Algerians, irrelevant of their religious background. In 1905, de Foucauld moved south to his famous retreat at Assekrem, constructed high on a peak in the desolate and awesome Ahaggar (Hoggar) Mountains near Tamanrasset, in the Sahara. This humble ascetic attempted the gentle conversion of the local desert tribes through exemplifying the concept of a charitable “universal brother”. Foucauld gained the trust of the Tuareg people, learning their language – Tamahaq – resulting in the first written dictionary of Tuareg Berber, still the standard work on the subject and published posthumously in 4 volumes after his tragic murder in 1916, aged 58. The community Foucauld founded at Béni Abbès and Assekrem was formally recognised as a religious order by the Catholic authorities in 1933 as the ‘Little Brothers of Jesus’ – despite heavy opposition from both the French Algerian colonial and church authorities, deeply disturbed by the Order’s insistence on their mission to continue educating Algerian Arabs and Berbers. De Foucauld was beatified in 2005, is listed as a martyr in the Catholic liturgy, and in 2013, a small community of Australian consecrated brothers – inspired by de Foucauld’s teachings and life of humility – formed the ‘Little Eucharistic Brothers of Divine Will’ in Perth.
After an early lunch we then head east across the Sahara to the largest of the western oases – to the ancient ‘red’ town of Timimoun. (Overnight Timimoun) BLD
Day 17: Tuesday 29 March, Timimoun – Ighzer – Timimoun
- 4WD excursion to the Ksar of Ighzer
- Sundan Gate, Market & Covered Souk
Timimoun is surrounded by lush palmeraies, magnificent towering sand dunes, and flanked by an ivory-grained salt lake. This morning we take 4x4s out into the ‘Grand Erg Occidental’ – a Saharan landscape of towering dunes, snaking wadis, and lonely, forgotten ksour. We shall explore the finest example of these desert fortresses at Ighzer, recently excavated by an Italian team of archaeologists.
All desert towns are reliant on their permanent water supplies and Timimoun is no different. The ancient and still-functioning ‘foggara‘ system is a local adaptation of a technology that was first developed 3000 years ago in northern Afghanistan and transmitted west to the desert peoples of the Maghreb in the 1st millennium AD by Arab-Islamic conquerors. Underground channels carry water from distant aquifers and redistribute for local use by private houses and to irrigate the palm plantations. Hundreds of these foggara are still in use in western Algeria and we will examine this extraordinary life-giving technology during our morning excursion.
Our 4x4s then take us back to the tranquil surroundings of the Timimoun oasis, crossing the salt lake en route. Before reaching Timimoun we break for lunch at the house of a local village sheik where we are served a bedouin lunch made from vegetables and fruit sourced from his home garden.
Once the site of the largest slave market in west Africa that was only abolished by the French in 1912, this heart-rending trade has left a tangible reminder of past sorrows in the physiognomy of many of Timimoun’s friendly inhabitants. Despite being the largest of the oasis towns, it is still relatively small and divided into an old town and ‘new’ town.
The old town – the ksour – is constructed from red mud-brick homes which compete both for space and the desert breeze, virtually stacked on top of one another. The narrow streets are protected in true desert fashion, shaded by large cloth awnings to relieve the inhabitants from the blazing Saharan sun. Here, we explore the covered souk and the town’s market filled with local women traders dressed in glorious fabrics and resembling galleons in full-sail. ‘New’ Timimoun was constructed by the Colonial French and still carries a dusty air of Beau Geste; we shall visit the ‘Sudan Gate’ or ‘Southern Gate’ which once linked French colonial Algeria with French colonial Mali and Niger. (Overnight Timimoun) BLD
Tlemcen - 2 nights
Day 18: Wednesday 30 March, Timimoun – Oran – Tlemcen
- Fly Timimoun to Oran (AH6379 1115-1340)
- Lalla Setti Plateau
This morning we fly north from the Saharan trading entrepôt of Timimoun, to the great Mediterranean sea-port city of Oran. Algeria’s second city of over 1.5 million inhabitants, is like the capital, orientated towards the sea. Unlike the cities of eastern Algeria, Oran has no real Berber or Roman past and developed in the 10th century as a port connecting Islamic Andalusia with the cities of the Maghreb. This close relationship with Al-Andalus is reflected in the cultural and architectural traditions of the city, which were further enhanced after the Berber Almoravid, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, moved his capital to Tlemcen in 1080 and used Oran as his dynasty’s primary port, knitting together Almoravid Morocco, western Algeria, and southern Spain. The city was ruled by the Spanish from 1509-1792, only to be lost to the Ottomans. A massive earthquake had flattened much of early Oran in 1790 and when the French conquered Algeria in the 19th century, they reconstructed much of the city in the glorious, if shabby, Belle Époque style that we see today.
Oran is still very different in character and atmosphere from other Algerian cities, with a lively reputation as a party town, a strong tradition of investigative journalism, and birthplace of the youth music Rai. From Oran’s airport we drive south west to the city of Tlemcen where we will spend two nights. On arrival we make a brief stop at the Tlemcen Lalla Setti Plateau, where at 1000m, we may enjoy panoramic views of the city. (Overnight Tlemcen) BLD
Day 19: Thursday 31 March, Tlemcen
- Great Mosque of Tlemcen
- Mosque of Sidi Abi Hasan
- Citadel of El-Mechouar: Zianides Royal Residence & Royal Mosque
- 13th-century ruins of ancient Mansourah
Today we explore the great Islamic city of Tlemcen – a contrast with Romanised eastern Algeria. Tlemcen surprisingly shares her culture and architecture with the Islamic cities of Morocco. Tlemcen was founded as the Roman military-town of Pomaria (‘The Orchards’) in the 2nd century AD, and Vandal and Byzantine Pomaria remained a largely Christian city for centuries following the conquest by the ‘Ummayad Arabs in 708 AD. Late 8th and early 9th-century Tlemcen grew into a city-state kingdom of the Banu Ifran, who fortified numerous small Saharan oases, linking them into a trans-Saharan caravan route terminating at Tlemcen. In 1082 AD, Almoravid Yusuf ibn Tashfin founded the city of Tagrart (‘encampment’ in Berber) outside the city walls – an encampment that merged with the besieged city of Agadir which, following Almoravid capture, was renamed Tlemcen. Tlemcen passed from Almoravid to Almohad control during the mid-12th century. In the early 13th century, Ibn Ghaniya attempted to restore Almoravid control of the Maghreb. The region around Tlemcen was devastated by retreating Almoravid forces, before their final defeat by the Almohads at the Battle of Jebel Nafusa in 1210 AD. Despite the destruction of Tlemcen’s already feeble agricultural base, Tlemcen again rose to prominence as a major trading and administrative centre under the the Almohad dynasty.
With the collapse of Almohad rule in the 1230s, Tlemcen became the capital of the Zayyanid kingdom of Tlemcen (1236-1556 AD). During the later Middle Ages, Tlemcen served as a trading city connecting the Maghreb with trans-Saharan caravan routes, housing a European trading centre (funduk) that directly connected West African kingdoms with European merchants. Tlemcen was one of the key points through which African gold (arriving from south of the Sahara via Sijilmasa or Taghaza) entered Europe. Tlemcen was integrated into the European financial system where Genoese bills of exchange freely circulated amongst merchants not subject to (or deterred by) religious prohibitions. At the peak of her power, in the first half of the 14th century, Tlemcen was a city of 40,000 inhabitants, housing several famous madrasas, and the principal intellectual centre of the Maghreb. In the souq around the Great Mosque, merchants sold carpets from the East, slaves and gold from across the Sahara, and Mediterranean maritime booty “redirected” to Tlemcen by corsairs – alongside European imports available at the funduk. Later in the 14th century, the city twice fell under the rule of the Marinid sultan, Abu al-Hasan Ali (1337-48 AD) and his son Abu ‘Inan, but they were unable to hold the region against local resistance.
When the Spanish captured Oran in 1509, pressure from Berbers prompted the Spanish to attempt a counterattack against Tlemcen in 1543, which the Papacy named a Crusade. The Spanish failed to take the city in their first assault but the strategic vulnerability of Tlemcen shifted the locus of the Islamic kingdom towards the more heavily fortified corsair base at Algiers. In 1554, the kingdom of Tlemcen came under Ottoman rule, who ruthlessly deposed the Zayyanid dynasty. The Spanish were evicted from Oran in 1792, but thirty years later replaced by the French. A French fleet bombarded Algiers in 1830, with the Dey capitulating to the French, while a broad coalition of Algerians continued to resist, coordinated loosely from Tlemcen. French colon developed Tlemcen as a holiday retreat, as the climate is far more temperate than Oran or Algiers. This French city was cosmopolitan, with a unique combination of Moorish, Moroccan, African, and European art, culture, and architecture, and blossomed until the bloody independence movements of the mid-twentieth century.
Our day begins with a visit to the great Jami, or Congregational, Mosque of Tlemcen – one of the finest Islamic buildings in all of North Africa. The original layout was commissioned by Yusuf Ibn Tashfin in 1136 AD and just like the Great Mosque of Algiers, an internal ascetic sobriety powerfully contrasts with the decorated central aisle and mihrab. In front of the mihrab is a superb dome, ornamented with interlacing fillets, that diffuse bright sunshine with a translucent beauty.
Nearby, at one of the central squares, is the 13th-century Mosque of Sidi Abi Hasan. This mosque was built in 1296 AD and named in honor of Abu El Hassan Ben Yekhlef Ettenessi, a celebrated Islamic jurist and scholar. Under French rule, the building was appropriated by colonial authorities and served as storage for animal feed, a school, and a museum. During the last decade, the museum has been transferred and the mosque restored. Inside, the prayer room features beautiful onyx columns.
We then visit the Citadel of El-Mechouar, built over the remains of the early settlement of Agadir by Almoravid Yusuf ibn Tashfin in 1145 AD. Inside the citadel we tour the royal residence of Yaghmurasen Ibn Zyan, founder of the Zayyanid dynasty. Built in 1248 AD, the palace consists of four wings surrounding a patio, garden and ornamental lake. The palace was fully restored to commemorate Tlemcen, as Capital of Islamic Culture in 2011. We also view the royal mosque, built by the Zayyanid prince Abu Hammou Moussa in 1317 AD. While the interior of the mosque was modified during the Ottoman period, the minaret still retains exquisite detailing from the Zayyanid period.
Following lunch in town we drive west out of Tlemcen and beyond the gate of Bab El Khamis. We explore the ruins of the city/military camp of Mansourah, founded in 1299 AD by the Marinid Sultan Abou Yacoub, who was besieging the Zayyanid capital of Tlemcen. Yacoub encircled the western part of Tlemcen with a huge wall, 4000 metres long, 12 metres high and surmounted by 80 towers. The Marinid siege was broken and their encampment eventually merged with Tlemcen as a new city suburb. Mosques, villas, hamams, and internal rabat walls were constructed within Mansourah, but an unreliable water supply meant the suburb was slowly abandoned from 1336. A 40-metre-high minaret still impresses at two-thirds its original height, while the backdrop of the ruined town provides an atmospheric frame.
In the late afternoon we return to Tlemcen for dinner. (Overnight Tlemcen) BLD
Algiers - 1 night
Day 20: Friday 1 April, Tlemcen – Algiers
- El-‘Ubbad: mosque, madrasa and tomb of Sidi Boumediène
- Cascades d’el Ourit
- Farewell Lunch
- Fly Tlemcen to Algiers (AH66119 1720-1850)
This morning we visit the beautiful complex of Sidi Boumediène. Abu Maydyan, or Sidi Boumediène was born near Seville in 1115 AD, studied my Sufi mystics in Almoravid Morocco, and developed his own brotherhood. He was a poet, mystic, and known as ‘Sheik of Sheiks’ as so many North African Sufis were trained by him, or his followers. His beautiful tomb was constructed in 1197 when he died in Tlemcen en route to Marrakech. Nearby stands a lovely mosque built in 1339 AD and a madrasa constructed in 1347, where the famed Ibn Khaldun lectured to students in the 1360s.
From Sidi Boumediène we journey through the Tlemcen National Park, home to 141 animal specials including 100 different species of birds of which 38 are protected. Here we visit the picturesque waterfall – Cascades d’el Ourit.
Returning to Tlemcen, we enjoy a farewell lunch before taking an early evening flight to Algiers. Due to our late arrival, our final group evening meal will be served at the hotel. (Overnight Algiers) BLD
Day 21: Saturday 2 April, Depart Algiers
- Time at leisure
- Mid-Morning Airport transfer for participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
We enjoy free time to explore Belle Époque Algiers (near our hotel), before joining the coach transfer to Algiers International Airport for the ASA ‘designated’ flight back home to Australia. Alternatively, you may wish to extend your stay in Algeria. Please contact ASA if you require further assistance. B