Ghardaia: Gateway to the Sahara
The valley of Ghardaia is made up of five towns: Ben Isguen, El Atteuf, Bou Nara, Melika and, last of all, Ghardaia. Four hundred miles south of Algiers, in a hostile natural environment, the Mozabites have managed to construct a society that is strict but close-knit, devout but not fundamentalist. Ghardaia is the final city before plunging into the largest desert in the world.
The writer and traveller Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was wont to say that the men of the M'Zab were ugly and that the women were sad - sad because their husbands are so ugly. Poetic fancy or literary flight-of-foot from this advocate of oddity who settled in Tangiers?
In the labyrinthine medinas of Ghardaia it is difficult enough to make eye contact with the women let alone read their thoughts. They hide their faces behind a veil whose two ends open just wide enough to allow a single eye to appear, as required by Mozabite tradition.
A Westerner could look on this with sadness, indifference or even anger, an insult to the status of women. As for the men, dressed in white and clad in a gandoura tunic and araguia (a small, traditional head-dress), whether one meets them in the narrow streets of the souk or on the paths of the palm grove, nothing would warrant such opprobrium.
Welcoming, but neither inquisitive nor invasive, they keep their distance out of respect for foreigners and hope for the same respect in return.
The M'Zab, located nearly four hundred miles south of the capital Algiers and 750 miles north of Tamanrasset, capital of the Hoggar, is the absolute centre of the desert. Set amidst rocky, stony ground, the region has retained the primitive flavour of a land unpolluted and even spurned by tourism. But it is here that the Sahara begins.
Only the exiled and saintly could have settled in such an inhospitable place. When the first Mozabites established a colony at the far end of the Chebka, a broad wadi cut out of the flat, sharp and rocky desert, they preferred exile rather than living cheek by jowl with orthodox Islam.
With all the rigour of which they are capable, these devout Muslims dug out deep wells from the rock over several generations so that their sons and the sons of their sons could benefit from them. They fertilised this hostile environment, planted date palms, created orchards and luxuriant gardens, developed irrigation channels and ingenious systems for gathering and storing rainwater so that no drop is lost. "Water is a gift from God", explains Brahim Hadjuut, a scholarly teacher whom we met at Ben Isguen.
As if by magic, five towns emerged from the emptiness, the first of which was Al Atteuf in 1011, Bou Noura in 1046, Ghardaia in 1048, then Melika and finally Ben Isguen, the "holy city", three centuries later. Thus are born the pentapolis cities of the M'Zab Valley, with Ghardaia as their crowning jewel, like five daughters begotten by the desert.
The article above, originally entitled Ghardaia: La Porte du Désert and written by Santiago Mendiéta, was originally published in the French journal Histoire et Patrimoine, Algérie. The piece was translated by Culturissima.