Spilling down precipitous hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, this mazelike quarter of Algiers, the capital of Algeria, has long conjured up both Arab exoticism and political turbulence. Dating back to Phoenician times but rebuilt by the Ottomans in the late 1700s, the Casbah has served over the centuries as a refuge for pirates, freedom fighters, Islamic militants and petty thieves, all of whom found easy anonymity in its alleys and houses sequestered behind imposing stone walls.
But the often violent history of the Casbah has obscured an appreciation of the quarter's architectural and cultural riches. Preservationists consider it one of the most beautiful examples of late Ottoman style. Its once-whitewashed structures, facing onto narrow passages and constructed around enclosed courtyards, contain a wealth of hidden treasures—marble floors, fountains, carved lintels, intricate mosaics. For generations, writers and artists have celebrated the mystery, tragedy and rhythms of life in the Casbah in literature and painting. "Oh my Casbah," wrote Himoud Brahimi, the poet laureate of the quarter, in 1966, four years after the Algerian resistance defeated the French occupiers. "Cradle of my birth, where I came to know loyalty and love. How can I forget the battles in your alleys, that still bear the burdens of war?" Djamila Issiakhem, who grew up here in the 1960s as the niece of a famous Algerian artist, remembers the vibrant Casbah of her youth as a place where women and girls, escaping their traditional confinement, congregated in hammams, public baths, to gossip and discuss marital prospects. (The suggestive entreaty, "Come with me to the Casbah," is not from the 1938 movie Algiers, starring Charles Boyer, but from an impersonation of Boyer by the cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, in The Cat's Bah, an animated short.)
But the Casbah's glory days ended decades ago, and much of the old city has crumbled into ruin. During the war for independence, thousands of rural Algerians flocked to the Casbah, where life was marginally safer and rents were cheap. The population climbed from 30,000 in 1958 to more than 80,000 today; as many as ten families crammed into some dwellings, putting unbearable strains on many houses. Earthquakes, torrential rains and flooding eroded foundations and walls further, and when one house fell, it often took down two or three others with it. Today much of the Casbah is a dingy slum, its refuse-strewn lots and fissure-ridden houses reeking of sewage and uncollected garbage. Of 1,200 traditional Ottoman-era buildings, just 680 are considered in good condition. Within a generation, some preservationists say, it is possible that the entire quarter could be uninhabitable. "The Casbah has lost its soul," says Issiakhem, who leads tours of it for Western diplomats and a handful of foreign tourists. "The question is whether we can ever get it back."
The Casbah has been demolished—and resurrected—many times over two millennia. Around the sixth century b.c., the Phoenicians built a trading port, Ikosim, on the flat ground along the sea. The Romans occupied the same site shortly before the birth of Christ; it was sacked and burned by the Vandals in the fifth century. A Berber Muslim dynasty founded a new city on the ruins, calling it El Djazair, or the islands, named after a latticework of islets just off the coast that form a natural breakwater for the harbor. During the next 500 years, various Berber dynasties surrounded the city with walls and extended it up into the hills.
After Algiers came under Ottoman rule in 1516, they turned the old, walled city into one of the triumphs of North African architecture: city planners built 100 fountains, 50 hammams, 13 large mosques and more than 100 prayer halls. (The word "casbah," from the Arabic for fortified place, came to be used not only for the citadel at the summit of the hill, but for the entire city below.) The walled city, under constant threat from European invaders, enforced a curfew, but it was invoked with style: at night a flutist made the rounds, playing a Turkish melody called a coupe jambe, to announce it. And the Casbah was awash in wealth: Algerian privateers plied the Mediterranean, plundering European ships and often holding captives for ransom. Fra Filippo Lippi, the master painter of the Italian Renaissance, was taken as a prisoner to the Casbah; so was Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, following a sea battle in 1575, and ransomed back to Spain after five years—and four escape attempts—for a few hundred gold ducats.
To local historians, including Belkacem Babaci, this Ottoman period represents the apex of the nation's power and glory. Babaci argues that the corsairs had every justification for their actions, considering the declaration of war against the Ottomans by, at various times, Spanish and French rulers. "The Europeans launched 17 expeditions against Algeria in 1541 alone," he told me, as we sipped coffee on the terrace of the El Djazair Hotel, a colonial-era villa perched high on a hill overlooking the Casbah. "Thirty thousand soldiers were sent to attack the Casbah, in revenge for the ‘insolence' of the Algerian corsairs, but they failed."
What the Europeans couldn't destroy, natural disaster did. In 1716, an earthquake flattened three-quarters of the Casbah; the Ottomans rebuilt the city over the next quarter century. By 1871 the French had defeated the Ottomans and indigenous Algerians. They would subject the country to 132 years of French colonial rule. Believing that the Casbah's hivelike alleys offered ideal conditions for armed resistance, the French razed houses within its northern perimeter. They also bisected the city with a central boulevard, the better to move troops, and widened other streets. These thoroughfares, bordered by now-crumbling apartments with French windows and filigreed balconies, provide a dissonant taste of Paris in a deeply Arab milieu. The French face-lift, however, failed to tamp down the spirit of resistance.
For the moment, a few well-heeled individuals are taking the lead in rescuing the Casbah on a house-by-house basis. On one of the final days of my stay, a guide from the Casbah Foundation led Ali and me down an alley near a busy market. We'd come to meet Moulidj Zubir, whose 400-year-old, once-derelict villa, owned two centuries ago by the British ambassador, serves as a model, we'd been told, of what the old quarter could look like. Zubir, a white-bearded man in his 70s, met us at the entrance. "This was a maison de maître," a master's house, he explained, leading us through a marble-tiled entrance hall to a three-story loggia. Sunlight filtered through a crystal skylight, softly illuminating a lavishly renovated palace. Two stories of colonnaded arches, hung with dozens of brass and copper lanterns, encircled the gallery. Each floor was a feast of balustraded balconies; dark teak screens; arches embellished with mosaics of orange, peacock-blue and sea-green flora; thick oak doors inlaid with brass flowers.
Salons and bedrooms off the loggia contained silver samovars, Syrian marble-inlaid chairs, Persian carpets, silk curtains. Leading us to the top floor, Zubir gazed down into the atrium. "There are maybe four or five other people who have done what I've done, but no more than that," he said. "I did it for my son, so that he can continue living in the Casbah after I'm gone."
By Joshua Hammer
Photographs by Eric Sander
Smithsonian Magazine, July 2007