On the edge of the Sahara in Algeria, five ancient fortified villages in the M’zab Valley preserve a unique Islamic culture lasting more than 1000 years.
The Mozabities – as the valley’s inhabitants are known – adhere to the beliefs of an orthodox Muslim sect, and for centuries this desert isolation has preserved their Ibadi Islamic traditions.
They still speak their own language (Tumzabt) and are related a nomadic ethnic group of the Berber Tribe that settled here in the 11 AD.
The M’zab Valley consists of 5 walled towns built between the 11th and 14th centuries
“Each of these miniature citadels, surrounded by walls, is dominated by a mosque, the minaret of which functions as a watchtower. The mosque is conceived as a fortress, the last bastion of resistance in the event of a siege, and comprises an arsenal and a grain store. Around this building, which is essential for communal life, are houses built in concentric circles up to the ramparts. Each house constitutes a cubic cell of standard type, illustrating an egalitarian society founded on the respect for the family structure, aiming at the preservation of its intimacy and autonomy.”
Today a population of 360,000 lives in the M’zab Valley, residing in the towns of El-Atteuf, the oldest – founded in 1012, Melika, Bounoura, the holy city of Beni-Isguen, and Ghardaia, the main settlement and hub of commerce.
Surrounded by desert and enduring years without rain, the Ibadis of the M’Zab Valley have relied on aquifers for water deep below the Sahara. And along with a palm oasis of over 100,000 trees, this has been the key to survival.
Regulation of these precious resources is monitored by a religious council, enforcing strict rules on water use and protection of the date palms (cutting down trees is forbidden).
Beni-Isgen is the most startling town in the M’zab Valley
Beni-Isgen is the holy city of the M’zab area, and strict rules guide both the living – and, the visiting here.
As a foreigner, I could only visit during certain hours and had to be accompanied by a local guide. (1)
The guide also checked the alleys – for people, before allowing me to take photos.
Alleys of dust-yellow walls are broken by arched doorways and above, small barred windows with blue shutters.
In the shady, narrow, cobbled lanes it is quiet. Stone quiet. Stuck in a Medieval-non-mechanical silence.
Beni-Isgen has no cafes, restaurants or hotels.
And smoking isn’t permitted within its old walls.
At 5 p.m a small market is held in the town square (no shops or souvenir stalls here) where robed men in white skull-caps gather to trade, but mostly it’s just a place for neighbours to relax and talk.
Mozabite women are traditionally cloaked in white
From head to heel and drawn across the face, often allowing only one eye to show.
Some young M’zab men told me, they called them “Phantoms”.
They cannot marry outsiders.
NOTES from the road – 1991:
As we wind
a pastel picture fills the oasis
and above the palms,
stepped slopes of square
A mosque crowns each town
like a king.
And above everything
points a lone minaret,
its tower tapering towards Allah.
Leaving the M’zab valley, I begin to hitchhike (2) south on an unshaded desert road.
Sweat drips. My waterbottle leaks.
A deranged boy pulls at my pack-straps, then unzips a pocket.
I tell him: “No”. A man shoos him off with stones.
The urchin screeches and shouts – scurrying away like an annoyed Hyena.
I watch him now in the distance, tight-roping the bridge railing as a police car slows beside the disturbed desert jackal.
(1) Things change and have gotten stricter to avoid a “Saharan Disneyland”, according to a recent BBC article stating that visitors – foreigners and also Algerians – must now be accompanied by a local guide in order to enter all of the M’zab towns (not just Beni-Isgen). Furthermore, in the historic town centers, selfies are banned; likewise the use of phones and off course, wearing immodest clothing. And photographing the local people remains mostly off-limits.
(2) My visit to M’zab was part of longer journey of hitchhiking across the entire Sahara Desert – north to south, from El Oued in Algeria to Zinder in Niger in 1991.