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M'Zab Valley

M'Zab Valley
The M'Zab Valley is a region of the northern Sahara that holds five traditional fortified villages (ksour). The Ibadis settled here from the 11th century on, making the most of the defensive possibilities. Their settlements included palm groves where they built a summer citadel (used during the seasonal migrations).

The Valley was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an intact example of traditional human habitat perfectly adapted to the environment. They were an inspiration to modern city-planners like Le Corbusier.

The five ksour included are:
- El Atteuf
- Bou Noura
- Beni Isguen
- Melika
- Ghardaia


Solivagant (UK):
The 5 inscribed towns of the M’zab valley are, despite the lack of tourists currently visiting Algeria, one of its (relatively) “honey pot” sites and about the only place where we met other tourists in Dec 2012. What draws them is primarily the feeling that one is entering a closed society as evidenced in both the design and architecture of the towns and the culture of their people. The architecture is regarded as having influenced a number of modern architects – particularly Le Corbusier who visited in 1931 and 33 (at least, since he spent a lot of time in Algeria). The culture is that of the Mozabite people - a Berber tribe, most of whom are Ibadi Muslims. They reached the M’zab valley around 1010 AD after being expelled by the Sunni Fatamids from their earlier home in the north which had become Ibadi around 770 AD under the Rustamid dynasty which had a Persian origin (today the World’s largest Ibadi community is in Oman). The circumstances of their choice of M’zab came about from the need for defense and security – the hills above the valley are still scattered with watch towers, the towns are designed as fortresses and partaking in the overnight guard duty is still an important aspect of Mozabite male culture. They remained independent through to the 19th C, first concluding an agreement with France in 1853 to maintain it and finally succumbing in 1882. Ibadi religious belief favours “dissociation” from (but not hostility towards) those who don’t share their world view. We felt we gained greatly from having a Mozabite guide with us all the time – the non-tangible aspects of Mozabite culture interact significantly with Mzab’s visible sights but you need explanation and discussion to understand both.

Across 2 days we visited 4 of the towns and also paid a visit out to the Date Palm Groves of Ghardaia. In theory, one is not allowed to enter the towns through the limited number of gates in the walls without a local guide – notices to that effect are at every gate, though guides are only available at the “main” entrance”. Our Mozabit guide throughout Algeria happened to be from Ghardaia but he was still punctilious about picking up a guide from the guide office (who actually added little to what he said) apart from a quick traverse we made through Melika and the visit to the date palm groves – where we visited that one belonging to his family. A male in inconspicuous clothes might get away without a guide (not all men wear the traditional “baggy” trousers!!) but I wouldn’t bank on it and it is perhaps a site where a guide can be useful. A female is going to stand out like a sore thumb as all the local women go out totally covered in white with just a small gap for one eye! We were told that the “guide” rule even applied to Algerians from Algiers. The other “rule” which is applied somewhat aggressively at times is “no photography of people” – especially the ladies in white. This can be interpreted as meaning even if they are 100 metres away and you are photographing a building. Some of the ladies are accompanied by family “minders” and, on one occasion, there was a slightly tense situation where one of our small group was made to delete a photograph for just having taken a “long shot”. You will have to make up your own mind about the legitimacy of their desire not to be photographed in the streets of their town and whether (as is possible) you try to break the rule!

A guided trip through each of the 3 main towns takes around 1-1.5 hours. You could manage 4 in a day but generally the timetable is oriented to less than this with a very long lunch break (even in winter when it isn’t really very hot!). All the towns except El Atteuf (which is about 10 kms away) are very close together. Ghardaia is by far the largest. It should be mentioned that these are no isolated desert oases. The Ghardaia area is growing rapidly, its economy fed by the nearby Gas fields (and we were told that gas has just been found under Ghardaia itself – an interesting future issue for UNESCO!). A large new town has been built above the valley with an Industrial estate and a University. The roads are busy with traffic – except of course inside the towns and in the palm groves. All of the towns we visited had bilingual Arabic/French signs with UNESCO logos at the entrance and at significant points within them. The towns are in essence all very similar – narrow concentric streets with alleyways between leading up to a summit mosque. The towns have often been extended over the centuries and contain a series of walls and gates. Specific “highlights” of each town were as follows -
a. El Attouf
The main “speciality” is the Mausoleum/Mosque of Sidi Brahim – A striking, low, white building with irregularly curved thick exterior walls, small windows and interior arches. It is claimed to be Le Corbusier’s inspiration for Ronchamp (photo)
b. Beni Isguen
The Boulila tower at the summit can be entered and climbed – giving a fine view over the whole M’zab valley.
c. Melika
Contains the Tomb and Mausoleum of Sheikh sidi Aissa, a photo of which has been used by UNESCO on its web site to represent Mzab. The impression given, wrongly, by the photo is that the white structures are large buildings – in fact they are small tombs situated just outside Melika in a compound next to the town cemetery. It can be visited therefore without entering the town proper which, as the smallest of the 5, doesn’t operate a guide system and (like the 5th town of Bou Noura, we were told) doesn’t want visitors anyway (though we walked through its main street to our vehicle which had parked on the other side – it contained nothing of particular note beyond what we had seen in the other towns!)
d. Ghardaia
The market square just outside the city walls is the valley’s prime “tourist shopping” area – mainly carpets and dates! Inside the walls are yet more alleyways and arches leading up to the biggest of the minarets – but this one can’t be climbed. After having seen 3 towns already we found the trip out to the town’s date palm groves (each town has its own) of more interest (c 2hrs with lots of explanation about the “social background”. The palm groves are maintained by an irrigation system which moves water underground through the groves and divides it according to the numbers of palms, This, like everything else in M’zab, is maintained and run by a complex social system of shared actions and responsibilities – the Mozabites operate at least partially outside the secular Algerian state when running and policing their society. Although the palm groves were originally only inhabited during the summer and autumn harvest period, the pressure of population etc seemed to be ending that practice. A notable sight was the high water mark of the disastrous flood of 2008 which reached 2 metres – signs of destruction of buildings and palms were still widespread.

On the whole the tangible “sights” at this WHS were less noteworthy than I had hoped and expected, but the UNESCO web site comments that they are “the achievement of a group of human beings defined by clearly defined religious, social and moral ideals.” To get the most from the site it is worthwhile trying to discover this latter aspect - the 2 elements combined make it an interesting and worthwhile visit.
Date posted: January 2013
Iain Jackson (Scotland UK):
My visit here was in 1991 so memories have faded somewhat after more than 16 years. I do know however that this is one of the most interesting areas in Algeria and should be on the itinerary of anyone visiting the country. Five small towns, of which Ghardaia is by far the largest, sit in a valley surrounded by barren desert.The valley has thousands of palm trees and a complex water supply system. I also visited two other of the towns, Beni Isguen and Melika.
The people here tend to have held themselves apart from the main current of Algerian history and are Berber with conservative religious views. The men wear (wore?) the low hanging baggy trousers as seen in parts of rural Turkey while the women dress in an allover white garment folded in such a way that only one eye is visible.
Each town stands on top of a small hill with its mosque, usually with a distinctive pyramidal minaret, at its centre. Most of the buildings are cream painted and well maintained. There are alleyways and daily markets (in which dates figure very large) to explore and in Beni Isguen a museum of local life. Locally painted signs advise the visitor on the modest dress expected to be worn.
Not many laughs here perhaps but with an atmosphere unlike anywhere else I saw in Algeria.

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Site info

M'Zab Valley
Country: Algeria
Inscribed: 1982
Cultural Heritage
Criteria:  (2) (3) (5)
Category: Urban landscape, Arabic / Middle Eastern

Site history:
1982 Inscribed
Reasons for inscription

Site links

Official website:
»Office of Protection and Promotion M'Zab Valley

In the news:
» 18 dead in M'Zab valley communal violence (09-07-2015).
» Berber-Arab Clashes in Algeria's M'Zab Valley (14-02-2015).
» 29 Algerians die in flash floods in M'Zab Valley (04-10-2008).

Related links:
» Site of Algerian Tourism.
» M'Zab Valley by Wikipedia.
» The changing world of Mzab.

Related Forum posts:
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Getting there

This WHS has 27 location(s).


Vernacular architecture .
Walled cities .
Berbers . Pentapolis . Summer residences .
Human Activity
Irrigation and drainage . Palm Groves .
Individual People
Le Corbusier .
Religion and Belief
Mosque .
Built in the 11th century .
Minority communities . Poetic Quotations .
WHS on Other Lists
Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) .

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