With its rich history, winding white-washed alleyways and enviable Mediterranean setting, the Kasbah of Algiers has been a world heritage site for 20 years. The city within a city, crowned by a 16th century hilltop citadel overlooking the bay and studded with Ottoman palaces, hammams, mosques and souks, has been rocked down the centuries by earthquakes, fires, floods and conflict.
The “outstanding” value of what has survived gained official recognition in 1992 when it was awarded world heritage status. UNESCO described the city as “one of the finest coastal sites on the Mediterranean”.
But little has been done since, and certainly not fast enough, to preserve this unique medina, or Islamic city, from gradual decline, experts say.
The buildings in the walled medina, more than 80% of which are privately owned, were largely abandoned during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s, when the warren of streets offered sanctuary to Islamist insurgents. The Kasbah had offered similar protection during the war of independence against France 40 years earlier, a struggle later immortalised in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers.
The departure of many inhabitants also meant that those who remained carried on building in an unregulated, chaotic fashion.
The French were to blame for damage done during the colonial period, when they knocked down the lower part of the town that connected it to the sea.
Wandering through the medina today invariably means surprises, like coming upon a palace or historic mosque, carefully restored houses and a team of Polish builders in charge of renovating the citadel.
But overcrowding, neglect and a disregard for sanitation are all too visible in the narrow streets, where rudimentary scaffolding props up the walls of houses on the point of collapse and stray cats forage in stinking piles of rubbish. In addition, the densely populated town of around 52,000 people, is on a slope so all the houses are supporting each other. If one falls, all the rest could come down with it.
The state has rehoused people whose dwellings are most threatened, giving rise to a common scam in which relatives, neighbours or friends move in and promptly demand new accommodation in their turn, according to Halim Faidi, an architect and Kasbah specialist.
The authorities want to revive old crafts such as carpentry, copper and leather work, and the production of tiles, to preserve the traditions of a place so much a part of Algeria’s history.
But Faidi the architect argued that, as far as the restoration of buildings is concerned, the work must go beyond simply reversing the Kasbah’s decline and preserving its identity.
It must also anticipate the needs of its population in 20 years’ time.
“The Kasbah is a town and the response should be an urban response,” he said.