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140 ALGERIA TO-DAY

But nothing in or about it exceeds in interest the
river gorge that civic enterprise has made easy of access
to visitors in constructing in it the Chemin des Touristes,
the like of which I know only under Niagara.

Steep paths and stairways lead down into its gloomy
depths, at first if you enter from near the great, many
arched bridge preparing you gently for the wonder
that you are about to encounter. You walk on a track
carefully and not needlessly fenced in many parts
beside the swift stream brawling over rocks or swirling
in oily pools where you find a native fisherman casting
his circular net into their depths. On either side the
walls of this rocky canyon rise sheer up, and you can
just glimpse the houses perched perilously on the very
edge of the precipice. You see an endless wire rope
running swiftly up and down to and from one giving
motive power from the rushing waters to a mill in the
city above.

Deep in the gorge there is a platform on which
doors open into squat, solid buildings. Within on
tiled floors steaming water gushes for these are
natural hot springs and baths used by Roman and Arab
in the past centuries.

But you are going lower all the time, deeper and
deeper into the abyss. Even the narrow strip of sky
that you have seen above you when you craned to see
it is shut out. And clambering up and down wet and
slippery iron ladders and along railed galleries you now
move awe-struck and impressed through vast, lofty
caverns, where the swift river tumbles over rocks, as
though, like you, eager to be out in daylight again.
And you emerge with it into the unroofed canyon once



SOME ALGERIAN CITIES 141

more. It rushes on to fall in white cascades down into
the plain and then move windingly, slowly now, on
the level. But you must climb wearily, pantingly, up
the steep and weary way to the spider's thread across the
sky, the suspension bridge that will take you over the
dark gorge into which you look down now with a
familiarity that breeds no contempt for the marvel of
Nature that you have explored.

And below you plane the eagles that you have just
seen soaring high above your head or swooping down
on the countless birds that are flying ceaselessly between
the rocky walls of the abyss.

Constantine is no place to linger in in winter.
Should that season find you there you will have no kind
feelings to the tourist agencies of Europe that describe
North Africa as a land of endless sunshine. Visit it
rather in autumn or in late spring at the latter season
for choice, were it only to see the blaze of wild flowers
that cover the countryside through which you pass to
reach it.

Should you go on from Constantine to Tunis it is a
long day's journey by train fourteen hours or so but
while daylight lasts you will not weary. For the
scenery is ever changing and always charming. Not
as magnificent or awe-inspiring as the line between
Algiers and Constantine with the snow-clad summits
of the Djurdjuras towering above it and the frowning
canyon of the Fortes de Per. But not without its hills,
its river gorges, its varied vistas of mountain and plain.
And a new note is struck in the forests of cork-oaks
where the wild boars roam still as is attested by stiff,
grim corpses with the white tusks seeming to grin



142 ALGERIA TO-DAY

defiance even in death, half a dozen of them heaped up
on the platform of some station passed.

You are sure to have seen ere this either on the
railways or the quays of Algiers high piles of sheets of
the bark of this useful tree on their way to be converted
into better-known forms. But now perhaps for the
first time one beholds a forest of cork-oaks, the trunks
to a height of eight feet or so stripped of their thick bark
and showing white, yet flourishing and ready in another
few years to be denuded afresh of the new covering
that will replace it.

Sixty odd miles from Constantine, in a varied setting
of hills and plain and wooded slope, from the train is
seen a rushing stream hurling itself in cascades over a
rocky fall. And up from the leaping waters rise dense
clouds of steam that hang suspended in mid-air. For
here are famous hot springs, Hamman Meskoutine or
" The Accursed Baths," that were known and used by
mankind as far back as Punic days. The bath-loving
Romans built quite a settlement around them. The
Arabs made use of them for centuries. And to-day
there is a fine hotel and bathing establishment to which
visitors from Europe flock ; for the fame of these heal-
ing springs is widespread. From the windows of the
train the falls with their steamy canopy present a strange
and striking spectacle. Some of the springs have a
temperature of 205 Fahrenheit. The waters of Ham-
mam Meskoutine are very advantageous in diseases
due to uric acid. The native name is derived from the
presence of tall cones of deposits of carbonate of lime,
some forty feet high, which bear some resemblance to
petrified human figures and have given rise to a legend



SOME ALGERIAN CITIES 143

that they are men and women turned to stone for assist-
ing at the unlawful marriage of a rich Arab who was
about to wed his own sister.

The country through which the line passes is rich
in Roman remains and ruined cities of the far-spreading,
long-vanished Empire with triumphal arches, baths,
heathen temples and Christian basilicas in various states
of preservation. And the train goes through a well
laid-out modern little town, Souk Ahras, on the site of
the ancient Thagaste where St Augustine was born in
the middle of the fourth century. And a few stations
farther on comes Ghardimaou and the Tunisian
frontier.

Until the French came there were no roads in
Algeria. Road and Flag went together ; and as they
pushed their conquering way forward their soldiers
wielded pick and shovel as well as gun and linked up
the ground they gained with Algiers. The fighting
navy and the mercantile marine helped them where
coast towns were concerned and saved them weary
marches. It was so in the case of Oran, Algiers' future
rival in the west, second city in numbers and import-
ance in Algeria, and seaport second only to the capital.

Long miles about 260 lie between them;
but now there is a good road if you wish to motor
and a railway if you do not. I have said nothing
of the Algerian railways hitherto; but they link
up Algiers with Morocco on the west and Tunisia on
the east; they join the Mediterranean to the Sahara.
And they have little to learn from Europe. Sleeping
and restaurant cars of the Compagnie des Wagon Lits,
comfortable carriages, first, second and third class, well-



144 ALGERIA TO-DAY

laid road-beds, fine bridges over wide watercourses
where for the greater part of the year shallow streams
trickle through gravelly deserts, but where in the winter
rains surging torrents sweep to sea, rushing full-fed from
bank to bank.

The line from Algiers to Oran, cleverly traced to
follow valleys and avoid the heights in the mountains
as much as possible, will give the traveller a favourable
impression of the fertility and agricultural progress of
the land. It serves a succession of small towns and
villages all the way; and at every station European
passengers of both sexes and all ages enter or leave the
train and make one realise that this is a white man's
country, one where he can and does live and breed.

Oran to the traveller in search of Oriental colour is
disappointing, for it is almost entirely a European city ;
but to the French Algerians it is a source of pride,
encouragement and hope from its prosperity, progress
and possibilities. Perched on high cliffs framing a
picturesque bay it nestles under a high hill on the west
that culminates in a peak falling precipitously nearly
2,000 feet to the shore. From a good, though small
harbour, protected by stone breakwaters from the
stormy north winds, a road with a tram-line on it leads
up to the high-sited city of modern construction, a place
of shady squares, busy steep streets, European shops,
cafes, offices and dwellings that have little or no trace
of Africa about them. It might be a thriving seaport
of Southern France.

But it would be almost equally at home in Spain,
so large a proportion of the inhabitants, especially of
the lower classes, are Spaniards. For centuries it was



SOME ALGERIAN CITIES 145

a Spanish outpost, colony and convict settlement to
which criminals and political prisoners were sent, and
the old fort and walls were built by them and by Arab
captives taken in the constant fighting with the
Moslems outside the city gates.

Spain is not far away Cartagena is but ten hours
by steamer Spanish emigrants still flock to Oran, and
their language is almost as much heard as French among
the lower classes. France, realising that she cannot
find among her own children colonists enough to people
her North African Empire, wisely does not discourage
the immigration of hard-working Southern Europeans
of Latin races who will become, if not French, at least
Algerians, Tunisians or Moroccans, according to the
land for which they have elected. Her first aim is to
get white inhabitants to develop the countries and
counterbalance, without displacing, the native element.

There is little in Oran to attract the tourist, but for
the business man much ; and its inhabitants confidently
look forward to their city supplanting Algiers as the
leading town in Algeria. Its population is now
119,628 Europeans, 15,043 natives. (Census of 1921.)

There is nothing for the seeker for Oriental archi-
tecture to see. But a large theatre in the fine principal
square, streets lined with good modern buildings, an
excellent tramway service and flourishing export and
import trade console the citizens for the disappearance
of historic mosques and narrow, foul alleys of the by-
gone Arab town of the days when Oran was a Moslem
kingdom.

There is a marked dissimilarity between its environs
and those of Algiers; for, unlike the capital, Oran has

K



146 ALGERIA TO-DAY

no suburbs of villas bowered in gardens, but ends almost
abruptly at the unimposing, loopholed brick wall that
bounds it. And the country around, although well culti-
vated, looks bare from the absence of trees and houses.

But the railway going south-west towards the
Moroccan border passes through fertile and well-tilled
land, by vineyards and cornfields and prosperous farms.

The first town of importance that it reaches, about
fifty miles from Oran, is quite a modern one that to
outsiders is best known as the headquarters of the
famous Foreign Legion. It is called Sidi Bel Abbes,
and has a population, chiefly European, of close on
30,000. It is well laid out with wide roads, shady
squares, a few small hotels, fine barracks for the Legion-
aries and for a regiment of Spahis and a big military
hospital. Sidi Bel Abbes is a good example of the
well planned, well built, sanitary if unpicturesque
modern towns that France has dowered Algeria with,
towns that may be disappointing to the tourist in search
of Orientalism, but that are much pleasanter for their
European inhabitants to live in than artistic but
unhealthy Eastern-built cities.

Fifteen hundred feet above the sea it is embowered
in gardens, trees, vineyards and fertile fields in a wide
valley watered by the Mekarra river. And from it the
railway runs through an equally rich, well-cultivated
and prosperous countryside, dotted with European
farms and villages. But the ground rises as the train
goes on, until it becomes a range of hills around the
curves of which the line winds, looking across a broad
plain to mountains stretching into Morocco to the west.
Through tunnels, by rugged and rocky ground i over



SOME ALGERIAN CITIES 147

long viaducts, past cascades, circling around a glorious
amphitheatre adorned with gigantic red boulders
enshrining a waterfall, it goes under forest-crowned
summits to a town crowded with minarets and domes
and perched, 2,500 feet above the sea, on a steep hill-
side overlooking a vast, cultivated plain.

It is Tlem^en, the city of Algeria richest in
treasures of the days of Arab supremacy, of dynasties
that flourished for centuries and fell swift to ruin,
remembered now only by monuments built to com-
memorate their glories. There is a mosque that was
new when the Normans ruled England. There are
others that were old when Columbus sailed across the
Atlantic. When Henry the Eighth lived Tlem^en was
a flourishing city with a population of 125,000, its
civilisation at the zenith, the arts cultivated, saints and
scholars filling its mosques and medersas, its commerce
extending to the Levant. Once a Sultan, Abou
Yakoub, laid siege to it in the leisurely fashion in which
wars were waged in A.D. 1302. No muddy dug-outs,
no ruined houses to shelter him and his warriors in the
seven years of siege he built a city over against
Tlem5en, Mansoura, the City of Victory, with a noble
palace in it with marble courts, shady gardens and
luxurious chambers for the beauties who filled his
harem. There was a mosque with a minaret a hundred
and twenty feet high you can see it to-day, shorn of
its glories and its lavish adornments. There were
Moorish baths to refresh the tired warriors and caravan-
serais for traders. The besieged might sally forth and
take their enemies unawares, so Abou Yakoub erected
a wall nearly forty feet high with towers a hundred and



148 ALGERIA TO-DAY

twenty-five feet ; and it stands there still, although the
city has vanished and tilled fields and fertile gardens
fill the three hundred acres of its site.

The European portion of Tlen^en is not impressive.
The streets are narrow and mean, the buildings un-
imposing. But the white population is only about five
thousand, compared with twenty-five thousand Moslems
and Jews. So the native quarter is much larger and
important, but not worthy of the imperial city of the
Past with its history reaching back to the days of the
Romans.

But the great mosque, the Djama el Kebir, founded
in 1136, with its minaret over a hundred feet high, its
many-columned interior, its arcaded court, is fit for any
city. And the busy life of the streets, the dyers' shops
with the big vessels of steaming coloured liquids, the
tailors' booths with the small boys standing outside and
straining tight the long threads that their fathers are
sewing quaint garments with, the thronged markets,
the dim, cavernous heated chambers of the Moorish
baths, enthral the visitor. The townsmen are mostly
Koulouglis, men of Turkish blood, not Arabs, with
whom they formerly were at feud. Their grandsires
fought against the Sultan of Morocco to hold their town
for the French, when the latter first came to Algeria;
and they were opposed to the cession of Tlem^en to
Abd-El-Kader, when the newcomers handed it over to
him twice. To this day they will emphasise to a
stranger the fact that they are Koulouglis.

French officers and soldiers now reside in the citadel,
the Mechouar, where kings and imperial governors lived
in luxury, such as one reads of in the Arabian Nights.



SOME ALGERIAN CITIES 149

But the luxury has vanished with the sultans; and
there is as little trace of it now as there is of Abou
Tachfm's silver tree, its branches crowded with song-
birds fashioned in gold and silver, that once stood in
the gallery paved with onyx and marble.

But a visit to the house of some rich Moslem citizen
of Tlem^en with its tiled courts and marble balustraded
galleries, its many chambers deep-carpeted with the
work of the looms of the town, its pierced brass lamps
lit now by electricity, will give an idea of how the nobles
of the city lived when sultans ruled.

As Tlem9en stands over 2,400 feet above the sea it
has its full share of cold and of rain in winter time. But
it is always charming, perched on the steep hillside
under the forest-crowned summit and with the glorious
panorama of mountain and valley spread before it. Its
interest does not end with its ancient walls ; for beyond
them lie the walls of the ruined city of Mansoura and
the glorious shrine of the sainted Sidi Bou Medine,
born in Seville in 1126, with its carved wooden tomb
covered with gold and silver brocade, its sculptured
ornaments, its metal-work of bronze, its hanging
ostrich eggs and gaudy banners, its marble-columned
arcades. Its mosque with bronze and carved cedar
doors, tiled court and onyx fountain, the tall minaret
faced with glazed tiles.

To reach it one must go a mile and a half through
olive groves, old cemeteries and shady woods. But
there is a fine mosque to another saint from Seville just
outside the gates of Tlemgen, as lovely a building as any
in Algeria. It was built to soothe the soul of the holy
man, who was a maker of sweetmeats and a preacher



150 ALGERIA TO-DAY

and was put to death by a jealous Grand Vizier who in
punishment was buried alive in a block of mortar.

There is indeed much at Tlemgen to compensate
the traveller in Western Algeria for his disappointment
in finding Oran and Sidi Bel Abbes too civilised and
modern.

From this storied town the railway runs on south-
west over hill and plain to the Moroccan frontier and
across the border ends at Oudjda about sixty miles
away. All the way in Algerian territory it passes through
fertile, rich, well-cultivated country with villages and
farms dotted thick, a testimony to the security and
justice of French rule for nearly a century.

But cross the border and beyond Oudjda see the
trackless waste that the Moroccan countryside is not
so bad now since this territory has of recent years also
come under French rule. But it still is bare, little
tenanted, an eloquent witness to the anarchy and
misgovernment of native rule. On one side of the
boundary prosperity, on the other poverty, desert. And
as Morocco is, or was ten years or so ago, so was Algeria
when the French took Algiers in 1830, lawless, little
cultivated, given up to brigandage, lawlessness, never-
ceasing internecine war waged by nomad tribes. And
as she is now so Morocco will be. In the ten years
since the French Protectorate was established by the
Convention of Fez France has worked wonders in the
Shereefian Empire, as I saw and marvelled at when I
wandered through that land from Algeria to the
Atlantic, from the Atlantic to Marrakesh and the
Grand Atlas Mountains.



FROM THE SEA TO THE SAHARA

ALGERIA is divided into three zones the Tell,* the
fertile Strip of plain and low hills from thirty to a
hundred miles deep, backed up by the Atlas Moun-
tains, secondly the Haut Plateaux, which is the stretch
of high tableland reaching to the Aures range, and
thirdly, the Sahara, the vast and varied desert of sand,
gravel, rock, jungle and rugged hills extending to the
Soudan.

Naturally the climate differs greatly in each region.
On the sea-coast it is generally mild, even pleasantly
warm, in the winter months, and very hot from June
to the end of October. In the mountains and high
ground of the Hinterland, snow, rain and cold in
winter and spring is matched by great heat in summer.
In the Sahara rain is unusual at any time in the year,
except in the far South ; and when it comes does so in
sudden heavy storms of short duration, yet snow is
found on the mountain-tops, and has even fallen,
though very rarely, in the region of Biskra in the north
of the desert, where in winter the nights and early
mornings are chilly. But the summer heat is appalling.

*From the Latin "tellus."
151



152 ALGERIA TO-DAY

Unfortunately the annual rainfall in the inhabited
regions is sometimes deficient and, as Algeria has no
mountains covered with snow all the year round and
thus able to keep the river beds full in summer, there
is not much irrigation ; so a lack of rain spells famine
and misery. Not only do the crops of the Tell suffer,
but the pasturage on which the nomads feed their
flocks dries up and husbandman and shepherd are
ruined. The big farmer, generally European, loses
heavily, but the poor native starves and animals and
human beings die. The French are doing all they can
to remedy this state of things.

The vegetation of Northern Algeria is similar to
that of Southern Europe at like elevations. Palm-
trees are rare and cultivated more for ornament than
use. Vines, orange and other fruit trees, vegetables,
corn and barley flourish in favourable seasons. Pines,
eucalyptus (introduced from Australia) and the profit-
able cork-oak abound, cedars grow in the Aures
Mountains, cypress, mountain ash, gum and acorn oaks
and other useful trees are found.

The great tableland stretches of the Hauts Plateaux
are treeless and uncultivated ; but on them the nomads
pasture their flocks and alfa (or esparto grass) grows
freely and wild and is gathered and exported largely
for use in paper-making.

In the Saharan oases palms, fruit trees and veget-
ables are grown, coarse tufts of vegetation are found
even in the sandy deserts, tamarisks and gum-trees in
the hills, and in the south there is both thick jungle and
cultivation.

To see Algeria in all its phases there is no better



FROM THE SEA TO THE SAHARA 153

way than to journey by train from Algiers to Biskra;
for the railway line traverses the three zones and
exhibits the varied nature of the land. It reveals
marvels of scenic beauty as by a triumph of engineer-
ing skill it passes through deep gorges and under awe-
inspiring cliffs when it winds among the mountains that,
rent by dreadful chasms, tower high above it.

In about seventeen hours it brings the traveller
from the sea to the Sahara, from the coastal fertile strip,
through the rugged region of hill and plateau, to the
great desert.

But to see it all one must journey by day ; and this
will take longer. For there are but two trains from
Algiers by which to go to Biskra. The night mail
leaves in the evening and eleven or twelve hours later
reaches El Guerrah, where its passengers for the south
change to another train, reaching Biskra in time for
lunch, while it goes on to Constantine. The day train
starts from Algiers about half-past seven in the morn-
ing and at six in the evening drops its south-bound
passengers at El Guerrah, where they pass the night
and wait until next morning to be carried on to the
desert. But it is worth the delay to see Algeria by
daylight, to view the fields of corn, the orange groves,
the trim rows of interminable vines, the green hills and
the grim mountains with their rocky walls and snow-
capped peaks and the level stretches of the tablelands
with their grazing camels and the striped tents of the
nomads.

All trains leaving Algiers, either bound west or
east, start in the same direction, going southward for
a few miles along the coast and turning away from the



154 ALGERIA TO-DAY

sea where the Sahel Hills open at Maison Carree.
There ours for El Guerrah and Constantine or the
Sahara heads for the east through cultivation, vine-
yards, groves of orange trees sheltered by high cypress
hedges, rapidly drawing near the lofty mountains of
Grand Kabylia ahead. Red-roofed, white-walled
farmhouses fine villas, indeed, some of them dot
the fields in which Kabyles labour, the red headgear
or dress of their women splashing a note of vivid
colour in the green landscape. Trim little towns
inhabited by white colonists, tree-shaded roads on
which motor-diligences crowded with Arabs pass
five-horsed carts loaded with huge wine-barrels,
and swift automobiles with European passengers
fly by natives afoot or jogging along on diminutive
donkeys.

We pass Maison Blanche, Rouiba and the forest
of La Reghaia, Alma that saw grim fights in 1839 and
1871 when the French soldiers defeated overwhelming
numbers of Arabs and Kabyles, Me*nerville with its
branch line to Tizi Ouzou. We are in the Djurdjura
Mountains now; and the line bores through them in
many tunnels that all too swiftly end the glimpses of
the brawling river far below in the deep ravine of the
beautiful Gorge of the Isser.

The train stops at a little town on the banks of this
stream. Palestro, the scene of a cruel massacre of
colonists, men, women and children, in the Kabyle
revolt of 1871. For days a handful of ill-armed
civilians held out heroically against overwhelming
numbers of Berbers and Arabs. In one of the three
houses held for defence more than forty Europeans



FROM THE SEA TO THE SAHARA 155

of both Sexes surrendered on the promise that their
lives would be spared ; but their treacherous foes slew
them all. Another party of two Score in a second
building were captured and were only released when


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Online LibraryGordon CasserlyAlgeria today → online text (page 10 of 18)