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the uprising was crushed.

The train rushes on between the rugged walls of
the Djurdjura Mountains. A late snowfall has
whitened them well-nigh to their base ; and the air is
chill in the bright sunshine. But bushes and sturdy
trees cling to the steep slopes ; and in every tiny
terraced field Kabyles are industriously working. At
Maillot we pass near the gigantic pyramid of the highest
point of the Djurdjuras, Lella-Khadidja, 7,500 feet
high. From the village of Maillot a, good carriage
road leads through the hills to Bougie, the seaport of
Grand Kabylia, and another goes to Michelet, Fort
National and Tizi Ouzou. At the next station, Beni-
Mansour, there is a branch line to Bougie ; and,
roundabout as it is, this is the only way by rail to it
from Algiers.

On still among the mountains growing wilder every
minute until desolation culminates in the gaunt and
fearsome walls of rock of the passes called the Portes-
de-Fer, rising sheer for thousands of feet above the
line and the tumbling waters of the Hammam River.
Some terrible upheaval in past ages has forced the
rocky strata into an almost vertical position, and the
precipitous cliffs seem formed of stone palisades with
saw-toothed tops outlined against the sky. There are
two of these Iron Gates La Grande Porte and La
Petite. And through the latter grim defile in 1839 a
Royal Duke of France Jed an army where no army had


ever before penetrated, not even the world-conquering

Then a tunnel pierces the mountains and the train
emerges on the vast monotonous stretch of the Haut
Plateaux, dreary, depressing, wearisome to the eye.
They recall the level western prairies of the United
States more than the wide expanses of the plains of
India; for the latter are cultivated and dotted with
countless villages and groves of trees, whereas the
Algerian tablelands are mostly deserts with sparse
vegetation like so much of the land in the Western
States of North America.

Their solitude is broken only by a group of pastur-
ing camels, a herd of sheep in charge of a bare-legged
boy, an occasional Arab on a lean horse with flowing
tail cantering over the plain. Here and there white
storks in ones and twos stand solemnly on stilt-like
legs, stalk majestically about or, if near the line, rise
and flap heavily away to a safe distance.

The direction of the railway, which at first was
south-east, is now practically due east. A walled town
with four towers lies beside the line, Bordj-bou-Arreridj,
destroyed by the Mokranis in the rising of 1871, but
rebuilt and prosperous, for it stands in fertile country.
A long stretch of flat, monotonous land more than
three thousand feet above sea-level, though separates
it from another town enclosed by a fortified wall pierced
by four gates.

A town most modern in appearance with its church,
theatre, cafes and tree-bordered streets this, 3,500 feet
above the sea. Setif it is named. But many centuries
ago the Romans called it Sitifis; and the representa-

tives of the Empire lived in stately palaces in it when it
was the capital of the province of Mauretania. It was
three miles in circumference then ; but the hand of God
and of man fell heavily on it. An earthquake wrecked
it, but did less damage than the Vandals and the Arabs
who came after them ; for between them they wiped the
Roman city off the face of the earth.

On again over the mournful tableland, and away
on the right a few mountain tops show above the horizon.
They are peaks of the Aures Mountains, that great
barrier between the desert and the midlands of Algeria.
But evening is closing in; and soon the train pulls up
at a wayside station with scarcely two buildings to be
seen outside it. But, unimportant as it seems, several
passengers descend from the first and second-class
carriages ; for it is El Guerrah, and here we must stop
for the night, while the train goes on, heading due north
now, to the rock city of Constantine.

The light is fading fast ; and, as one steps out of the
station, the hotel, a long low building, confronts the
astonished traveller w r ho sees no other houses near, no
town, no lights from windows even. For the small
village is some distance away, and all that concerns him
is this unpretentious but not uncomfortable hostelry
where he must pass the night.

The air is chill; and the hotel dining-room, into
which the outer door opens directly, feels cold ; for like
all Algerian dwellings it is built more with an eye to
the heat of the summer than to the less warm seasons.
But far from civilisation as it seems it is lit by electric
light ; and an Anglo-Indian traveller may well wonder
how it is that the French can manage to bring this illu-


minant with them wherever they go in North Africa,
even in the heart of Morocco to which they penetrated
only ten years ago, while up-country in the India that
has been in English hands well-nigh two centuries the
European resident must content himself with oil-lamps.
And, too, were this small junction in India instead of
Algeria he would find only a bench in a railway waiting-
room or at best a bedstead in a dak-bungalow, where no
food is supplied, to pass the night on, instead of this
hotel where a well-cooked dinner and a bottle of red or
white Algerian wine thrown in awaits him, with a com-
fortable bed to follow.

From Constantine, twenty-three miles away, a train
comes next morning to carry on the travellers south-
ward bound. Not all are for the desert and Biskra a
hundred and twenty-five miles farther on ; for on the
way lies Batna, a French-built town dating from 1844,
the seat of a sub-prefecture and the headquarters of a
General of Division. Several officers and civilians are
bound for it, for their homes are in it. But with them,
when they quit the train, go tourists from many lands.

For it is the starting place for excursions to two
ruined Roman cities that can rival Herculaneum and
Pompeii and write in stone the history of the doings of
that wonderful Empire through so many centuries in
North Africa. Six or seven miles from Batna is Lam-
bessa, the ancient Lambaesis, where the Third Augustan
Legion had its headquarters and where the ruins of
temples, triumphal arches, theatres, baths, forums and
the columned Prsetorium tell of the glories of this
far-flung outpost of Imperial rule.

But they fade into insignificance compared with the


remains of Timgad sixteen or seventeen miles farther
on. Thamugadi the Romans called it. A splendid
city if must have been ; and as one stands on the rising
ground behind the theatre in which more than four
thousand spectators could find room, and looks over the
wide vista of ruins that mark where temples, thermae,
law courts and council chambers stood, amazement is
mingled with admiration for the marvellous race in that
bygone age which so far from its native land could mark
its dominion with cities such as this.

Against the sky stands up the square-topped, three-
arched gateway known as Trajan's Arch, of sandstone
with marble Corinthian pillars. A broad stone-paved
road leads to it between two rows of columns still

Surrounded by the ruins of the Temple of Victory,
the Curia and the Court of Justice is the paved and
colonnaded Forum where the orators thundered and
busy lawyers pushed their way to the court through
lounging crowds of Roman citizens who had never seen
Rome. It all brings home to one, as no book ever
could, the marvellous work of those empire builders and
colonisers who could spread the dominion of their race
So far afield, could make these deserts bloom like a
garden and build these wonderful cities where desolation
now reigns.

Great as ts France's achievement in creating this
new colonial empire, yet she has done it in the age of
steam and electricity and breech-loading rifles. How
more remarkable then were the deeds of the Romans
whose frail ships bore them through the Mediterranean
storms to tread with their sandalled feet the long road


over valley and mountain, through hostile tribesmen
and fierce wild beasts, under a burning sun and in blind-
ing snowstorms, to plant their eagles thus far in the
inhospitable land of Africa!

How tame and commonplace Batna seems after
these impressive ruins!

On with the train again over the once seemingly
interminable tablelands; but the rugged crests of the
Aures Mountains coming nearer show that they are
ending. The railway line is now more than 3,500 feet
above sea-level. In winter these Hauts Plateaux are
sometimes covered with snow ; and tourists to Timgad,
who have cherished the delusion that Africa is always
a land of burning sunshine, consider themselves
aggrieved at meeting with frosts and snow, not realising
that at such altitudes it is not to be wondered at.

Here is a small, unnoticeable station with a strangely
mixed name, Ain Touta Mac Mahon. But it is remark-
able as the scene of the last uprising against the French,
which took place during the Great War when conscrip-
tion for natives was introduced into Algeria. Up to
that time the ranks of their indigenous regiments were
filled by voluntary enlistment. The revolt was of little
importance. A mob of discontented Arabs gathered
together, burned a couple of buildings and killed a
Frenchman or two, but were easily dispersed by a
handful of troops.

For some time the barren Aures Mountains have
been gradually closing in on us on either side and now
join straight ahead, so that the train appears to be
rushing to destruction against a rocky wall hundreds of
feet high. But at the last moment the lofty barrier is


seen to be cloven from summit to base in a V-shaped
rent ; and the famous gorge of El Kantara (The Bridge)
opens before us.

El Kantara, Gateway of the Desert, portal through
which Roman, Arab and French conquerors have in
turn entered the Sahara, gap in the mountain boun-
dary between the second and the third zone of Algeria,
between the Tablelands and the Sahara. Beyond it
lies the fabled waste of sand and gravel and rock, the
region of palm-shaded oasis and golden dune, where
the devils of the mirage dance on the salt lakes and the
bones of camels whiten the caravan routes. Over this
pass mail-clad Roman soldiers kept guard ; and across
the rushing torrent that through the ages has breached
the mighty barrier their engineers threw the arched
bridge that may still be seen, the bridge that gives the
gorge its Arabic name. The gaunt cliffs on either side
rise sheer four hundred feet above it and only between
one and two hundred yards apart. In the deep ravine
a small hotel lies bowered in a pretty garden and shelters
inquiring tourists who come to climb the rugged Aures
Mountains around them and see the strange Chaouia
race who, secluded from the world in their remote
villages and caves, hay.e altered little through the
centuries from their Berber ancestors of pre-Arab days.

The train halts for a few minutes at the small way-
side station of El Kantara half a mile from the gorge ;
;and the passengers can get out and look about them.
Behind lie the Hauts Plateaux, on all sides rise the
strangely-formed peaks and worn summits of the moun-
tains, in front is the gate that once passed will reveal
to them the wide desert that they have come far to see.



Train and travellers go on. Tantalising glimpses
between the tunnels of river, road and hamlet deep in
the ravine, then the three hundred and fifty yard long
gorge is passed; and the Sahara lies before us.

For the moment there is almost a feeling of dis-
appointment in those who have expected to see a vast
dead plain like the dry bed of a vanished sea, a barren
expanse of golden sands heaped high in wind-ribbed
dunes. For great stretches of the waving plumes of
date-palms, beneath which mud huts shelter among
fruit trees, and bright green fields of barley patch the
reddish brown soil, and between us and the horizon
similar oases dot the desert. Behind the steep wall of
the Aures Mountains stands up gapped with the V of
the pass and curves towards us east and west, still
hemming us in.

More palms, little mud-walled gardens, more huts,
then quite an imposing building and long lines of houses
of sun-dried brick in front of which fuzzy-haired
negresses with bright-coloured garments stand with
little naked black babies astride their hips. The
women-kind of the Senegalese Battalion that now
inhabits these barracks which during the Great War
sheltered German prisoners who, if they suffered from
heat in summer, were spared the rain and snow of the
European battlefields in winter.

The train runs beside a dry river-bed at times filled
with water when a storm breaks on the Aures Moun-
tains which still seem to encircle us, thrusting out their
long arms east and west into the Sahara. The surface
of the desert is not the sand that one would expect to
find in it, but reddish clay and stones. Wherever we

Photo, by the Author.


Photo, by the Author.



look it is dotted with oases ; and the dark green palm-
groves stand out against the naked wall of the distant
mountains. They and the little gardens of huts or of
the small railway stations show that all that the desert
needs is water to make it productive.

To create an oasis either water has reached the
surface naturally or wells, native, hand-dug wells and
others bored by scientific means to depths of perhaps
over a thousand feet, provide it, and it is used to irrigate
and fertilise. The Algerian Government and private
French enterprise have done much for the Sahara and
its inhabitants by engineering aid to reach the life-
giving water where no Arab well-diggers could hope to
penetrate to it. Where it is available shoots of date-
palms are planted; and in fifteen or twenty years the
trees bear fruit. Under them as they tower high,

" .With feet in water and crowns in the sun,"

as the Arabs say, for their roots require constant irriga-
tion, lesser trees grow and wheat, barley and vegetables
are cultivated; and villages of sun-dried brick spring
up in the oasis.

Thirty-five miles of sun-steeped desert dotted with
these shady centres of human and plant life lie between
El Kantara and Biskra. Across the horizon the dark
blur of a sea of foliage, a straggling caravan of shamb-
ling camels driven by a couple of Arabs, two French
gendarmes in blue uniforms riding on white horses over
the unfenced track, douars groups of striped brown
tents in increasing numbers, announce our approach
to the Saharan town that is becoming a favourite winter


resort with health and pleasure-seekers from America
and Europe.

Then houses, gardens, and a railway station ; and
the train comes to a stop after a journey of nearly four
hundred miles through Algerian plain, mountain, table-
land and desert. And the traveller new to the land is
surprised to see white hotel porters and touts in
uniform on the platform and large motor-cars and
luxurious hotel automobile omnibuses outside the
station, while his ears are deafened by a babel of many

The Biskra of to-day is a* Small modern town of
hotels, offices, European dwellings and shops that cater
for tourists, with a native quarter joined on ; while
" Old Biskra," a mile or two away, is a huge, well-
watered oasis of nearly half a million date-palms shelter-
ing seven villages of dingy mud houses. Yet they say
that a city of 60,000 inhabitants stood here before the
days of the Vandals.

On emerging from the railway station the traveller
is confronted by a long, rectangular public garden
with leafy trees, flowering plants and a band-stand,
hemmed in on the left by the high, loopholed wall of
an extensive fort containing barracks, hospital and
military buildings, and capable of sheltering the
European residents in the case of a native uprising.
On the other side two-storied buildings line the road,
the side-walk passing under arcades before most of
them. Behind lie small streets of private residences, a
quaint little square, the Mairie and gendarmerie.
Beyond the gardens are a few European shops where
the tourist can purchase photographs, picture post cards.


Algerian rugs and carpets and native jewellery, with
an occasional cafe where the French resident can drink
his aperitif. There are several hotels, all good, and
two at least luxurious and expensive enough to suit the
rich transatlantic globe-trotter. Then in its own
garden stands the Casino, where dances, concerts and
cinema performances are held, gambling may be
indulged in and a good orchestra plays to the patrons
sipping their drinks around little tables. So the French
inhabitants can feel that they are still in touch with
civilisation. And to help them to do it the town crier
beats a drum in the street before he reads out municipal
notices. But the tourist who resents the existence of
so much Europeanisation and seeks the Orientalism
that he has come far to find, has only to turn off the one
street of the " white " town to be plunged into native life
and surroundings ; for the Arab and negro population
of Biskra far outnumber the Europeans, and their
quarter lies just behind that of the latter. French
municipal organisation sees to it that their narrow
streets are clean and the market-place well kept.

Two long lanes of dingy houses with crazy wooden
balconies at the windows are known as the " Streets of
the Ouled Nails," as in them live the dancing girls, who
sometimes perform on the stage of the Casino. The
globe-trotter in search of local colour prefers to see
them in the native cafes ; and American and European
ladies and even children will sit contentedly for hours
in these small and smelly establishments and think that
they are watching the soul of the East as they stare at
the painted and bedizened courtesans whose real trade
is not the languid posturing and dancing on a platform


for a few francs a night. The majority of these
girls do not belong to the Ouled Nail tribe, but are
half-castes, Jewesses from Algiers and Constantine,
negresses and Arab women from all parts of Algeria.
The European who does not understand the difference
and who probably considers the words to be a generic
term for a native dancer terms them all Ouled Nails.

A few fields and a quarter of blank-walled mud
houses separate the town from the chief attraction of
Biskra, the beautiful garden of the Villa de Benevent,
a delightful bower of foliage fronting the bare desert.
A wealthy Frenchman, Comte Landon de Longeville,
has made a unique dwelling for himself in the form of
several detached bungalows one a drawing-room,
another a dining-room, a third the bedrooms, scattered
about in grounds of several acres planted with an end-
less variety of trees and flowering shrubs from Europe
and the tropics. Tall palms rustle their fronds above
the wistaria-clad buildings, orange and other fruit
trees cluster thick beside the trim paths, the silver sound
of running water in tiny irrigation channels rivals the
songs of the birds in the dense foliage. And the deep,
cool shade is welcome after the glaring sunshine steeping
the stony desert that stretches from the garden wall to
the naked hills of the Aures range bleak against the
blue sky. A lovely spot, a fairyland that itself alone is
almost worth the long journey from the sea; and the
hospitable owner opens it for a nominal fee to the
European traveller who seeks for peace and repose in
the shadow of its wonderful foliage.

A mile or two from the town brings one to the vast
oasis, " Old Biskra," with its mud-walled houses and its


palms in hundreds of thousands shading the gardens,
the crops in which prove the fertility of the Sahara when
it has water. Irrigation channels run beside the narrow
roads hemmed in by high earthen walls that confine the
fields and the orchards of palms that produce as fine
dates as any in the world. The villages in the oasis
consist of dwellings built of mud bricks, all of the
universal Eastern design which presents a blank wall
to the outer world but groups the rooms around a
small inner court on to which they open.

About four miles from Biskra are sulphur springs
and baths which the Romans used in bygone days-
Ad Piscinam, they called them and the Arabs have
followed their example for centuries. And to-day
visitors from Europe go out to them in motor-cars or
the one-horse tram that rolls slowly over the rails laid
on the desert ; and La Fontaine Chaude is quite an
imposing establishment with restaurant and accommo-
dation for persons desirous of taking a course of the
baths. The water, which is declared beneficial for
rheumatism, tuberculosis, skin disease, stomach and
lung troubles, gushes from the ground at the rate of
about twenty thousand gallons an hour and a temper-
ature of 115 Fahrenheit.

During one stay in Biskra I personally observed its
curative effect in the case of an acquaintance, a Swedish
cavalry officer, who on arrival was so crippled by rheu-
matism as to be almost unable to walk, but was nearly
normal before I left.

About thirteen miles from Biskra there nestles
under the wall of mountains that bound the desert to the
north a small village very sacred to Moslems; for it


bears the name and enshrines the tomb of the first Arab
invader of North Africa, Sidi Okba. On sacred festi-
vals the followers of the creed that this fiery missionary
spread throughout North Africa from Egypt to the
Atlantic gather from many miles around to pray ; and
the impressive sight of the thousands of white-robed
men standing immobile with faces turned towards
Mecca, then simultaneously prostrating themselves on
the sand, is one that enchants the tourist from
Biskra who is new to the ways of the Orient and

Biskra is the capital of the district called the Zab,
in the plural Ziban, and was first occupied by the French
under the Due d'Aumale in 1844. A small garrison
was left in it ; but, as eoon as the main body marched
away, the neighbouring tribes swooped down on it and
annihilated the defenders. But the town was promptly

It is inseparably connected with the prominent a*nd
noble family of the Ben Gana, the head of which, the
Sheikh-el-Arab of the Zab, backed up the ex-Bey of
Constantine, Hadj Ahmed, against the French after the
second siege and fall of his city. But the victorious
invaders scattered the tribes and chased Bou-Aziz-ben-
Gana into the bleak Aures Mountains until he made
his submission, when in 1838 they invested him with
the dignity of Sheikh-el-Arab under their suzerainty.
To-day his descendant is Bach-Agha or Chief of the dis-
tricts and tribes of the Ziban over which he exercises
authority in the name of the Algerian Government.

His brother, Caid Ali-ben-Gana, a handsome and
courteous gentleman, a splendid specimen of the high-


Photo, by the Author.


Photo, by the Author,


born and well-bred Arab, is a gallant soldier who fought
with the Algerian cavalry against the Germans in the
Great War and bears on the breast of his burnous decora-
tions won on the field of battle. One must know men
like the Ben Gana brothers to understand the respect
and admiration that warrior chiefs of their race like the
great Abd-El-Kader won from the French in their fierce
struggle for independence.



PASS on from Biskra, for the true Sahara lies beyond !
The railway that runs another hundred and thirty miles
to the south has not yet vulgarised the sand wastes, the
great palm groves and the vast dried salt lakes over
which the Fairies of the Mirage dance. And the little
desert town of Tougourt at its end is still unspoilt.

Those who would savour the real life of the Sahara
may yet travel to this outpost of civilisation by camel
and caravan and spend half a dozen days in doing so.
But the wise who do not disdain the advantages of
modern transport take the one train, white-painted
against the heat, comfortable and up-to-date, that pulls
out from Biskra every second day and reaches
Tougourt in eight hours, returning on the morrow. In
winter it goes by daylight; but in the dread summer

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Online LibraryGordon CasserlyAlgeria today → online text (page 11 of 18)