Classified as a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1982, the M’Zab is a deep, narrow valley crowned by a pentapolis five towns rising up sharply from different points along its length. Ghardaïa is the main town and the others, which surround it, are Melika, Beni Isguen, Bou Noura and El-Atteuf; although Ghardaïa is often used to refer to all five. Each town is built on a knoll, its pastel-coloured box like buildings climbing up towards a slim, turreted minaret. The old town centres are riddled with narrow, winding streets and covered alley- ways and are excellent places to explore The oasis is massive, stretching for some 10km along the valley, which is lined with hectares of palm groves; and fruit trees of all kinds battle each other for room under the shadow of the palms. Traditionally, the cities’ inhabitants would escape to these palm eraie groves in in the summer to shelter themselves from the intense heat. The M’Zab Valley is home to the Mozabites, part of the Ibadi sect, who broke away from mainstream Islam an built a home in this harsh arid landscape during the 11th century. The Mozabites’ culture and religion are fiercely protected and the towns have managed to retain much of their original character andmany traditions
The history of the M’Zab is inextricably linked with the Ibadis. Yet nomads also lived here, as did Berber tribes, and archaeologists have found traces of life in rock engravings and ancient ruined villages going back for many centuries. It was the arrival of the Ibadi in the 11th century, however, that really shook things up. Having broken from the mainstream islama few hundred years before, they were chased from their north African capitals, including Tahert in the atlas mountains and sedrata near el oued, in order to secure a safe future for themselves, they fled to a place where they would be far removed from potential enemies, choosing the harsh territory of theM’Zab. Here they set about building a series of towns, choosing to build them on hills to enhance their security. Little by little the existing inhabitants of the valley were as- similated into Ibadi culture and religion. El-Atteuf was the first city to be founded in 1013, followed by Bou Noura in 1065, then Ghardaïa in 1087; two centuries later Beni Isguen (1321) and Bou Noura (1355) followed.
The first glimpse you catch of Ghardaïa is unforgettable; all main roads leading there skim the edge of the hills offering majestic views of Ghardaïa and its surrounding towns, framed by dense green palm groves and the Oued M’Zab (dry river bed). The sight is even more impressive if you’ve come to the valley overland, through the barren, stony wasteland that surrounds it.
Ghardaïa is the largest and most important of the five towns and is the commercial and administrative hub of the M’Zab indeed the commercial hub of the Algerian Sahara sprawling way beyond its original city centre. It’s the only town with proper tourist facilities (apart from a couple of lodges in Beni Isguen), and the place where all long-distance transport pitches up, so it’s likely that you’ll end up staying here. As well as a number of hotels and restaurants, there are several shops around the town’s cobbled market square, selling souvenirs and carpets, a speciality of the area.
Ghardaïa’s old city, housing the market and the mosque, lies immediately west of the Oued M’Zab. Just south of the old town on rue Emir Abdelkader is where you’ll find the main banks, the Office National Algerien du Tourisme (ONAT) and several hotels. Follow this road south as it becomes av du 1er Novembre, and you’ll eventually hit Beni Isguen. If arriving by bus you’ll be deposited at the main station on rue Ahmed Talbi, on the eastern bank of the Oued M’Zab, a few minutes’ walk from the town centre.
Sights & Activities
The entrance to the old city is along rue Ibn Rosten, which leads to a pretty cobbled open square in the middle of the old part of the town, where the daily market is. You can pick up all manner of things here from jew- ellery, sportswear and nuts to herbal medicines for haemorrhoids. Ghardaïa’s most famous souvenirs are its traditional carpets and luckily most of the shops that line the main square are in the carpet-selling business. Unlike in some parts of the coun- try, you can get away with bargaining here and it’s all part of the fun; you might well be invited to take tea with the shop owner while you peruse the stock room.To venture further into the old city you’ll need to be accompanied by a guide. For this you should visit the Guides Office at the Association d’Orientation Touristique (029882699; 8am-noon & 2-6pm; guides available) on rue Cheikh Ammi Saïd, signposted just off the market square. Guides cost DA250. Walking up rue Cheikh Ammi Saïd you’ll come to the Great Mosque. It has a fortresslike appearance; its main feature is the unadorned, pyramidal minaret, typical of the mosques of the M’Zab, Also of interest is the town’s ancient water distribution system in the palm groves northwest of town, which was devised by the Mozabites as a solution to the region’s arid climate. Rainwater is stored in deep wells and then dispersed though a system of underground channels, which divide the flow so that it is fairly distributed among separate palm gardens.
You could also pay a visit to the Pères Blancs at their hermitage near the old city. If it’s a convenient time they will be happy to chat and to show you their library with its excellent collection of books about the Sahara. The White Fathers were founded in the 1860s by the then Archbishop of Algiers, Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, and have been in Algeria since the 1870s. Today there are orders throughout the country; they are involved in interreligious relations and taking care of local Christians and also participate in their local communities.
Festivals & Events
FÊTE DU TAPIS
In March/April every year, a carpet festival takes place in Ghardaïa, in celebration of the local carpet-making industry. More than 200 people take part, representing almost 30 different wilaya (provinces) and it’s a chance for vendors to show off their wares as well as take part in competitions.
There’s a good range of hotel accommodation in Ghardaïa, mostly in the midrange sector with a couple of budget places thrown in. The best place to stay in town used to be the Hotel Rostemides, a sprawling white building perched on top of a hill with fantastic views over the town. There are two campsites in Ghardaïa: Camping Bouleila about 1km southeast of the town centre on the El-Goléa road and Camping Oued M’Zab, on the route out of town to the north. the sites are reasonably well equipped.
Hôtel Atlantide (029 882536; av Ahmed Talbi; s & d DA500)
This place has bland rooms (nicer, quieter ones with air-con available for DA1000) with shared bathrooms leading off blue and white mosaictiled corridors. The best thing about this hotel is the restaurant downstairs which serves some of the best roast chicken in town.
Hôtel Napht (029 890832; place Andalouse; s/d with fan from DA500/800)
A good choice for those on a budget and is well located, right next to the old town and the taxi ranks. The 12 rooms are very basic and the owner’s fond- ness for red light bulbs makes some of them feel a little seedy. There’s a small terrace overlooking the rooftops, where you can sleep in the summer if it gets too hot, but the view isn’t up to much.
Hotel de la Palmeraie (029 882312; av de ALN (Rte l’Oasis); s/d/tr without bathroom DA600/900/1000)
The rather grubby exterior on a busy road doesn’t look very promising but inside it is a different story. Simple, clean rooms with spotless shared showers open onto a lovely (despite the bright-pink walls) central courtyard filled with cacti, bougainvil- lea and palm trees.
Hotel le Rym (029 893202; av du 1er Novem- bre; d/tr/from DA1200/1800)
This is a very welcoming place. The rooms are nothing special but are roomy and clean, and lead off a bright airy corridor adorned with traditional carpets, paintings and photographs of Algeria. There’s also a big terrace over- looking the av du 1er Novembre and nearby Melika.
Hotel Tassili (029 885583; fax 073 1182 80; av 1er Novembre; d/tr/apt DA1200/1800/2200)
Another good choice with mosaic-tiled hallways and stairs, clean simple rooms and a groovy three-bed apartment with proper bath (mosaictiled of course) and little private roof terrace.
Hotel du Gare (029 964315; rue Ahmed Talbi; s & d DA1400)
A hop and a skip away from the gare routière this place is convenient and reasonably priced, with a selection of airy double rooms and very welcoming management. There’s hot water in the winter.
Hôtel Izorane ( 029 889238; carrefour Wilaya de Ghardaïa; s/d 1200/1600)
This small and very friendly place is a good choice with a cosier feel than most. Rooms are clean and com- fortable with televisions, fridges and air-con and there’s a small terrace with a nice selection of cacti overlooking the main street.
Hotel El-Djanoub (029 885631/888987; fax 029 886881; s/d DA3070/3886)
The only top-end hotel in Ghardaïa. it has facilities such as swimming pool, air-con and satellite TV, the immense lobby and endless gloomy corridors reek of good times passed and the rooms are as bland as can be.
Pizzeria Aïssa (029 882486; av du 1er Novembre; piz- zas DA200; 9.30am-9.30pm)
This is a very lively place you can order takeaway pizzas at the front or sit in the back room. It costs DA100 to DA350 for a tasty thin-based pizza, and there’s also a separate family- friendly room if you want to get away from the all-male atmosphere.
Restaurant Atlantide (029 882536; av Ahmed Talbi; meals DA300; lunch & dinner)
Owned by the same people as the hotel upstairs, this place is clean and very friendly, drawing people in from the street with a lip-smacking win- dow display of grilled chickens and platters of herb-covered chips. It also does excellent chorba (vegetable soup with noodles and meat), very fresh salads and zesty tagines.
Restaurant le Palmier (029 899038; av du 1er Novembre)
This is the best and most established restaurant in town. It has a very chic dining room bright white walls with traditional arts and crafts on display and the welcome is warm. There’s a three course menu from DA950 as well as an à la carte mix of European and Algerian food. Dishes include bourek (beef-stuffed pastry rolls), and tagines. It’s also one of the few places in Ghardaïa that serves alcohol.
The greatest concentration of shops in Ghardaïa is around the market square where you’ll find all manner of things from electronic goods and bootleg CDs to tourist-oriented jewellery and crafts. There are also a few souvenir shops along rue Emir Abdelkader. If you are interested in buying any of the beautifully colourful rugs here, many of which contain symbols representing the different towns of the M’Zab, check the quality closely as they can vary enormously; the better ones have more knots per square centimetre. You can pick up a cheap synthetic carpet here for as little as €10 but for a good quality rug expect to pay upwards of €50.
Getting There & Away
Air Algérie (029 884663; fax 029 887280)
In the town centre on rue Ahmed Talbi. The air- port is 10km south of town on the road to El-Goléa. There are three flights a week to Algiers (DA4600, 1½ hours), one to Tamanrasset (DA9800, two hours 20 minutes) and one to Illizi (DA7300, two hours 10 minutes).
The main gare routière is on rue Ahmed Talbi, just across the Oued M’Zab and only five minutes’ walk from the town centre. It is the departure point for long-distance taxis and the national TVSE buses as well as several long-distance, private bus com- panies. It’s best to make reservations in advance.
The main destinations are Adrar (DA1000, 11 hours), Algiers (DA650, seven to eight hours), Annaba (DA920, 14 hours), Constantine (DA770, 10 hours), El-Goléa (DA400, three hours), In Salah (DA800, eight to nine hours), Ouargla (DA200, two hours) and Timimoun (DA970, 10 hours) and Tamanrasset (DA1500, 19 to 20 hours). There are also several private bus compa- nies with offices around the main bus sta- tion, which tend to be more expensive. For example Hadj Kouider (x072 092038/072, 290944) at the main bus station charges DA2000 to Tamanrasset.
Share taxis leave from a stand next to the main gare routière and cover the same main destinations including Algiers (DA1000, seven hours), Tamanrasset (DA1500, 18 to 20 hours) and Ouargla (DA500, two hours).
TO/FROM THE AIRPORT
The airport is 10km out of town on the El- Goléa road. The only way to get into town from the airport is by taxi, which costs from DA100 per person to the centre of town.
The station for the local buses is on rue Emir Abdelkader just by the entrance to the old city. There are buses for Beni Isguen, Bou Noura and El-Atteuf and journeys should cost around DA20.
You can also pick up local taxis at the local bus station. Short journeys around town should cost around DA50. Alternatively it is also possible to hire taxis by the hour for around DA400 to DA500.
There are several internet cafés in Ghardaïa. Both Riad Computer Service (av du 1 Novembre; per hour DA100; 8.30am-9pm) opposite M’Zab
Tours and Cyber Café (DA80; 8am-10pm) just opposite the main bus station have high- speed, reliable connections.
Clinique Aicha Bouker (029 898815; 7am-6.30pm) In Beni Isguen; a good place to go for more minor ailments.)
Clinique des Oasis (029 889999; cliniqueoasis@ yahoo.fr; El-Moustadjeb-Bouhraoua) A well-managed private hospital with excellent facilities.
SOS-SUD Ambulance (029 880447/061, 645193/071, 751535; fax 029 880435; rue Ahmed Talbi) A 24-hour, seven-days-a-week emergency ambulance service which provides a service all over southern Algeria)
POST & TELEPHONE
The post office (029 643730; 8am-noon & 1-6pm Sat-Thu) is next door to the main bus station just off rue Ahmed Talbi. There are taxi- phone shops all over town.
There’s a helpful ONAT (029 881751) office on rue Emir Abdelkader which offers useful information about the region and can organise guides for the town as well as 4WD tours further afield
Big Sun Destination (029 891491; www.bigsun.populus.ch; Cite Ider Est, Beni Isguen)
Organises guided tailored trips for tourists and businessmen, cultural visits, car and driver hire and stays in traditional homes)
M’Zab Tours (029 880002; www.mzabtours.com; av du 1er Novembre)
An excellent and well-organised agency offering individually tailored tours from around €50 per person per day depending on the number of people in your party. It can also organise daily guides for Ghardaïa, car hire and border pick-ups. It has a sister agency in Tamanrasset which organises similar excursions in the south, as well as guesthouses in Beni Isguen, El-Goléa and Tamanrasset
The town is built on the slope of the hill, 2.5km southeast of Ghardaïa. This is the most important religious town in the M’Zab and also has an excellent reputation for science and education. Constructed in the 14th century, it’s also known for its ramparts, which are 2.5km long and 3m high. The people here hang on very firmly to their traditional ways, and the amount of outside influence is kept to an absolute minimum.
The town’s narrow streets are entered from the main Ghardaïa road. It is compulsory for all tourists entering the town to have a guide, and you can pick one up at this entry point. At the entrance to the town is a sign reminding tourists that photogra- phy and smoking are forbidden in the town, and modest dress is compulsory (no shorts or bare shoulders). However, you will nor- mally be permitted to take photos as long as there are no women passing.
Sights & Activities
A guide costs DA200 and you can pick one up at the entrance to the town. The guide will show you all the interesting bits and pieces in Beni Isguen. The highlight is the Turkish tower, Borj Cheikh el-Hadj (also known as Borj Boleila), in the western corner of Beni Isguen, which you can climb up for stunning views over the town and beyond. Your guide will probably leave you at the marketplace, which has a few shops nearby selling the colourful local rugs. The best time for a visit is in the late afternoon, when the market square comes alive with the daily auction the Marché à la Criée. The square is lined with stone benches where tourists and locals alike can sit to observe the action. Those taking part yell out the price of their item until someone buys it, or the price is brought down.
It is interesting to watch: as there are no cafés in the town, it becomes the social event of the day.
At the entrance to the town is the museum, which the guide will probably show you at the end of your tour. It is constructed in the style of a typical Mozabite home complete with examples of a kitchen, traditional refrigeration system, and marriage bedroom, as well as some interesting carpet weaving paraphernalia. The palmeraie at Beni Isguen is probably the best in the M’Zab. It stretches for a couple of kilometres behind the town. The gardens here, are green havens, veritable gardens of Eden. They are difficult to see properly, however, as they are mostly be- hind high walls. Once behind the wall, the contrast is vivid – you’ll find every kind of fruit here, from grapes and figs to bananas and dates.
There are no hotels in Beni Isguen itself, And also a number of guesthouses have sprung up over the past few years in the palmeraie. They are based in traditional style houses with simple rooms and shared bathrooms. Those mentioned below are all within a five-minute walk of each other. To get to the palmeraie just continue on the road past the entrance to Beni Isguen, where it winds around to the back of the palmeraie. Or you could get a bus to the palmeraie from outside the entrance to the old city of Beni Isguen. The guesthouses are difficult to find though, and not well sign posted so if you don’t have a car it’s best to arrange to be picked up from the bus station or airport. In any case, they all ask that you make reservations in advance.
Big Sun Maison d’Hôtes (029 887616; s/d B&B from DA1500/2000)
This is owned by Big Sun Destination. It is a smaller and more intimate place than the Caravansérail (but just as pretty) with a laid-back atmosphere; the owner encourages you to strip yourself of your watch and mobile phone and the emphasis here is on generating an understanding of Mozabite culture. Big Sun also built a traditional Bedouin camp complete with organic fruit and veg garden, camels, goats and a tradition well system. Reservations must be made in advance.
Caravansérail Ghardaïa (029 899702; www.mzabtours.com; B&B/half/full board per person from
DA1500/2500/3200; s) Owned by the proprie- tor of M’Zab Tours (see p156) this is an enchanting guesthouse in the heart of the palmeraie. It’s based around a centuries old traditional house and is a veritable warren of curved, low-ceilinged, white-walled rooms and terraces, constructed to be cool in summer and warm in winter. Meals are taken around low tables in a large dining room scattered with traditional carpets and artefacts, or, in fine weather, outdoors under the stars. There’s also a swimming pool, for use during the summer months. Full board is encouraged and in high season half-board is obligatory. It can also arrange guides for visits to Ghardaïa and the surrounding towns.
This place is larger than its neighbors and has an airier feel about it with multi-levelled pretty terraces, skylights and a trellis covered shady terrace and swimming pool. In the evenings the gardens are lit up with twinkling lights built into the stairs and strung up between the trees and there’s an outdoor fireplace around which to congregate. It also has some less charming rooms with fridges and bathrooms for those who want greater privacy.
Getting There & Away
Local buses leave Ghardaïa from the local bus station outside the entrance to the old city and cost DA15. They drop you outside the gates to Beni Isguen. Alternatively, it’s a half-hour walk.
It is from Melika that you get the best overall views of the Oued M’Zab and Ghardaïa itself. The town is about a kilometre to the southeast of Ghardaïa, high above the oued.
The main point of interest is the curious cemetery on the northern side of the town where Sidi Aïssa and his family are buried. It’s a series of eerie white tombs with conical structures, almost like turrets, pointing towards the sky.
As the story goes, Sidi Aïssa was a Malakite Muslim who converted to Ibadism after a dream in which he saw three cemeter- ies. The first was surrounded by flames and smoke and, he believed, was that of the Jews; the second was a Malakite cemetery which emitted groans of pain; and the third cem- etery, which he believed was the cemetery of the Ibadis, was bathed in a serene light. After an argument with Melika’s chief, Sidi Aïssa shut himself away, refusing to receive guests, until his death. After his death, the people of Melika, who were very fond of him, decided to build a magnificent tomb.
Getting There & Away
The easiest way up to Melika is on foot from Ghardaïa. It takes about 30 minutes to make the climb, and the best route is the road which leads south opposite the main gare routière. It is also possible to cross the oued anywhere and just scramble up the side of the hill.
Le Corbusier to build a church in a similar fashion in France: the Chapel Notre-Dame- du-Haut in Ronchamp
Getting There & away
El-Atteuf is 9km away from Ghardaïa so is a bit of a walk. Take bus 30 from the local bus station outside the old town in Ghardaïa. It costs DA15 and takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
Four kilometres away from Ghardaïa, Bou Noura is less interesting than and not as well maintained as the other towns. Its main point of interest is its construction. The walls of the city seem to rise out of the rocks on which they were built. To get here take a bus from the local outside the old town of Ghardaïa.