Past to Present
The M’zab Valley defines a north-south trade route through the Sahara. People have moved through it for a very long time, with evidence of rock drawings from the Bronze Age. A Berber group was converted to Islam by the Ibadites, the first sect to split off from Islam. Suffering persecution, they came to the M’zab Valley in the 10th century and settled, planning and building a series of walled towns and way of life that is still maintained through a federated council that keeps Islamic and civil laws, as well as through its isolation by geography and preference.
A mosque resides at the heart of each of the five original walled towns (ksour). The marketplace is also the town center, and the merchants are usually men. Homes circle out from this center and are built in similar sizes and configurations, which reflect an attitude of equality. These homes are where women spend their time, especially in the roofed courtyards that provide privacy and a play area for children. Traditionally, women are covered when leaving the home for family errands or visits. They walk through unmarked alleyways that wind like footpaths, wearing long white cloaks with only the left eye showing. The homes are decorated with elaborately patterned rugs and carpets, usually the only ornament in the house. Even their clothing and cemeteries have minimal ornamentation, creating a harmonious feeling.
Ghardaia is the largest town, or ksar; four other towns each with their own character. Together they are known as the Pentapolis (five cites, all constructed between 1012 and 1350. A.D.) The average temperature in July is around 36.3 degrees Celsius (97.3 F), with a maximum of 48 degrees Celsius (118 F). This area has little rainfall, but frequent sandstorms.
The ksar (town) illustrates the social order. The townscapes are situated on rocky peaks, with houses huddled together harmoniously and set out in terraces. At the highest point, the soaring minaret announces the presence of the town from afar and acts as its protector and its nervous system. Due to its orderliness and its compact appearance, the town expresses the cohesion of the society, as a coherent, orderly town in which everything comes together to form a unified whole.
In the vast ocean of sand of the Sahara, building materials are limited. Limestone and rock are plentiful, as well as palm wood beams and mud bricks. A sand, clay, and gypsum mixture used on the buildings contribute to rounded shapes. Forms are coated with locally made plasters.
Architecture here must mitigate the harsh environment. Windows are small and carefully placed. Courtyards allow for airflow. High walls shade the streets and alleys. Thick walls are cool during the day and hold the heat at night. Sometimes the first floor is hewn from rock.
Despite the strict austerity imposed on its architecture by the social ideal of rationality and functionality that is dictated by the severity of the environment, the urban architecture of the M'zab has a number of typical features. The urban space of the M'zab presents itself in a well-defined order with a specific style that is purged of the superfluous and with an efficiency that is as remarkable as the simplicity of its art.
The Mosque: This is the most important building in the town. It is impressive due to its size and its dominant position, adding structure and order. It is the heart of the city, and its soaring minaret is the focal point.
The House: The houses surround the mosque. The space inside each house is also structured according to the same principle, simple cells being combined to form a network. The house is linked to the public space (cul-de-sac or street) by means of an entrance with baffles. This traditional foyer protects residents’ privacy in an area where life is designed to be both communal and private. Within each home, men’s and women’ rooms are strictly separated, with separate reception areas for each. Women use the rooftop terraces. The patio is the core of the life of the town on which the division of spaces and functions is based. A central opening in the ceiling allows a large part of the air in the house to circulate and simultaneously ensures illumination. The tisefri or ladies’ salon opens onto this space. It contains a corner kitchen and bathrooms. Steps lead to the upper story, which opens onto the portico (ikomar). This story is structured in a similar way to the ground floor, with an open-air central space equipped with two porticoes with an east-west orientation
The Marketplace: This is the center of activity of the town and often a magnificent public center. As the marketplace is a place of business, noise, and bustle, it is deliberately situated on the periphery of the town. This position is practical, as the delivery of merchandise requires ease of access, but also reflects the social division of space between the private and the public, and between the sacred and the profane.
Gates and Walls: The towns are protected by walls and watchtowers. The town gates are the starting point for the streets within the town and the roads outside it. This is a type of bordj (tower) with an elevated lookout for guards and a gate on the ground floor.
The Palm Groves: In the summer, families move to the cooler, irrigated palm groves (a major source of income) deeper in the valley, but still situated close to the towns. The summer homes are more informal with fruit and vegetable gardens that grow in the shade of the tall date palms.
Water in the Sahara is important, so complex systems that capture and distribute water for these constructed oases – built years ago - still function. The Valley experiences flooding every three to ten years. A vast network of sluices, walled gardens, subterranean galleries, wells, artificial streams or irrigation ditches (seguia), levees, dikes, and dams are designed to hold moisture in the soil.
The people of the M’Zab Vally have created beautiful oases in one of the harshest climates on Earth. This orderly life has persisted since the settlements were first planned and built centuries ago.
Because the M’Zab Valley is an importance model of urban planning, the Office of Protection and Promotion works not only to preserve structures and systems, but also to maintain databases for research both inside and outside Algeria. These settlements have influenced not just Arabic designers and town planners, but also major international architects.. Specific rules exist that help maintain a uniformity and simplicity of form, while also reducing tensions among neighbors.
In 1970, the Study Workshop was instituted, not just for restoration, but also to advocate laws that protect this invaluable cultural heritage. It also works to promote local crafts and raise public awareness.
Population has shifted and many new non-Ibadite residents have constructed housing outside the town walls. Western influences, outside media, and consumer products are more prevalent in the area. A source of concern to preservationists is how to reconcile installing basic facilities like indoor plumbing or electricity in homes without destroying their character.
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