The Maqam Echahid – in English, the Matyrs’ Memorial – stands on top of a hill overlooking the Jardin d’Essai du Hamma botanical park and the Mediterranean Sea in south-central Algiers. 92 metres high and made of concrete, it depicts three giant palm leaves propped against one another to form a tripod while an ‘eternal flame’ burns underneath. It commemorates Algeria’s War of Independence and those who died in it and was opened in 1982, twenty years after the country became independent.
Despite it symbolising a very Algerian event, the monument was the result of an international collaboration. Working on its design were not only local artists – including the painter Bashir Yelles and calligrapher Abdelhamid Skander – but a Pole, the sculptor Marian Konieczny, while the company responsible for its construction was a Canadian one, Lavalin.
The most popular way of reaching the monument from the bottom of the hill is to use a little cable car, but as the passengers seemed to be squeezed inside it like sardines, I chose to make my way up the hillside on foot. It’s climbed by a zigzagging road but the space at the roadside gradually dwindles and disappears so that the cars using it pass too close for comfort to the pedestrians. Alternatively, you can follow some paths that wind their way up independently of the road, but the ground around the paths is dispiritingly strewn with garbage: plastic bags, papers, cans and many plastic bottles. Blackened patches of earth and charred rubbish and undergrowth show where people have tried to remove some of it by burning it; but generally it’s depressing that the hill supporting this immensely symbolic monument should be allowed to become such a mess.
At the top, those delicately-balanced giant palm leaves make an impressive sight. Statues of soldiers stand guard before each leaf as it swoops up majestically; while high above, a cylindrical capsule with a viewing platform is clasped between the leaves’ top ends. I couldn’t help thinking that the capsule would make a great location for a James Bond villain’s headquarters. Meanwhile, the huge smooth floor directly under the three leaves is considered so sacred that you aren’t allowed to walk across it.
When I visited it, the space behind the monument was a strange mixture of things. In addition to a military museum, stalls and a play-area where kids were whizzing down inflatable, bouncy, stripy slides and riding on go-karts, mini-jeeps and mini-quadbikes, there was a huge round opening with staircases leading down to a two-level subterranean shopping mall and underground car-park. Disconcertingly, I scarcely saw a soul down there, many of the mall’s shop-spaces were empty and it contained a cinema that was showing the hoary American horror movie from 2009, The Orphan. All in all, that mall had a definite J.G. Ballard vibe – it felt as if it’d been depopulated by a weird cataclysm that’d occurred a half-dozen years ago.