Maqam Echahid – the Martyrs’ Monument in Algiers

 

 

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.

 

 

Algiers’ Jardin d’Essai

 

 

The Jardin d’Essai du Hamma is a botanical garden in southern central Algiers.  It occupies about 140 acres of ground between the Mediterranean shore and a hillside that bears two more Algiers landmarks, the Musée National des Beaux Arts and the Martyrs’ Monument.  Founded in 1832, the garden spent most of the first decade of the 21st century closed to visitors whilst restoration work was going on.  It reopened in 2009 and currently contains an estimated total of 1200 different plant species.

 

I wandered in there on a Saturday afternoon, which was the busiest point of the Algiers weekend, and the place was swarming with sightseers.  Particularly popular was the little zoo at the coastal end of the garden.  A half-dozen families were queuing outside its entrance building — a handsome white structure that was decorated with bas-reliefs showing lions, swans, pelicans, flamingos and, most strikingly, peacocks with turquoise and yellow plumage.  Thankfully, unlike a lot of zoos I’ve walked past, this one didn’t exude the squalid, smothering stench of animals being kept in too-close proximity to one another.  Not that I went into it, though.  I’m definitely not a fan of zoos.

 

 

Despite the crowds, the garden was pleasant way of passing an hour.  I saw some very aged trees whose roots were almost as tangled and dense as their branches above; while their bark had become as creased and veined as a crone’s skin.  And I was impressed by some palm trees whose trunks were engulfed in a thick, shaggy parasitic growth that made them look, as they loomed over me, like giant yetis or sasquatches.

 

 

A few areas of the garden had titles that would have broken the Trades Description Act if this had been in the United Kingdom.  The path called ‘Bamboo Alley’ didn’t actually have much bamboo along it; except for its final strait before it opened into the garden’s main thoroughfare, where two thick clumps of bamboo tilted drunkenly overhead from either corner.  Just beyond, on the thoroughfare itself, you got a good view of the Martyrs’ Monument crowning the hill above.

 

 

Also, the section called the ‘Jardin Français’ didn’t seem very French to me and another section called the ‘Jardin Anglais’ didn’t seem very English.

 

 

The Jardin Anglais contained a couple of hulking white statues of ladies in flowing dresses and extravagant headdresses – maybe they were an Algerian sculptor’s idea of what English ladies would look like in an English country-house garden.  Unappealingly, when you looked at them closely, you discovered that their chalk-white surfaces were peppered with graffiti.  One statue depicted two ladies standing so closely together they resembled Siamese twins.  Another statue was of a single lady, holding up her arms.  The plaster or stone that’d originally formed one of her arms had crumbled away, leaving just the metal frame that’d supported it; so that she looked like she was doing an impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger after he’d stripped off his synthetic arm-skin and arm-flesh in 1991’s Terminator II.

 

 

An elevating experience

 

 

A little while back, while I was doing some temporary work in Algiers, I was housed in an apartment on the seventh floor of an eight-floor colonial-era building in the city centre.  The building had a triangular stairwell, with flights of stair climbing two of its sides and landings with the apartment entrance-doors on its third side.  Climbing up and down that stairwell made you feel you were ascending and descending the inside of a giant Toblerone.  Fortunately for those who didn’t fancy huffing-and-puffing their way up the stairs to the building’s higher floors, the stairwell was also equipped with a lift: the quaintest old lift I have ever seen.

 

This lift was basically a wooden box with thin oblong windows all around it and ornately-handled doors that opened out from the middle of its front side as if they were on a big cabinet.  It had a brown-varnished but scuffed and scratched exterior, with a crescent of whorled, seashell-like carvings above its doors.  Clamped around it was a thick metal superstructure that was also attached to the lift cables.  There was no enclosed lift shaft.  Rather, the thing shuttled up and down inside a flimsy-looking frame of poles and railings.

 

 

Inside, there was just about room for two people – something reinforced by a warning sign saying that the weight-limit was 150 kilogrammes.  When I used it in company, I couldn’t help thinking of the famously claustrophobic video for the 1985 song by the Cure, Close to You, which had the band attempting to perform inside a wardrobe.  (It was best not to think, though, about the video’s ending, which had the wardrobe, with Robert Smith and his crew still inside, plunging off a cliff.)

 

The railings on each landing included a set of external gates that you had to negotiate your way past after the lift had reached your floor.  These were patterned with columns of inverted triangles and had almost a hint of Charles Rennie Mackintosh about them.  When you’d stepped out and shut the lift-doors and gates behind you, you pressed a button on the gate-frame that sent the lift back to the stairwell’s bottom.  That was the only time it descended, when it was returning from its destination-floor.  You couldn’t summon it when you wanted to go from your landing to the ground – so the building’s stairs were still well-used, by people going downwards.

 

 

To make the lift work, you stepped inside it on the ground floor and inserted and twisted a key in a slot next to the floor-buttons.  Then it rose, very slowly and accompanied by a creaking of moving cables and clanking of turning wheels, through the Toblerone-shaped stairwell.  Riding in the thing was always unnerving, because of its slowness and wobbliness. 

 

It was particularly unnerving at night.  The lift had a light-bulb in its ceiling but that didn’t work for the month I was living there. The ascension of the lift would trigger motion-sensor-activated lights on a couple of the landings, but most of my journey to the seventh floor would be spent in darkness – while around me the creaking and clanking of the lift mechanism sounded like ghosts rattling their chains.

 

If the lift had felt a little more secure, I would have found using it a charming experience.  It resembled a device in a steampunk novel.  But it didn’t feel secure – and I must confess that, whenever I used it, part of me was always bricking it.

 

 

Algiers’ Musée National des Beaux Arts

 

 

After you emerge from the Jardin d’Essais Metro Station in front of the Musée National des Beaux Arts – or as Google Translate explains it, accurately for once, the National Museum of Fine Arts – in Algiers, you are promptly confronted by the best and worst that the city has to offer.  At the top of the metro steps you find yourself at the base of a hill.  The museum is a little way up the hillside while the Maqam Echahid – the Monument of the Martyrs – is perched at the top, its three broad curved legs making it look like an alien landing module that’s been sent down from an orbiting alien spaceship.

 

 

Meanwhile, set in the bottom of the slope is a curved and pillared alcove containing ten or more gorgeous, if slightly bit faded, tiled mosaics.  I’ve seen other instances of these in Algiers and they really add to the city’s charm.

 

 

Alas, once you start up the stone steps that climb from the alcove to the museum entrance, you find yourself ascending a stairway of crap.  It would be nice if they could sweep up the old leaves lying there, some of which have been lying for so long that they’ve decomposed into brown gunk, but at least that crap is organic, biodegradable crap.  What’s unforgivable are the discarded newspapers, plastic bags, drinks cans and – worst of all – plastic water bottles mixed in with the leaves.  They really make the approach to the museum look like shit.

 

 

The museum itself isn’t spectacular but its contents are nicely balanced between the old and new.  In the lobby, for instance, you get a 17th century statue of King Solomon looking like a very tall, elongated version of one of the Lewis Chessmen that adorn the banner of this blog; while upstairs there’s Aicha Haddad’s L’Arbre de l’Espoir, which is basically a tree made out of spanners and metal nuts.  Exploring the place makes a perfectly pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

 

I wasn’t allowed to take photos on the premises, unfortunately, except on a terrace that runs along the front of the building’s top floor and gives a splendid view over the nearby park, the Jardin d’Essais, and then the Mediterranean Sea.  A mock Roman mosaic covers the terrace’s floor and lining its sides are pillars, some slightly-dusty plants and, every couple of pillars along, a stone statue or bust.  There are also two small garden areas behind it, containing pink-flowered bushes, a palm tree and more statues.  It’s an agreeable place to hang out for a while.  No wonder that, while I was there, it was populated with young, hipster-type Algerians doing just that, hanging out.

 

 

The thing for which I’m most grateful to the Musée National des Beaux Arts is that it introduced me to the work of the 20th-century Algerian artist Mohammed Racim.   It says in his Wikipedia entry that the scenes he painted were set in “an imagined past, before the arrival of the French colonisers, when the indigenous were the masters of the Maghreb.  The people of Algeria, prior to the French arrival, appear in his works as prosperous, given to fine textiles and costumes and the arts of music, architecture and gardening”.  Here are a few examples of his baroque, colourful and generally gorgeous art.

 

(c) Musée National des Beaux Arts

 

Algiers of a clown

 

 

Late last summer I had an opportunity to make a second visit to Algiers in northern Africa.  The first time I’d been there was early in 2014.  Several things seemed to have changed there during the 16 months between my visits.  One change was that on Fridays – the holiest day in the Islamic week – more places were open and more things were happening.  Back in 2014, Algiers on a Friday had been a quiet city indeed.

 

One Friday morning, for instance, I wandered into the city-centre end of Rue Didouche and found it bustling with people, especially kids.  It had been closed off to traffic and a series of activity-areas had been set up along it.  From what I could see, these were designed to get children interested and involved in different sports and pastimes.  There was a giant chess-set in the middle of the road, with tables arranged on either side where folk were playing chess on normal-sized sets.  There was also a makeshift open-air gym, mini-basketball and badminton courts, a small go-karting track, a small archery range and even a little arena where two masked youngsters were fencing.  And for the more sedentary, there was a place where kids could just stand and throw darts at a dartboard.

 

 

Just as I’d taken all this in…  Behind me, I heard several brass instruments tooting and parping and I turned around assuming that a brass band was approaching along Rue Didouche.  But it turned out that the music came from some trumpet and trombone-players who were accompanying a parade of clowns.

 

Yes, clowns.  With baggy shirts and dungarees, patchwork-patterned jackets, stripy socks, super-long shoes, bulging-toed boots, giant bowties, joke flowers, bowler hats, tapering bobble-hats, polka-dotted top hats, white face-paint and bulbous red noses.  Now I hadn’t expected to see this in Algiers, not on Friday nor any other day.

 

 

I suppose I should interpret this clownish spectacle as a welcome sign that Algeria – which, during its civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s saw about 150,000 people killed by Islamist groups and government forces – is returning to normal.  Slowly, the country is recovering from that trauma.  No longer are its citizens haunted by so many nightmares from that decade of conflict, turmoil and slaughter.

 

Instead, they can have nightmares the same as the rest of humanity.  About clowns.

 

 

Re-rock the Casbah

 

 

While I was in Algiers in 2014, I wrote about feeling a bit disappointed by the city’s Casbah.  “Situated on the heights above the northern section of the city’s seafront,” I said on this blog, “the old part of the city has clearly suffered its share of knocks over the years – thanks to architectural changes wrought by the French during the colonial era and to general neglect and decay…  I read in a tourist brochure that the area now has UNESCO World Heritage status, but there’s a lot of repairs and maintenance to be done if it’s to become as impressive as, say, the medinas in Tunis or Tripoli.  Then again, maybe I just walked through the wrong part of it.”

 

A few months ago, I was back in Algiers and this time I had the opportunity, with a couple of other visitors, to go through the Casbah in the company of a proper guide – i.e. somebody who’d grown up in and actually knew the place.  I was really glad I did this.  My previous, aimless wanderings in the Algiers Casbah hadn’t done it justice and I’d missed a lot of fascinating stuff.

 

 

We started our tour at the top of the hill where the Casbah is located.  At the very top is a fortress and its outer wall – which presumably enclosed the district of the Casbah itself at one point, qasba meaning ‘citadel’ or ‘fortress’ in Arabic – is currently undergoing restoration work.  The restoration’s progress is delineated by a jagged line running down the stonework.  On one side of the line, the wall is clean, smooth and smart-looking.  On its other side the wall’s stone slabs are stained, pitted and occasionally bearded with vegetation.

 

 

It was also on the hilltop that we passed a wall mural showing the ‘Jardin d’Été au Palais d’Ey’.  Under its bottom right-hand corner was a little cavity inhabited by a grey mother-cat and kitten.  These weren’t the only cats we’d see in the neighbourhood.

 

 

Descending into the residential part of the Casbah, we found the narrow, winding hillside alleyways wonderfully atmospheric.  On either side, the upper storeys of the buildings are wider than their lower ones, with the result that the further up you look, the narrower the gaps between the alley-sides become.  Sometimes they’re reduced to mere cracks.  And sometimes the gaps are straddled by thick wooden beams whose function, it almost seems, is to hold those claustrophobically-close facades apart.

 

 

Overhead are tangles of snaking cables and wires.  Sections of alleyway are also roofed over and here the cables sprout vertically-hanging flexes that end in light-bulbs.  Smarter areas have ornate, box-shaped lamps suspended from curls of metal shaped like question marks.  Meanwhile, the higher parts of the alleyways contain the ‘wall furniture’ typical of Algiers, such as air-conditioning-unit extractor fans and TV satellite dishes.

 

 

One feature that impressed me was the number of gorgeously crafted, painted and decorated doors and doorways I saw.  The doors bear crescents, stars, flowers and five-figured markings representing the Hand of Fatima, that venerable talisman used by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.  Arched, painted door-frames are moulded into the surrounding stonework while grilled openings in the upper doors allow the denizens inside to check who’s on their doorsteps before allowing them in.

 

 

Down here too are occasional murals; and not infrequent scrawls of graffiti.  And yes, we spied more cats – at one point, a whole doorstep of them.

 

 

Our guide deserved credit for not just taking us through the Casbah’s better-maintained areas.  He led us into a few rundown ones too, to highlight its ongoing problems (UNESCO World Heritage Site or not).  The edges, ledges and window-frames of the scruffier buildings bristle with weeds and creepers.  At street level, you encounter heavy timber trusses propping up walls and facades that are seemingly in danger of collapse.

 

 

And there are big, unsightly gaps along the narrow Casbah streets where buildings used to stand.  When you look around the perimeter walls of these pieces of waste ground, you see in them the imprints of arched recesses and alcoves – and you realise these were once internal walls, of handsome rooms.  In places, the street-side gaps have been plugged with hillocks of rubbish and debris.

 

 

Most poignantly, nearly everywhere that we went in the Casbah, it seemed that old local guys would amble over and engage our guide in conversation; and every one of them complained that Algiers’ ravaged – though, in parts, still very charming – Casbah is a shadow of the bustling, thriving place it used to be.

 

 

Algiers’ Bardot Museum

 

 

Although it has hardly anything in it at the moment, the Bardo Museum in Algiers is well worth visiting.  Once an immaculate Turkish-style villa that was built in the 18th century, the Bardot has, since its founding in 1930, exhibited artefacts with a mainly prehistoric and ethnographic theme.  However, recently, it spent half-a-dozen years closed down while it underwent a refurbishment costing to the tune of 19 million euros.  Now it’s open again, but those opulent Turkish-villa rooms have yet to be decked out with furniture and exhibits.

 

But guess what?  It’s still lovely.

 

 

You can wander around its empty but gorgeous rooms imagining that the place has been put on the property market and you’re, say, Roman Abramovich inspecting it with an eye to purchasing it and making it your North African / Mediterranean holiday home.  The doors and entrances and the tile-work on the floor and walls are exquisitely decorative.

 

 

Entry is free of charge and, for most of the time that I was there, I had the place to myself.  If I’d had a longer sojourn in Algiers, I would definitely have made a return visit, brought along a book, sat down in one of those charming courtyards and started reading.

 

 

At the Hotel El Djazair

 

 

One of the books I read while I was in Algiers was Solo, the new James Bond novel written (with the blessing of Ian Fleming’s estate) by William Boyd.  It felt appropriate that on a couple of afternoons I read parts of the book sitting on the terrace of the Hotel El Djazair, which is Algiers’ most prestigious hostelry.  Incidentally, back in colonial times, the El Djazair had a different name, a very English one: the Hotel St George.

 

The terrace of the St George, sorry, the El Djazair, is exactly the sort of place I could imagine Commander Bond lounging, enjoying his creature comforts even whilst on some exotic and highly-dangerous mission.  Although if he could afford to drink a couple of Vodka Martinis (shaken, not stirred) at the prices demanded by El Djazair these days, I can only say that he’s a richer man than I am.

 

The hotel was built on the site of an Ottoman palace, used both Moorish and European styles in its architecture and opened for business in 1889, after which it quickly became known among Victorians as the leading hotel in northern Africa.  The passageway connecting the lobby with the lounge bar still sports a gallery of black-and-white portraits of some of the more prestigious guests to have stayed in the hotel during the next century – predictably many French ones like Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, Simone De Beauvoir, Andre Gide and Edith Piaf (whose lover in the late 1940s was the Algerian boxer Marcel Cerdan), although less predictably I noticed Che Guevara lurking on those walls too.

 

Also present in the gallery are Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that the hotel served as headquarters for Allied operations in North Africa during the middle of World War II.  In fact, Ike Eisenhower was based there in 1942 and 1943 and the top-floor suite where he stayed is now honoured with a brass plaque.

 

 

A more recent celebrity who spent time in the hotel – when, post-independence, it’d been renamed the El Djazair – was the ex-Monty Python member and the BBC’s number-one avuncular globetrotter Michael Palin, who arrived in the early noughties.  This was after a traumatic decade of civil war in Algeria that’d resulted in 100,000 deaths.  Islamist rebels had placed a fatwa on all foreigners in the country as a means of undermining the government and Palin was nonplussed to find himself unable to step off the hotel premises without being accompanied by four officers of the Algerian security police, the Service de Protection Speciale.  Thankfully, the security precautions nowadays are less stringent – any cars coming in through the vehicular entrance are subject to an inspection and anyone entering the main building has to pass through a scanner and feed their bags through an x-ray machine.

 

There’s much opulent gorgeousness to admire inside and outside the hotel, including an ornate door in a back wall just up from the vehicular entrance – having seen countless beautifully-fashioned doors and beautifully-carved doorways in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, I feel justified in cracking a crap joke here and saying that these North African Arabs certainly know how to make an entrance – and, at the rear of the lobby, a mock-fountain with a tiled backdrop showing exquisite twin peacocks.

 

 

But my favourite part is the terrace, so conducive to leisurely book-reading; and, overlooked by the terrace, a garden – a botanical garden, no less – that’s packed with shrubs, flowers, cacti and palm trees and criss-crossed by paths.  It’s unlikely that you’ll get lost in that garden, but the management have helpfully erected a fancy tiled map of it nonetheless.

 

 

Out and about in Algiers

 

I was a bit disappointed in the casbah of Algiers.  Situated on the heights overlooking the northern part of the city’s seafront, the old area of the city has clearly suffered its share of knocks over the years – thanks to architectural changes wrought by the French during the colonial era and to general neglect and decay.  I wandered through a number of rubble-littered bald patches in the casbah where buildings have either fallen down or been knocked down, leaving vestiges of internal rooms (like bathroom tiles) visible on the now-external walls standing at those gaps’ edges.  I read in a tourist brochure that the district has UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but there’s a lot of repairs and maintenance to be done if it’s to become as impressive as, say, the medinas in Tunis or Tripoli.  Then again, maybe I just walked through the wrong part of it.

 

But I liked the steep passageways and flights of steps that climbed and wound their way up the slope from the seafront to the casbah.  They were nicely atmospheric.

 

 

Algiers’ seafront is pretty much given over to commerce and transport – there are numerous quays and docked ships, while the central Gare D’Alger stands prominently on the coastal rail line – but that’s not to say that it looks ugly.

 

 

Indeed, the Mediterranean-facing buildings along the esplanade have, at street-level, a very long and impressive arcade-walkway where the shop-fronts and building-entrances are set in from the road behind countless pillars and arches.  It’s illuminated at night by hanging lamps and if you look, you’ll find the odd, pleasing architectural embellishment as well.  That long, arched and pillared walkway would make an excellent place to go jogging first thing in the morning, while it’s still cool and the sea-air hasn’t yet become tainted by car exhausts.  However, I didn’t fancy struggling back up the hill to my hotel at the end of the jog, so I wimped out and didn’t attempt it.

 

 

Finally, at one point while I strolled along the sea-front, I happened to look inland along a side-street and I spotted this public lavatory.  Yes, the Algerians have even chosen to decorate the entrances of their pissoirs with tiled paintings.  Now I’m really impressed.

 

 

Algerian antiquities

 

 

By chance, the hotel I’m currently staying at in Algiers is five minutes’ walk from the city’s Museum of Antiquities on Boulevard Krim Belkacem.  The main museum building stands at the back of the premises and houses some stately-looking artefacts from such eras as the Punic, Roman and Byzantine ones.  These include statues of the usual suspects – Minerva, Bacchus, Demeter, Neptune – and several impressive mosaics.

 

 

Near the entrance gate, meanwhile, is the Islamic Arts Pavilion, whose attractions are smaller and more recent: lamps, carpets, heavy-duty jewellery, powder pouches, jars, bowls, lacquered furniture, daggers, sabres, rifles, mirrors and candle-holders.  Its largest exhibits are a couple of wooden remnants – a pair of doors, a staircase – from a medieval mosque.  For some reason, though, the two things I found most memorable there were an antique Algerian barber’s kit (with two cut-throat razors) and a 17th century Turkish tromblon, i.e. a blunderbuss.

 

 

It’s determinedly quiet and unfussy, but I like that.  I can’t complain either about the fact that, like other tourist sites in Algiers, it’s not actually much bothered by tourists and you have the place almost entirely to yourself.

 

You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but the grounds themselves merit a few snap-shots.  The building that purported to be the museum bookshop was, unfortunately, shut when I visited.  To be honest, it showed little sign of ever being open – but it was a pretty enough structure.

 

 

Meanwhile, the pigeons that inhabit the museum grounds have been lucky enough to be given their own house, set atop an ornate pillar.  I normally regard pigeons as being complete and detestable vermin, but I have to admit that the ones populating Algiers are more appealing than the norm.  Their necks are flecked with scarlet and they have little chocolate-coloured stripes near the end of their wings.  But before I get too enamoured with their cuteness, I should add that the other day one of them shat all over me on the street.