The name Algiers is derived from the Arabic word "al-jazā'ir," or 'the islands,' referencing the four islands located off the mainland coast of Algeria in ancient times that became a part of the mainland in 1525 CE.
The history of the city is one of tumultuous transitions: from occupation under the Barbary pirates of the late 16th century (the Ottoman period) through French colonialism and an extremely violent decolonization process. Today the city remains a testament to the strong religious influences placed on it by the early Muslim state. Algiers still tends to be a territory based on a military history; the city is composed of several contested spaces even as it faces 21st century issues of development and modernization.
Early history and Medieval Muslim Algeria (642 - 1529)
The ancient city of Algiers was founded by the Phoenicians as a North African colony, and was known to the Carthaginians and Romans as the city of Icosium. The city was destroyed by the Vandals (a Germanic people who maintained a kingdom in North Africa from 429-534 CE) during the 5th century, but was subsequently revived during the 10th century Berber period of the Arab Zirid dynasty.
From the beginning of the 11th century until the Ottoman period
, Algiers was occupied by Arab dynasties as a minor port. During this time, medieval Algiers' Muslim population increased due to the influx of refugees fleeing from Spain during the 16th century Reconquista.
The Reconquista is historically defined as the 800-year period between 692-1492 CE, when the Christian-controlled regions of Spain fought and re-conquered Muslim kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula; it was also coincident with the Crusades and the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition. During the "Reconquista," those Muslims and Jews who refused conversion were expelled from to North Africa by the Spanish Catholic monarchs. Later, as the scope of the Inquisition expanded, some converted Muslims and Jews were also forcibly expelled from the Iberian peninsula.
Ottoman period (1529 - 1830)
By the 1390s, piracy on the coastal regions of North Africa was on the rise, spurred in part by anti-Christian sentiment. Under the authority of Suleyman the Magnificent, the Turkish corsair Barbarossa (Khayr al-Din) seized Algiers in 1529, expelled the Spaniards and effectively placed Algiers under the authority of the Ottoman sultanate. Due to Barbarossa's initial role and interest in Algiers, along with his influence as the mastermind of Mediterranean piracy, the city of Algiers would remain a frequent target of the Barbary pirates up until the French conquest. Following Barbarossa, Algiers was ruled by the Deys (as the 30 successive Ottoman Algerian corsair leaders are known) until 1930.
The Ottomans erected walls to enclose the city from all sides. The walls covered a perimeter of 3,100 m and included five gates (Bab Azzon, Bab al-Jadid, Bab al-Bahr, Bab Jazira and Bab el-Oued) located respectively on the southern, southwestern, sea front, harbor entry and northern precincts of the settlement. The streets leading from these gates were directed towards the Katshawa Mosque
(built 1612), which was transformed into the Cathedral of St. Philip between 1838 - 1860.
The road connecting Bab el-Oued and Bab Azzon along the north-south axis separates the city into two zones: the upper city (al-Gabal) or the mountain and the lower city (al-Wata) or the plains. The lower city (later known as the Marine Quarter) developed into the administrative, military and commercial precinct, while the upper city comprised fifty small neighborhoods, each with a community falling under the jurisdiction of religious chiefs and qadis
(judges). Prior to the French conquest, Algiers boasted a total of one dozen Friday mosques (jami masjids) and other smaller masjids dedicated as neighborhood prayer spaces. The Friday mosques were mostly located in the lower section of the city and included the 11th century al-Kabir, the 17th century Katshawa, the Ali Bichnin and the al-Jadid
mosques. The most elaborately designed mosque of the Algerian Ottoman period was the al-Sayyida Mosque (18th century). The city's public spaces over this period of development included religious schools, public fountains and hammams (baths). The Casbah
(Kasbah or Qasbah, 'fortress'), the triangle-shaped core of the city, was carved into the hills facing the Mediterranean by the Deys. Located roughly 400 feet (122 m) above sea level, the Casbah today crowns the steep hill behind the modern town (which was built at sea level).
The Casbah's borders are fixed by fortifications whose parameters forced the architecture to develop vertically as a high-density settlement. The area's housing typology is defined by interlocking masses of white, geometric houses with roof terraces oriented towards the bay; there are approximately 1200 houses sited on 36 hectares of land within the Casbah. As the urban structure of Ottoman Algiers was typical of an Islamic city, a distinction was made between the city's public spaces and streets as the male domain and the private spaces of the house as a female territory. The housing typology of the Casbah remained relatively interiorized throughout its development over time, and the design of the house was primarily organized around a courtyard space surrounded by arcades. This spatial organization around a central courtyard allowed outdoor activities to occur within the privacy of the home. Entrance into this space was an indirect procession through a series of lobbies leading from the streets into the domestic interior. Another salient architectural feature influencing the nature of public and private interactions was the residential terrace: the dense configuration of the Casbah made it entirely possible to move from house to house via adjacent terraces without having to navigate the streets below.
French Conquest and the Colonial Period (1830 - 1961)
After the French captured Algiers in 1830, the city became the military and administrative headquarters for the French colonial empire in North and West Africa. Post-conquest colonial city planners faced several challenges: high population densities, the form of the urban fabric, the topography, the socio-cultural matrix and the increasing civic consciousness of historic preservation issues. From the early decades of French occupation, the expansion of the lower city followed the coastline in a linear fashion. This expansion eventually resulted in a continuously built urban fabric that gradually pushed the center of the city away from old Algiers's originally planned urban center to a site further south.
Early infrastructural developments on the part of the French colonizers were relatively modest small-scale works: the main urban initiatives immediately after French occupation included the opening of Place du Gouvernement and the widening of the main arteries, Rue Bab el-Oued and Rue Bab Azzoun (for militaristic and practical purposes, analogous to the changes made in Paris by Haussmann in the 1860s).
By the late 1920s, principles of preservation had been built into the city ordinances. Under these statutes, the indigenous quarters of the Casbah were protected, although the neighborhood visually defied the prevailing concerns of the day, hygiene and formal urbanism. The buildings' fragility required a tactical approach to rehabilitation techniques; the preservation of their picturesque character was paramount. In June 1931, a special regulation intended to preserve the character and aesthetics of the Casbah was passed, requiring residents to restore their homes before the houses reached a certain state of dilapidation. The typology of this restoration was to be consistent with what had been established by French colonial planners to be the "Ottoman Algiers" style of architecture.
During World War II, Algiers became the provisional capital of France for a time and also served as the designated headquarters of Allied forces in North African territories. World War II politics shifted the attention away from controlling of the urban growth and rehabilitation of the Casbah. Meanwhile, the urban population grew as the city infrastructure declined.
The Age of Masterplans
The first French law on urbanism (dated March 4th, 1919) outlines the colonial mandate to have a master plan for development in towns of 10,000 inhabitants or more. In this way, colonies were considered true laboratories of urban development. Despite the theoretical French application of a master plan, Algerian urban planning continued to happen in a very haphazard fashion. From the 1900s, colonial French urban planning strategies in Algiers were focused on developing large-scale housing projects, a de facto refusal to acknowledge the Algerian socio-political context. In an already divided city, colonial policies reinforced segregation by developing housing projects for Algerians divorced from those created for the European residents.
In the early 1930s the Marine quarter was easily identifiable as the cosmopolitan precinct of Algiers: its low-income population included Neapolitan Italians, Spaniards, Jews, and indigenous immigrants. Its street network was largely inaccessible to motor vehicles and many of its buildings were dilapidated. The French planners held there was little worthy of preservation in the Marine quarter, and that its residential and commercial framework should be restructured.
Algiers's first urban design scheme was approved in 1931 through the Service Municipale de l'Urbanisme and revised in 1933 and in 1934. Its first iteration involved Henri Prost, René Danger and Maurice Rotival. Later known as the Prost plan, it emphasized a strict zoning strategy that divided the city into 4 zones: A (commercial), B (residential single family houses under 15.2m), C (preservation zone with country cottages on gardens plots), and D (industrial). In general, primary roads were required to be 18 meters wide, while secondary streets were to measure 12 meters in width. The first provision of the Prost plan to be completed was a ring road; the Boulevard Laferrière was extended to a monumental esplanade measuring 3,000 sq. meters and was transformed from a traffic artery into a lushly planted park with dramatic views.
In 1931, Le Corbusier's
involvement in Algiers began with an invitation from the "Friends of Algiers" to deliver lectures on urbanism. Between 1932 and 1942, through a series of unofficial, non-commissioned projects, Le Corbusier presented a set of urban planning ideas differing from the Prost Plan. Although Corbusier's proposals did not differ conceptually from the master plans proposed earlier, they did present formal variations. Corbusier produced a series of drawings emphasizing the unification of French urbanism via a new architecture, extending from Le Havre via Paris to Marseilles and across the Mediterranean to Algiers. Corbusier's graphics, illustrating an urban axis of French power, resonated with colonial aims. Corbusier also generated the Obus plan in 1932, a plan which ignored the existing city fabric and superimposed a new urban system. This scheme included a curvilinear viaduct (housing the working classes) that would run along the waterfront and connect Hussein-Dey to St. Eugène. Corbusier continued to develop his Obus plans into the early 1940s, with varying levels of acceptance and implementation: his Obus plan B (1933) replaced the viaduct with a skyscraper, while the Obus plan C (1934) was restricted to the Marine quarter. In successive schemes, the skyscraper became the focus, and most notably in Obus D (1938) the skyscraper acquired a Y-shaped plan. In Obus E (1939) its façade was defined by his signature brise-soleils.
By 1942, Corbusier's final proposal was more similar in scope to the original Obus A plan but explored the zoning strategies more critically.
These uncommissioned projects for Algiers emphasized some form of preservation of the Casbah, while restricting its density and radically intervening in the existing patterns of use. Under Corbusier's schemes, the slums of the lower Casbah were to be evacuated and replaced by parks and gardens while several mansions were to be adaptively reused as museums for the indigenous arts. The existing link between the Marine Quarter, the Casbah and the harbor would be maintained in his plan through the existing street network. No elements of this proposal were ever realized by the planning council.
In 1941, Corbusier was given a temporary appointment; his new influence in the Comite d'études de l'Habitation et de la Construction Immobiliere gave him the opportunity to propose a 'plan directeur' for Algiers. The plan was presented as a set of three plans (for the periods 1942-1955 and 1980), a general plan, and a report. Only small parts of this plan were ever put into use as urban planning policy in Algiers.
Impact of the Decolonization War (1954-1962)
In the 1950s, the process of decolonization began, and the ensuing Algerian uprising against France would last for most of the folowing decade. The capital city was a focal point in the struggle, and the intensification of the Algerian war forced the French to stop construction and planning activities in Algiers. The French administration concentrated its efforts on creating the satellite town of Rochet Noir situated 50 km east of Algiers. This new center acted as the home of a provisional government during the war and only began administrative services a few weeks prior to the declaration of independence. By 1954 the image of the Casbah changed dramatically as the neighborhood became the site of extensive guerilla warfare. The National Liberation Front's Committee of Coordination and Execution reorganized the space of the Casbah into a system of territories with designated hideouts (planques) and caches of resistance. The Casbah now holds many memorials to the leaders of the Algerian liberation struggle, testifying to their experiences of warfare, capture, and torture.
By 1956, the construction of barricades across the Casbah by French security forces became common practice. Gradually, military and police officers increased in numbers, and all entries, exits and public spaces were strategically controlled and heavily decorated with French propaganda.
In October of 1957, Charles de Gaulle revealed an extensive plan for urban development in an address he made in Constantine. This plan emphasized the role of France as the bearer of 'civilization' for Algeria. The Plan de Constantine included the provision of better housing as well as the improvement of the standard of living conditions by providing more schools, clinics, and commercial enterprises. Among other propositions made in the Plan de Constantine, one included the demolition of various precincts of the Casbah to ventilate the city and to decongest its perpetually problematic traffic. Although the Casbah was effectively disconnected from the rest of the city during the violent decolonization process, it continued to function as a locus of resistance, from which protest spread to the rest of Algiers, until 1962.
Fundamentally, the urban interventions envisioned for Algiers began as a product of a militaristic mentality of occupation and colonization. It ended with an obsessive quantification, regimentation and period of control during the urban warfare of a decolonization process. In the French colonial urban-political scheme, the separation of the lower city (whose primary growth was mainly along the waterfront) and the upper city (whose settlements ascended the hills) was an important one. This scheme also served to ultimately emphasize the division of the European and indigenous Algerian populations, as is symptomatic of most colonial urban enterprises.
After independence was declared on July 3rd, 1962, the goal was to create a socialist society out of a less-developed colonial state. Immediately thereafter, most of the European population left Algeria. In recent years the city has faced several natural disasters including the 2001 flooding caused by heavy rains, killing several hundred people and damaging property in the neighborhoods of Bab el-Oued, Frais Vallon and Beaux Fraisier. Of even greater urban impact was the 2003 earthquake (6.8), which destroyed a large part of the Boumerdes district and killed over a thousand people.
The contemporary site of the fortress of the Casbah was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. The modern city center includes the University of Algiers (founded in 1879), several foreign embassies, and high rise commercial and office buildings. Other major sites include the Winter Palace of the Dey, the old palace of the Archbishop, and the Modern National Library. A great majority of the larger infrastructural projects of the city, including the proposed subway, tramway and other major urban renewal projects, remain incomplete.
Çelik, Zeynep. Urban forms and colonial confrontations: Algiers under French rule. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Ouahes, Rachid. "Plans d'aménagement et d'urbanisme pour Alger." In Paysages urbains et architectures 1800-2000, edited by Jean Louis Cohen, Nabila Oulebsir et Youcef Kanoun. Paris: éditions de l'Imprimeur, 2003.
Shaw, Stanford Jay and Ezel Kural. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.