Ghardaia in the M’zab, the Pentapolis of the desert

Guest post by Alberto Di Gennaro – SANDS

I first traveled to Algeria in 1984 on my motorcycle BMW R80GS. I crossed the border between Tunisia and Algeria through the border post of Hazoua, I passed the fascinating town of El Oued, known as “the city of a thousand domes” and reached the city of Ghardaia, stopping there for a few days.

Ghardaia, is a town of the Mʾzab region, in the far north of the Sahara desert; the M’zab region is inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1982. It lies along the left bank of the Wadi M’zab in the northern Sahara desert.

The city was founded in the 11th century by Kharijites (the word Kharijite means “those who defected from the group”) to escape persecution from the Fatimids in the north; it was built around the cave (ghar) reputedly inhabited by the female Saint Daia (the cave is still venerated by Mozabite women).

Ghardaia is a fortified town with white and red clay houses that rise in terraces and arcades toward the pyramid-style mosque at its center. At the center is the Mozabite section, built around the mosque and an arcaded square.

The M’zab region preserves the ancient traditions of the Mozabite Berber population and the Ibadi community. The Mozabites take their name from the M’zab valley, which from a religious point of view belongs to Ibadite Islam, a particularly moderate current of Islam, representing a “third way” between Sunnis and Shiites; they seek reasoning and not imposition, as can be seen in the kindness of this population.

Ghardaia is part of a Pentapolis built by Ibadites which includes Ghardaia itself, Beni Isguen “the Holy City”, Melika “the Queen”, Bou Noura “the Bright” and El Atteuf “the Dean”; it is famous for the harmonious combination of simplicity of shapes and styles, materials and techniques used in the name of a rigor inherent in the lifestyle of the Mozabites, which invite the sweetness of life.

Wandering in the city, I saw that all the women, for escaping the gaze of the curious, were covered by a long white cloak, revealing only one open eye. From the age of 12 girls cover their faces with the veil and once married they can show only one eye under the white veil. One day I decided to visit one of the cities of the Pentapolis, Beni Isguen, the Holy city.

At the time of my trip to enter Beni Isaguen was not recommended for foreigners but I was able to visit it without problems. Beni Isguen had the status of the scholarly city of the M’zab, due to the monopoly it exercises over knowledge and the safeguarding of the Ibadite’s rite, The Ibadites are very proud of their values preserved over the centuries; solidarity, an invitation to peaceful coexistence, a strong sense of belonging, respect for internal rules, their great attention to respect for tradition served above all to prevent contamination with foreigners.

After a few days I left Ghardaia to reach my final destination, Tamanrasset, after crossing the Sahara desert.

SANDS is a weekly newsletter written and curated by Alberto Di Gennaro, hosted by SquareKufic. You can subscribe to the newsletter via LinkedIn, or read the articles here, at SquareKufic.

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