A Journey to the East: Constantine and Timgad

Saturday, October 26, 2013 | Constantine, Algeria

A break in the shade at Timgad
In my many months in Algeria, my colleague Karima has invited me several times to her family home in Constantine, Algeria's third largest city and the capital of the eastern region. Over the recent Eid, I was finally able to take her up on the offer, and traveled there for four days with Karima, her sister Wassila, and brother-in-law Khaled.

This being Eid, I spent my much of my time in Constantine sitting around a table and eating with their extended family. Constantine is renowned for its cuisine, and true to form, I did my best to sample all of it and carry back as much as possible in my stomach to Algiers. Their aunt invited us for a special homemade Eid dinner—rich djari soup, fresh lamb kefta, and a mouth-watering rendition of chakhchoukha, an eastern Algerian delicacy of shredded flatbread stewed in a spiced tomato sauce and topped with chunks of chicken and mutton. No contest, it was the best meal I have eaten in Algeria.

Between mouthfuls, I contributed occasionally to the conversations that swirled around me in rapid-fire Algerian Arabic. While the Algerian dialect is close to the Moroccan one I spent many months learning, I have not been a diligent student since arriving here, and my Arabic is rusty. Constantine provided great opportunities to brush up, as my friends, who are so comfortably francophone back in Algiers, slipped into old habits in the familiar settings of their home town, dropping much of the French. (Though nowhere in Algeria does anyone speak purely in French or in Arabic, the proportions of the mix change drastically from conversation to conversation for a variety of reasons—the subject of a future entry.)

* * *

Thankfully, the trip also provided ample opportunities to work off all the calories I was wolfing down.

One day, Khaled led us on a walking tour of Constantine, which stands on a high plateau split by a ravine. Bridges traverse the ravine, connecting the two halves of the city. Some are large, modern concrete structures, but the most interesting to me were the colonial-era iron bridges, still in use today. On the smallest, a pedestrian bridge, we could feel the walkway sway with each step as we peered down into the abyss toward the Rhumel River glistening silently hundreds of meters below.

Less harrowing but equally majestic was the Palais du Bey, the verdant palace built by the Ottoman governor Ahmed Bey. We also visited all the city's principal squares, the town hall, theater, a classic hotel, and the narrow streets of the souiqa or old quarter.

The following day, Khaled drove us two hours south to the Roman ruins of Timgad (تيمڨاد), a UNESCO World Heritage site that was once a flourishing city popular with officers from the Roman legions as a retirement spot. Timgad is also one of the few historical sites I have visited in Algeria that seems to receive any attention from the government. As a result, the site is better protected and preserved than many of the country's other ruins, making it well worth the visit. (Though the tourism ministry apparently still has some work to do; we didn't see a sign for Timgad—the most famous place for hundreds of kilometers all around—until we were right down the road from it!)

After a relaxing afternoon wandering among the tumbled columns, on my final day budding tour guide Khaled took me to visit the Emir Abdelkader mosque, a massive, glowing white house of worship overlooking the city. Photos of these and other sites of Constantine (plus Timgad) are here:

n.b. For anyone interested in reading further on Constantine, earlier this year The National published an excellent overview of the city: "Constantine, the most beautiful city you've never heard of".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article ! Thank you so much for reminding us of a unknown (outside Algeria) but nonetheless exquisite dish : chakhchoukha. Yummie !

Post a Comment