After a pretty good night on a bus from Constantine, I see a beautiful sunrise on a totally different landscape from the northern mountainous region. After some hassle finding a place to sleep in Ghardaïa, the main town in the M'Zab valley, I decide to start from the beginning, and visit El Atteuf first. It is the oldest of the five villages in the valley. A half hour bus-ride brings me to the foot of a hill on which I can see adobe buildings and the easily recognizable shape of the M'Zab valley minarets on top. I have read that I am supposed to enter with a guide, but it is not clear where I should find him. Moreover, the driver of the bus points me to the hill, and tells me to just walk up the street ahead of me, and so I do.
As soon as I leave the small square behind, things around me become very quiet. The streets between the adobe houses are narrow, and have steps, and I come to a small shop where carpets hang on a wall. A woman dressed in white passes by, and I notice that she has only one eye to see: the rest of her face, and body, is covered. El Atteuf, and the other towns here, are populated by a conservative sect of muslims, the Moabites, and the difference between the women walking in jeans and hair flowing in the wind, of the day before in Constantine, could not be bigger. Yet, I am still in the same country. The shop owner asks me where my guide is, and I tell him I did not see any. Walking further up, the houses still appear very well maintained, the alleys clean. When the Moabites fled to this region in the 13th century, in search of a place where they would no longer be prosecuted, they first established a village on this same hill. When I reach one of the town gates, its age shows: beautiful, old wooden doors in an adobe frame. Two boys point me to the mosque of Sidi Brahim, and I descend through the cemetery where stones mark head and feet of those resting here.
The mosque is a small, white building at the foot of the hill on which El Atteuf is built. It does not have a minaret, and is the last resting place of Sidi Brahim, a muslim scholar who lived some seven centuries ago. Rumour has it that it inspired Le Corbusier to design his famous church in Ronchamp, France. I take off my shoes, and walk inside, where I find crooked columns built of palm tree trunks, and a ceiling made of the same material. Back up in the old town, I am soon stopped by someone who tells me it is not possible to roam the alleys alone. For a while, we sit in the sun near the town gate, until someone brings us dates and milk. More people gather, and in the end, they give me a small tour of the town again, explaining me more about its history, and the way life is organised. Most strikingly: the strong sense of community. Big projects are carried out together. People help each other out, and know each other. The main issue is space: the tightly constructed village is full with houses, and currently spreads out on surrounding hills. My new friends take me to a place outside town, where a guy has constructed a terrain with sitting room, and a small zoo-like glass cages where snakes, birds, and other animals are kept. He also claims to be the person who discovered the first cobra in Algeria, and who has since captured five. We have a pleasant evening here, with tea, food, and lots of talks about many things in life, before they take me back to Ghardaïa where I need the help of the police to open the front door of my hotel for a short night.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from El Atteuf (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to El Atteuf.
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