Constantine, Capital of Arab Culture

Suspension bridges, unique architectural structures and creative heritage are just some of the virtues that will make this Algerian city a tourist destination in 2015.

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In the middle of the 19th century, the parents of my maternal grandmother moved from Constantine, Algeria to Palestine. My grandmother’s father was born in Tiberias in 1861. His family realized that year it would not survive here and emigrated to Egypt.

My grandmother was born in Cairo in 1897. Everything about her was Egyptian – her language, her culture, her lifestyle. Yet though her longings were for Egyptian things, she always said Constantine was the most beautiful and special city on earth. She certainly was exaggerating, but she was not the only one to make this claim. Indeed, the Arab League through a UNESCO initiative selected it as the “Capital of Arab Culture 2015.”

The goal of the initiative, part of a broader plan of world cultural capitals, is to promote Arab culture and facilitate intra-Arab collaborations. Cairo in 1996 became the first capital to be selected. Almost all Arab capitals have been chosen since: Damascus, Beirut, Sana’a, Khartoum, Rabat, Tunis, Algiers, Doha, Amman and, yes, Jerusalem, too.

In most instances state capitals were chosen as cultural capitals. Constantine is just a district capital, but the glory of its past, its cultural richness and special landscapes certainly turn it into one of the more interesting cultural capitals.

The city of Constantine, the capital of the district of Constantine in northeastern Algeria, is situated 130 kilometers inland. It is built upon two cliffs that reach 640 meters above sea level, flanking the Rhumel River. Eight bridges and viaducts connect the city’s two halves across the wadi, earning the city the nickname “City of Bridges.”

The Phoenicians, who founded the city in the third century BCE, called it Sewa. Berbers later controlled it, and after the Romans conquered it, the city was destroyed. Constantine the Great rebuilt Constantine in 313 CE and gave it his name. After Muslims conquered the city in the eighth century, it underwent a process of Arabization.

Restored honor

Constantine thrived economically in the years it traded with Genoa and Venice. Its status strengthened after the Ottoman’s conquered it in the 16th century and Spanish exiles, among them many Jews, arrived after the fall of Andalusia. France conquered and annexed Constantine in 1837, holding it until Algerian independence in 1962, after eight bloody years of war.

Almost all the cultures that ruled in Constantine left their mark and influence, and the city – besides its unique geographic location and amazing views – hosts a number of impressive historic sites and architectural structures. Attractions include the suspension bridges, of course. The oldest among them is the Bab al-Kantara (Gate of the Viaduct) bridge, built in 1792. Others include Sidi Rached, considered the highest stone bridge in the world and the Sidi-M’Cid bridge, built in 1912.

But beyond being a city of suspension bridges, Constantine is also a city of knowledge and religious legal scholars. The city has a host of mosques, some of them considered pearls of Islamic architecture. One such gem is the Grand Mosque, built in 1136 on the ruins of an ancient Roman shrine. Another is the 19th-century Emir Abdelkader in the town center, considered the biggest mosque in Algeria and one of the largest in North Africa. The mosque, named after the founder of modern Algeria, Abdelkader ibn Muhyi al-Din, is a good example of the Andalusian style of building. It can hold 15,000 worshippers and also houses a university for Islamic studies. Several of the most important scholars of Islamic law in the Sunni world have studies on its benches, such as Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

(Photo by Djebel el Wahch)

Another impressive architectural building is the Palace of Ahmed Bey, which was completed in 1835. The palace, constructed entirely in the Ottoman style, was built upon the orders of the empire’s district governor at the time, Ahmed Bey Muhammad al-Sharif, to serve as his living quarters. However, he only managed to live there for two years before the French conquered the city and turned the palace into their headquarters. The 1,200 square-meter palace contains more than 120 rooms, gardens and internal courtyards, decorated arches, 250 marble pillars, a Moroccan style bathhouse and a fish pool, and has served since 2011 as the national museum for arts and traditional arts.

Constantine’s district theater, built during French rule in the 19th century, and Mentouri-Constantine University are also likely to attract tourists this year. The first boasts a classical style, reminiscent of the best European concert halls. The second may attract tourists for its modernist style, which characterizes the work of renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, one of the leaders of the modernist stream of architecture.

Since Algeria’s independence, Constantine has garnered a reputation as a sleepy city. However, it has produced many important artists, singers and intellectuals, among them the philosopher Malek Bennabi, the Jewish physicist and Nobel Prize winner Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, the author Kateb Yacine, the poet Malek Haddad, the Jewish singer Enrico Macias, the short-story writer and novelist Zuhur Wanasi and author Ahlam Mosteghanemi, considered one of the most important voices of women’s writing in the Arab world. And yet, it seems that everyone left town at one stage or another of their lives and never returned, even if it is used for inspiring their stories and songs.

Constantine was neglected for decades after independence. An investigative program produced by one of Algeria’s independent television channels shows homes in the ancient city leaning over to fall, piles of garbage in its alleyways and crumbling sidewalks. The paint is peeling from the new buildings and desolation and moss permeate almost every corner.

(Photo by Djebel el Wahch)

Since last year, and with great vigor over the last months, Constantine is undergoing an accelerated facelift and building reconstruction. The city’s hotels have been renovated, streets repaved, new public buildings erected and another bridge was added. Officials are doing everything to be ready for next month’s opening celebrations of “Constantine, Capital of Arab Culture 2015.”

The opening events are to include musical performances in the regional malouf style, dance and theater performances as well as adventure and documentary films. The climax will be a performance in the wadi by Lebanese singer Fairuz, who will make her first appearance in Algeria in over 30 years – and the show is generating considerable excitement.

And lest Israelis of Algerian descent feel left out, the Algerian religious affairs minister, Muhammad Issa, said last year that he was prepared to open Algeria to Algerian Jews – at least those who oppose the policies of the Israeli government.