Timimoun street scene
© Courtesy of via flickr user Quinua
Timimoun street scene
Last updated: May 12, 2015

On a quest to save Algeria’s Saharan architecture (PHOTOS)

Banner Icon Inhabitants of a small town situated amid the hot sandy plains of the Sahara desert are witnessing a worrying change as modernisation arrives. Naila Missous reports.

Timimoun, also known as the Red Oasis, is located 1,300 km southwest of Algiers in the middle of the Gourara region, and holds architectural and cultural treasures accumulated over the centuries. As part of the Grand Erg Occidental, little is known about the history of the Gourara of the Algerian Sahara.

In 1987 the region was home to over 60,000 Zenete, Bedouin, and Sudanese peoples in a string of oasis settlements. Whereas these ethnic groups retain distinct cultural identities, their musical styles share mutual influences, such as the use of polyphonic rhythms and religious subject matter. It makes for one of the most uninhabitable parts of the Sahara, due to the incredibly high sand dunes that shift restlessly day after day across the hot sandy plains of the desert. However, despite the region's reputation, the town of Timimoun manages to not only survive, but to do so in beautiful style.

YET, Timimoun's residents are now facing scares that could see its oral and material heritage become endangered.

The original architecture of Timimoun is shrinking under the wing strokes of cinderblock and modern building materials, which are in no way consistent with the nature and geography of the Sahara. Workers from the North of Algeria, especially the more urban cities of Algiers and Oran, are arriving in an attempt to build and semi-modernise the region. As a result, the historical sites, which are the main charm and central points of Timimoun, are increasingly deserted by their inhabitants. While daily maintenance of historical structures was once part of the local's routine, it is now being disturbed by modernisation. It is estimated that within 20 years, Timimoun will lose its authenticity, and what was previously the reason tourists flocked to the region, will soon be closer to a concrete desert than a Red Oasis.

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THE IMAGE most Algerians have of Timimoun and its unique architecture is based on its original beauty and style; red mud buildings studded with spikes, hints at sub-Saharan Africa. Its location, at the edge of an escarpment, makes for breathtaking views across a salt lake and out to the dunes beyond. The main street bustles in the morning and evening; the locals come from a diverse mix that includes Haratines, Amazigh, Arabs and the descendants of Malian merchants and slaves. Given the importance of Timimoun's heritage, the Algerian Cultural Heritage centre recently selected the city as its national headquarters. The backbone to this idea came from a team of young and ambitious architects, whose mission is to restore the historical order of the Red Oasis. 

"There are technical solutions to replenish the ksars (castles) and other buildings alike. The problem is the intentional demolition under the pretext of renovation,” says Mourad Hacini, one of the senior architects involved. She added that the so-called renovation is one of the worst things to implement: "Concrete structures seem quite shallow. There remains only the ruins of old houses. Our organization Cap Earth is based on two principles: that of field work with people to promote the earthen architecture image as technology, and the know-how to preserve it."

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DESPITE the benefits and comfort of housing land, which in an ever modernising world would be seen as a step forward, the 'modern' way of life is not particularly wanted in Timimoun. 

Not only that, but Timimoun's residents, especially the Amazigh of this region, are known to live a simple life, where religion is mystical and the earth is treated with respect. There is gratefulness in the way the land is treated. The energy being wasted in concrete housing is not useful in earthen dwellings, like air conditioning and heating. What is good with traditional building materials (clay) is that they are recoverable. No electricity is needed. The original buildings can be reused even for agriculture, unlike industrial construction materials that are a source of pollution. 

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THE GOOD NEWS is that the people of Timimoun have a genuine desire to reconnect with earthen architecture. However, they are timid of the idea about no initiatives of their own.

"There are real problems, including lack of qualification of the workforce,” says Hacini. “There is also an almost total ignorance of earth materials, which once were understood and used by the older generation so easily, that is now barely understood by the young labourers of the city."

People feel discomfort in old buildings in the earth, because they have changed their lifestyle. The real problem is the abandonment and neglect of these historic sites. It turns into a vicious circle. And yet, this new lifestyle and architecture does not correspond to the specificities of the Algerian south.

In their attempt to break the vicious circle, Mourad Hacini advocates to restart production of earthen materials for new construction. Once abundant supply is collected, foundations can be laid. "We are here to solve technical problems. The housing sector (in this area) has priorities but is using solutions that are not adequate to the area. We must also understand that heritage is the modernity of the past. What is modern today will be tomorrow's heritage."

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THUS, heritage must make up the vision. Future generations should be left with something better than cinderblock buildings. "The human spirit in old buildings is unrivalled. Under the blazing sun of the Sahara and nights of frigid winter, the mud house regulates temperature by thermal inertia," she adds. Environmentally friendly and culturally sound is at the heart of Timimoun's motto.

What is more, the land uses little water in phase transformation. It is an abundant and renewable local resource, not to mention those therapeutic virtues that are held so deeply within Amazigh tradition. It treats infections of the skin, destroys bacteria and mites. Natural earth constructions use only 3% of the energy used in concrete construction. And how about the average age of the ksour (castles) of Timimoun? Estimated between seven and eight centuries, or more.

Timimoun residents see their historical surroundings having a direct effect on musical traditions, too. The Ahalil Festival is known to all in Algeria as the undisputed symbol of Timimoun because of its songs and melodies, folk dances and atmosphere. Its importance was elevated further when UNESCO's 2008 classification of Ahalil as an "oral and intangible heritage" was announced; placing it alongside diverse traditions like Tibet's Opera and Cambodia's Royal Ballet – giving it global status.

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UNFORTUNATELY, the decline of the surroundings of Timimoun have had an adverse effect on the standard in the Ahalil Festival, with many complaining that talented acts (known and unknown) are choosing not to partake as the spirit of Timimoun is being lost to outside intervention.

As is the case with Algeria, progress can sometimes be hair-tearingly difficult. It can be slow and resolutions are not always followed through. What is known, though, is that the people of Timimoun play an important role in the diversity of Algeria as a whole. Without them, Algeria would be missing a significant link in its cultural and historical heritage. Charity begins at home, and if Algeria can capitalise as well as preserve what they have and what has existed for centuries, it will be a gift to future generations to come.

All photos courtesy of flickr alias Quinua.

Naila Missous
Naila is a translator of Arabic, French and English. She also works as a freelance journalist, focusing primarily on the Middle East and North Africa.
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