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Karl’s Chronicles Article 61 – Constant in Constantine

 

In this article Karl reflects back to April 2016 while exploring the Algerian town of Constantine. A place with a strong historical past and enjoying one of the best locations in the country.

 

1.-Living-on-the-very-edge.-Copy
Living-on-the-very-edge.

On a cliff edge or a knife-edge, either way, the colourful box buildings of Constantine stood at the very tip of a razor-sharp drop. An inch from catastrophe, like arcade pennies wavering on the tipping-point; all stacked along a rock plateau like second-hand hardbacks on a library shelf. Whilst seen from across the ravine, a natural defence lacerating around half the town, one’s thoughts juggled from immediate fascination to overwhelming absurdity. Surely the architects and builders realised courting risk would marry disaster. Location, everything to estate agents, must have challenged their poetic stretch on descriptions: ‘Spectacular views (seen only from the window)’ ‘High-rise without going upstairs’ and quite possibly ‘rear garden needs planning permission’. At least the properties didn’t have back doors, preventing one mammoth come-down after a night on the town.

 

 A dog-eared photo in a left-behind magazine had snared my curiosity to visit and capture the eccentricity and magic of those ‘pop up’ houses and apartment blocks and instigating several aching journeys to get here. There was something wildly adventurous, unhinged and wholly invigorating to go off-course from a single photo or enthusiastic reviews secretly overheard. Constantine possessed more than a concertina of precipice properties to charm the visitor, standing on a high, six hundred and forty metres up on a rocky plateau in Algeria’s northeast. The country ascended further, riding a euphoric cloud of national pride, thanks to an Algerian footballer and an English football club.

 

2.-Eastern-edge-of-the-Rhumel-ravine.-Copy
Eastern-edge-of-the-Rhumel-ravine.

Noted earlier at the hostel, when the stand-in receptionist, a bullish man championing an over-tight football shirt, slipped back in front of the television—trawling back his breath from the proceeds of a simmering twenty-minute dispute about my reservation. The fiasco was drawn out like a charade game as we stumbled about in the mist of foreign languages. Eventually, he deciphered my hand gesture, raised thumb, exposed little finger from a clenched fist held to my ear, and called his boss, who quickly backed me up.

Such formalities as check-in would have to wait. I dropped the passport into my bag and followed his flabby arm towards a group of men pelting for dear life across the screen.

‘Leicester City’, he roared, as if I was on the other side of Australia. ‘Riyad Mahrez, number one, Algerian, good’. He broke off mid-sentence, cringed forward like someone with indigestion and streamed his hands through slick-backed hair. He barked out more words, but his manner suggested they weren’t decent in reaction to a white ball rolling a metre outside the net.

Riyad Mahrez might have been slightly wide this time, but his current position lay firmly in the net. Playing for Leicester City, underdogs of the Premier League who had pushed on to take the championship in 2016, leaving Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea in shock as they slipped down the leader’s board. Much of the team’s success lay credited with the skill and flair of Mahrez, a performance earning him Algerian Player of  The Year, PFA Players Player of The Year, and more rewardingly National Hero and household name.

 

3.-Crossing-the-Passarelle-Peragaux-bridge.-Copy
Crossing-the-Passarelle-Peragaux-Bridge

 I moved off the road and alongside the sweeping iron rail of the Passarelle Perageux suspension bridge. A fantastical name that threw up images of a flamboyant opera singer, draped in white with the figure of a wedding cake. A boy on a bicycle sped passed on my left, stopped ahead by four women in funeral black who snubbed his idea of urgency. The shadow of a large bird glided over the concrete, merging with the shade thrown up by higher houses, then continued to pass across the ravines sunny side. Leaning over the metal barrier, my eyes focused on the white thread of the Rummel far below in the gloom where sunlight was as fleeting as fine slivers penetrating a cave. Thinking of caves, the locals spoke proudly of ones located somewhere in this gorge, heralding back to 300 BC, which made Constantine the country’s oldest settlement. Another high, even if it lay in the low places.

 

4.-Rock-arch-beneath-the-Suspendo-de-Sidi-Mcid-bridge.-Copy
Rock-arch-beneath-the-Suspendo-de-Sidi-Mcid-bridge

Those rock lairs commenced a compact chain of historical events, much of which still resonates in the bones and bolts of the present-day town. The Phoenicians arrived first, naming it Kirtha, where it became a major settlement in Numidia. However, it was lost to the Romans under General Scipio Africanus in the Second Punic War and promptly absorbed into the Empire in 46BC. Its status increased to the capital of Numidia, succumbing to a slight name tweak as Cirta. The city prospered under both Julius Caesar’s and Augustus’s reign. Years later, in 311AD civil war broke out between Emperor Maxentius and Constantine, culminating at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, where Emperor Maxentius drowned in the River Tiber. Two years after, the city took on its current title when the Byzantine Emperor Constantine maintained control. Constantine resisted the Vandals but fell to the Arab crusade in the seventh century – empowered and righteous by Islamic adherence.

 

5.-Vehicle-crossing-the-high-Suspendo-de-Sidi-Mcid-bridge.-Copy
Vehicle-crossing-the-high-Suspendo-de-Sidi-Mcid-bridge.

 Algeria, along with the rest of North Africa, stayed with the faith, carried on horseback across the desert from Arabia over fifteen centuries ago. Confirmed throughout the land as district mosques sing the faithful to prayer. In an hour, the second ṣalāt (calling) will sail across the roofs at midday, mingling with the docile pigeons perched on lamp posts and the upper frames of this bridge. Seven bridges spanned the ravine, like giant safety pins clasping back the earth’s tear – each one built in a different time, impressed by the styles of the day. The style for the Suspendo de Sidi M’Cid must have been vertigo and folly, unravelled across the mouth of the ravine, east to west to  dizzying effect. One hundred and seventy-five metres above the white froth of the Pont des Chutes, where the Rummel escapes the canyon for open skies and cereal fields. It’s the town’s undisputed landmark and already over a century old.

 

6.-American-military-map-from-1940.
American-military-map-from-1940.

  Leaving the Passarelle Perageux confuses the senses, an open bridge at one end and the ravine wall at the other. A narrow, steep stairwell hidden within a white tower is only noticeable once you’re upon it. The boy with the bike is two levels above me, ponderously thumping the wheels and handlebars against the bannisters. Frustrated and tired, the bicycle could be a grand-piano for all the noisy fuss he makes. The four women have stopped to natter, huddled together and diminutive against the canyon wall. I take to the stairs, quickly feeling their extremity, turning one staircase only to find another, cradling expectations of appearing shabby and breathless at Heaven’s door. I wonder how the women will fare, all these trying steps without a lift or escalator to ease their burden, finally stepping out as dusk elbows out the light.

 

 The light is soft and cool, more in tune with mountainous valleys and Asian Steppes during Autumn, where it is shielded by the armour of rows of lithe yellow and red buildings, jostling together like school children in-line for lunch. There isn’t a curve insight, a townscape of lines and levels, openly rebelling in awkward and clumsy leanings, shouldered by regimental neighbours. I weave through the souk, a compounded area immediately north, full of narrow lanes and little sunlight. Fresh paint consumes the air; its chemical perfume settles on my tongue like volcanic ash, sloping down the back of my throat with the viscous taste of rancid oil. It’s impossible to linger and enjoy the streets’ new coat, brought back to glory like an older woman rejuvenated by creams and powders, feigning youth by a synthetic mask.

Up ahead, three men in dark suits discuss the polish on their friend’s shoes. Across the road, a receptionist in blue, carries a bag of fresh baguettes. Behind her, the street soon falls away where the ravine has swung north. A startling duality as gloom and density give way to brilliance and breath.

 

7.-The-Pont-des-Chutes
-The-Pont-des-Chutes

 Standing across from the Sidi M’cid bridge on a jutting piece of  headland is the lonely Monument of the Dead. A French-styled Arc de Triomphe recognising the infinite sacrifices of French and Algerian youth who fell in the First World War. Long lists of names etched down the pillars conscript a sombre mood, strong enough to battle the winds brought off the arable plain below. The steps and views beneath the arch entice shy and tentative couples up here in their pursuit of courtship. Leaning in, like the souk buildings, as they slowly trowel and brush like archaeologists, a foundation not of history but the future. A place of the dead encouraging the awkward collision of the living, ushering in the next generation as an assurance that those sacrifices guaranteed new life. The poetic beauty of nature’s idiosyncrasies growing alongside human troubles brought a tide of serenity here, acknowledged through bashful eyes that flickered from lover to saviour to nature.

 

Nature abounds on a mighty scale, seen with awe as I look out from the headland across the dried yellow and green fields. Constantine has long been an agricultural heartland, the centre of the grain trade, and industries in textiles, wool, and linen. In the twelfth century, during the Almohad and Hafsid dynasties, Constantine benefited from being a thriving market town, strengthening trade links with Pisa, Genoa and Venice.

New suburbs have sprouted up around the farmland’s permimetre. Orange brick apartments and white high-rises gathered together to form lego looking woodland. Rows and rows of new builds set to absorb an expanding population, enjoying a little more space than the sandwiched properties wavering over the ravine.

 

8.-Light-shafts-over-farmland-in-the-towns-north.
-Light-shafts-over-farmland-in-the-towns-north.

 Beyond the countryside, thick, menacing clouds swirl over a low hill. Shafts of sunlight slice through the anger, pooling over a small village splayed across the southern slope. The sky commands the same threatening mood found in maritime paintings of a broken ship thrown about in a fierce gale with just enough light to induce a nod of salvation. The wind has picked up, pulling down the temperature by a couple of degrees; as I follow the sky back round to town, it’s as black as night. The partial ruins of the kasbah, built by the French as an allied base during the Second Great War, stands in the storm’s direct line of fire. Now a military zone, the buildings neglect bear similarities to Alcatraz – fixed on its rocky bluff, high above the river, cut off on two sides and wearing its belt of barriers and barb wire.

 

9.-Constantine-in-1840.
-Constantine-in-1840.

Constantine resisted French occupation for several years until 1838, lasting longer than anywhere else in Algeria. Its natural defence provided by the ravine and the promontory offered the town an advantage. Never-the-less, local resistance eventually crumbled against the French, a force better equipped in weaponry and technique. The French placed much greater demands on Algeria than either one of her neighbours, making military service obligatory in 1912; but not so for Tunisia or Morocco. During the First Great War, Algeria became the largest supplier of material resources, man-power and factory work than any other Francophone country. The drought in the early months of 1917 ensured a catastrophic harvest, made worse for being at the peak of food requisitions.

Numbers varied, but some two-hundred thousand Algerians fought for France. France’s Army of Africa, formed of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan soldiers, experienced losses totalling thirty-six thousand. When peace finally cleared the smoke and exhaustion, seventy thousand Algerians remained behind in France, seeking employment to support their families back home.

 

10.-One-tree-view-point-looking-north.
-One-tree-view-point-looking-north.

The memorial signified much more than loss, but as I returned across the bridge, noticing three young men surveying the scenery from beneath a broad conifer, I thought about all those who had fallen – sacrificing plans and ambitions so others could. The cenotaphs, arches, tombs and eternal flames dedicated to the unknown soldier confirmed another lunacy to the mechanisms of war:  that the simple attribute of a person’s name, their identity, remained lost from official records, but kept alive instead, by memories, photos, letters and mementoes, on a loved one’s mantelpiece or tucked away in cabinet draw.

 

The Place des Martyrs at the town’s heart feels like an appropriate point to take coffee. Across the square, a new hotel is taking shape – a naked body getting slowly dressed in bricks and glass. Constantine is feeling the effect of a cash injection as the future nudges its way in with the past – tinted glass and polished steel, slick and stream-lined against the soft cubist properties built a century earlier. It’s an easy-going place, full of warmth and character, abound by breathtaking geography from its charming roost high in the sky. Am I glad to have chased after a throw-away photo? You bet I am. As the locals know, where ever you are in Constantine, you’re always on a high.