The word kasbah may also be used to describe the old part of a city, in which case it has the same meaning as a medina quarter. The Spanish word alcazaba is a cognate naming the equivalent building in Andalusia or Moorish Spain.
The Casbah of Algiers is founded on the ruins of old Icosium. It was a mid-sized city which, built on a hill, goes down towards the sea, divided in two: the High city and the Low city. In 1839, the French governor moved into the palace.
In 1860, Napoleon III and Eugénie de Montijo visited. The Casbah played a central role during the Algerian struggle for independence (1954–1962). The Casbah was the epicenter of the insurgency planning of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and gave them a safe haven to plan and execute attacks against French citizens and law enforcement agents in Algeria at the time.
In order to counter their efforts, the French had to focus specifically on the Casbah. Algerian authorities list age, neglect and overpopulation as the principal contributors to the degeneration of this historic neighborhood.
Overpopulation makes the problem especially difficult to solve because of the effort it would take to relocate everyone living there. Estimates range from 40,000-70,000 people, though it is difficult to track because of the number of squatters in vacant buildings.
Located on the Mediterranean coast, the site was inhabited at least from the 6th century BC when a Phoenician trading post was established there. The term Kasbah, that originally designated the highest point of the medina during the Zirid era, today applies to the ensemble of the old town of El Djazair, within the boundaries marked by the ramparts and built at the end of the 16th century, dating back to the Ottoman period.
On the whole, the aesthetic character, material used and the architectural elements retain their original aspect that expresses the values for which the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1992. The continuing residential function has strengthened the viability of the site as well as the integrity of its image.
Restoration work of the built heritage of the Kasbah undertaken in the framework of the Safeguarding and Valorisation Plan is in conformity with the local and national standards and contributes towards maintaining the integrity of the site. Nevertheless, there are threats to the integrity linked to densification and uncontrolled interventions.
It was mostly built between the 16th and 18th centuries during a period of allegiance to the Ottoman sultan. The city’s wealth was derived from piracy and from its position at the trailhead of the trans-Saharan caravans.
There are some more notable buildings behind the walls – unfortunately there are relatively few opportunities to get inside them. We were particularly disappointed to miss the Museums of Islamic Calligraphy and of Popular Arts and Traditions both of which are situated in, apparently well restored, Ottoman town houses but were closed when we were there on New Year’s Day.
Many visitors to the Casbah of Algiers are overwhelmed by the hundreds of narrow streets that wind through the casbah, which can best be described as a labyrinth of pathways.