This vast area of central Algeria is home to some of the country’s most beguiling attractions. It is dominated by the Grand Ergs – great oceans of windswept sand rising hundreds of metres high and covering great swaths of the landscape. The Grand Erg Occidental (Great Western Erg) covers some 80,000 sq km, extending from the Atlas Mountains in the north to the Tademait Plateau in the south. To the east, the much larger Grand Erg Oriental (Great Eastern Erg) nudges the centre of the country and then stretches well into Tunisia.
It’s not just endless waves of multihued dunes though. The landscape is surprisingly diverse and in between the sand seas you’ll see wide scrub-dotted plains framed by Colorado- style flat-top mountains, hectares of perfectly flat bone-white sand, fertile green valleys and black volcanic plateaus.
Few roads pass through the Grand Ergs – the environment is too harsh for life to survive – but they are encircled with ancient towns and emerald oases. At this region’s heart, perched on the edge of the Grand Erg Occidental, is the World Heritage site of Ghardaïa, part of a pentapolis of five hilltop cities built almost a thousand years ago by a Muslim Ibadi sect called the Mozabites.
This is an area also known for its high temperatures and in the summer they can rise as high as 50˚C. As the towns of the region swelter under an intense heat, some hotels close down and residents traditionally retreat to the cool of the palm groves.
The history of the M’Zab is inextricably linked with the Ibadis. Yet nomads also lived here, as did Berber tribes, and archae- ologists have found traces of life – in rock engravings and ancient ruined villages – going back for many centuries.
It was the arrival of the Ibadi in the 11th century, however, that really shook things up. Having broken from mainstream Islam a few hundred years before, they were chased from their North African capitals, including Tahert in the Atlas Mountains and Sedrata near El-Oued. In order to secure a safe future for themselves, they fled to a place where they would be far removed from potential enemies, choosing the harsh territory of the M’Zab. Here they set about building a series of towns, choosing to build them on hills to enhance their security. Little by little the existing inhabitants of the valley were as- similated into Ibadi culture and religion.
El-Atteuf was the first city to be founded in 1013, followed by Bou Noura in 1065, then Ghardaïa in 1087; two centuries later Beni Isguen (1321) and Bou Noura (1355) followed.
Ghardaïa’s old city, housing the market and the mosque, lies immediately west of the Oued M’Zab. Just south of the old town on rue Emir Abdelkader is where you’ll find the main banks, the Office National Algerien du Tourisme (ONAT) and several hotels. Fol- low this road south as it becomes av du 1er Novembre, and you’ll eventually hit Beni Isguen. If arriving by bus you’ll be deposited at the main station on rue Ahmed Talbi, on the eastern bank of the Oued M’Zab, a few minutes’ walk from the town centre.
Dangers & Annoyances
There’s not much threat to personal safety for visitors to Ghardaïa. However it still pays to keep a close eye on your valuables, particularly in crowded areas such as the market, and to take care when walking around at night.
There are no hotels in Beni Isguen itself, as foreigners are not allowed to stay within the walls of the city. However a number of guesthouses have sprung up over the past few years in the palmeraie. They are based in traditional-style houses with simple rooms and shared bathrooms. Those mentioned below are all within a five-minute walk of each other. To get to the palmeraie just con- tinue on the road past the entrance to Beni Isguen, where it winds around to the back of the palmeraie. Or you could get a bus to the palmeraie from outside the entrance to the old city of Beni Isguen. The guesthouses are difficult to find though, and not well signposted so if you don’t have a car it’s best to arrange to be picked up from the bus sta- tion or airport. In any case, they all ask that you make reservations in advance.
Big Sun Maison d’Hôtes (x029 887616; s/d B&B from DA1500/2000) This is owned by Big Sun Destination (see p156). It is a smaller and more intimate place than the Caravansérail (but just as pretty) with a laid-back atmos- phere; the owner encourages you to strip yourself of your watch and mobile phone and the emphasis here is on generating an understanding of Mozabite culture. At the time of writing Big Sun was in the process of building a traditional Bedouin camp complete with organic fruit and veg garden, a camel, goats and a tradition well system. Reservations must be made in advance.
Caravansérail Ghardaïa (Tel 029 899702; www.mzabtours.com; B&B/half/full board per person from DA1500/2500/3200; s) Owned by the proprie- tor of M’Zab Tours (see p156) this is an enchanting guesthouse in the heart of the palmeraie. It’s based around a centuries-old traditional house and is a veritable war- ren of curved, low-ceilinged, white-walled rooms and terraces, constructed to be cool in summer and warm in winter. Meals are taken around low tables in a large dining room scattered with traditional carpets and artefacts, or, in fine weather, outdoors under the stars. There’s also a swimming pool, for use during the summer months. Full board is encouraged and in high season half-board is obligatory. It can also arrange guides for visits to Ghardaïa and the sur- rounding towns.
Maison Traditionnale Akham ( Tel 029 873127, 071774820; email@example.com; half/full board DA2400/ 3000) This place is larger than its neighbours and has an airier feel about it with multi- levelled pretty terraces, skylights and a trellis-covered shady terrace and swimming pool. In the evenings the gardens are lit up with twinkling lights – built into the stairs and strung up between the trees – and there’s an outdoor fireplace around which to congregate. It also has some less charm- ing rooms with fridges and bathrooms for those who want greater privacy.