M’Zab Valley


M’Zab Valley

Brief Description

A traditional human habitat, created in the 10th century by the Ibadites around their five ksour (fortified cities), has been preserved intact in the M’Zab valley. Simple, functional and perfectly adapted to the environment, the architecture of M’Zab was designed for community living, while respecting the structure of the family. It is a source of inspiration for today’s urban planners.

Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis

Located 600 km south of Algiers, in the heart of the Sahara Desert, the five ksour (fortified villages) of the M’Zab Valley form an extraordinarily homogenous ensemble constituting, in the desert, the mark of a sedentary and urban civilization possessing an original culture that has, through its own merit, preserved its cohesion throughout the centuries. Comprised of ksour and palm groves of El-Atteuf, Bounoura, Melika, Ghardaïa and Beni-Isguen (founded between 1012 and 1350), the M’Zab Valley has conserved practically the same way of life and the same building techniques since the 11th century, ordered as much by a specific social and cultural context, as by the need for adaptation to a hostile environment, the choice of which responded to a historic need for withdrawal and a defensive imperative. Each of these miniature citadels, surrounded by walls, is dominated by a mosque, the minaret of which functions as a watchtower. The mosque is conceived as a fortress, the last bastion of resistance in the event of a siege, and comprises an arsenal and a grain store. Around this building, which is essential for communal life, are houses built in concentric circles up to the ramparts. Each house constitutes a cubic cell of standard type, illustrating an egalitarian society founded on the respect for the family structure, aiming at the preservation of its intimacy and autonomy.  At the beginning of the first millennium, the Ibadis created in the M’Zab, with local materials, a vernacular architecture which, with its perfect adaptation to the environment and the simplicity of its forms, is an example and an influence for contemporary architecture and town-planning.

Criterion (ii): The anthropic ensembles of the M’Zab Valley bear witness, by their exceedingly original architecture dating from the beginning of the 11th century and by their rigour and organization, to an outstanding and original occupation model for human settlements of the cultural area of central Sahara.  This model settlement has exercised considerable influence for nearly a millennium on Arab architecture and town-planning, including architects and town-planners of the 20th century, from Le Corbusier to Fernand Pouillon and André Raverau.

Criterion (iii): The three elements constituting the urban ensembles and settlements of the M’Zab Valley: ksar, cemetary, and palm grove with its summer citadel, are an exceptional testimony of the Ibadis culture at its height and the egalitarian principle that was meticulously applied by the Mozabite society.

Criterion (v): The elements constituting the M’Zab Valley are an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, representative of the Ibadis culture that, through the ingenious system for the capture and distribution of water and the creation of palm groves, demonstrates the extremely efficient human interaction with a semi-desert environment.

Integrity (2009)

The boundaries of the site are well defined and include all the attributes of the property. Restoration operations of historical cultural and cult monuments (mausoleums and mosques), the defensive system (surround, watchtowers, ramparts and house ramparts) and the hydraulic system, contribute towards the maintenance of integrity. Despite the effects of pressure from town development and minor damages caused by occasional flooding, the attributes of the property are not threatened and the M’Zab Valley property still retains intact its conditions of integrity.

Authenticity (2009)

The authenticity of the site can be attributed to its configuration, divided into sections, the layout and traditional constructions of the ksour, particularly in the intra muros areas. The maintenance of traditional functions in these areas has strengthened the viability of the property and contributed towards the maintenance of its integrity.

Protection and management requirements (2009)

The management and protection of the M’Zab Valley property are entrusted to the Office for the Protection and Promotion of the M’Zab Valley (OPPVM), the main tasks of which concern the enforcement of legislation concerning the protection of cultural heritage, the constitution of a data bank of the monuments and sites and promotion, research and training in the fields of traditional building and artisanal crafts.

In conformity with these tasks, and in the framework of Law 98/04 concerning the protection of cultural heritage, the M’Zab Valley has been promoted to the Safeguarded Sector, with provisions in conformity with the maintenance of its integrity. The M’Zab Valley has experienced a much accelerated urban and demographic growth since the beginning of the 1980s due to its strategic location between the north and south of the country. The development of a safeguarding plan would enable the safeguarding and valorisation of the cultural heritage of the Valley notably through the control of urban growth in the vicinity of the palm groves, flood areas as well as the constitutive elements of the natural landscape.

Long Description

The M’Zab Valley, located within the Sahara, 600 km south of Algiers, is the site of a unique group in a restricted area. Traces of very early settlement are to be found on the plateau and rocky slopes bordering this valley, which has been ravaged by rare and devastating flooding of the wadi. However, systematic occupation of the land and the adaptation of a strikingly original architecture to a semi-desert site date from the beginning of the 11th century and are the achievement of a group of human beings defined by clearly defined religious, social and moral ideals.

The Ibadis, whose doctrine in many ways achieved the intransigent purism of Khridjism, dominated part of the Maghreb during the 10th century. They founded a state whose capital, Tahert, was destroyed by fire in 909; they then sought other territorial bases, first at Sedrata and finally in the M’Zab. The site bears witness, in a most exceptional manner, to the Ibadi culture at its height.

The primary reason for choosing this valley, which until then had been inhabited only sporadically by nomadic groups, was the defensive possibilities that it offered a community that was concerned with its own protection and fiercely dedicated to the preservation of its identity, even at the expense of isolation. The occupation of the land and the organization of space were based on very strict principles and, in their precision and their detail, were exemplary in character. A group of five ksour (ksar: fortified village) – El Atteuf, Bou Noura, Beni Isguen, Melika and Ghardia – located on rocky outcrops housed a sedentary and essentially urban population. Each of these miniature citadels, encircled by walls, is dominated by a mosque, whose minaret functioned as a watchtower. The three unchanging elements – ksar, cemetery, palm grove with its summer citadel – are found in all five villages. They serve to illustrate an example of a traditional human settlement, which is representative of a culture that has continued into the 20th century.

The mosque, with its arsenal and grain stores, was conceived as a fortress, the last bastion of resistance in the event of a siege. Around this building, which is essential to communal life, are houses built in concentric circles right up to the fortress walls. Each house, a cubic cell of standard type, illustrates an egalitarian ideal, whereas in the cemetery only the tombs of sages and the small mosques are distinguished in any way. The pattern of the life in the M’Zab Valley included a seasonal migration. Each summer the population moved to palm groves, where the ‘summer cities’ were marked by a looser organization, the highly defensive nature of the houses, the presence of watchtowers, and a mosque without a minaret, comparable with those in the cemeteries.

The settlement of the M’Zab Valley has exerted considerable influence on architects and city planners of the 20th century, from Le Corbusier to Pouillon.

Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

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