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Constantine: Algeria’s City of Bridges

Town planners today might not automatically choose a plateau 2,100 feet above sea level upon which to situate an urban development.  Times change, but over 2,000 years ago when Algeria’s third largest city, Constantine, was founded, this place, framed by a dizzying ravine, was ideal for defensive purposes.  Later, as the city prospered, it became known as the City of Bridges.


 Town planners today might not automatically choose a plateau 2,100 feet above sea level upon which to situate an urban development.  Times change, but over 2,000 years ago when Algeria’s third largest city, Constantine, was founded, this place, framed by a dizzying ravine, was ideal for defensive purposes.  Later, as the city prospered, it became known as the City of Bridges.


Today, the city has four bridges which cross the ravine, at the base of which the river Rhumel runs. There is also a viaduct which brings fresh water to the often precariously perched houses on the edge of the chasm.  It probably isn’t somewhere you would imagine settling if you are afraid of heights.


If you have not heard of Constantine before, you are not alone.  Born in the city in 1927, poet Malek Haddad once wrote: “You do not introduce Constantine. She introduces herself, and you salute her. She reveals herself and we discover each other.” Despite the fact that it is the country’s third city, it is 60 miles away from the coastal tourist hubs and the roads which lead to the city, winding up steep mountains and rocky passes puts many off paying the city a visit.


For those who do brave the mountain roads, the jaw-dropping reward is understandable.  The city reveals itself in its entirety as a single, last corner is turned.




The suspension bridge and viaduct, built over 100 years ago by the French, carry cars to and from the old town.  Yet the bridges which fascinate most are those slim, precipitous pedestrian bridges.  Often close to a thousand feet above the gorge the residents seem blithely unaware of this chasm directly beneath them and often haggle with street vendors as they cross.



This was a Phoenician city to begin with, known as Sewa – the Royal City.  Then it was taken in to the kingdom of Numidia and re-named Cirta.  The Romans inevitably arrived, calling the place Colonia Sittlanorum and renaming it Constantine who rebuilt it years after a calamitous civil war. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was conquered from the Byzantines by the Arabs in the 7th Century who called it Qusantina.



The city thrived again in the 12 century under the Almohads and Hafsids and then became (on and off) part of the Ottoman Empire.  Finally it was ruled by a series of Turkish governors who created links between Constantine and places such as Genoa and Venice.  The French captured the city in 1837 and returned the city (and the surrounding territory) to its Romanic name which it kept after Algerian independence was declared in 1962.



This diverse and often traumatic history explains its often grandiose but generally mismatched architecture ranging from the ancient Roman to the minarets of the Ottomans and onwards to the modern.



The city has another claim to fame (bridges and local culture aside).  Whereas you may have thought that the cause of malaria would be discovered in a European or American laboratory it was in fact here in this far flung city that Charles Laveran discovered the protozoan parasites.  In 1880, he had treated a soldier who subsequently died of the disease and Laveran took a blood smear which he studied, and was the first person to observe these tiny life-destroyers.  He won a Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1907.


Perhaps Constantine has little to offer the world, in its isolated spot in a country often beset by internal issues. Yet in the near future this city, long incognito in the mountains, will gain more of an international standing, one which this ancient and unique city deserves.

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