No. 28, Spring/Summer 1989
By Khalifa A. Solieman and Kenneth N. Clark
|"The traditional M'zab house consisted of four different levels: ground and entry floor, upper floor, roof terraces, and basement. (...) [It] allowed residents to enjoy life in the open air and also live securely in a confined area completely protected on all sides. This type of setting maintained the privacy of domestic life in accord with the Muslim way of life, M'zabite socio-cultural values, and the severe environmental factors of the desert."||
The M'zab Valley communities exhibited a consistent overall urban pattern consisting of three elements: fortified winter towns (ksars), summer towns in the valleys (wahat), and cemeteries. The basic arrangement of these communities followed the terrain the white buildings of the ksars were laid out on high ground, the valley contained palm groves that sheltered the summer dwellings, and the desert areas contained the cemeteries. Each ksar (winter town) had its corresponding wahat (summer valley town) where M'zabites spent hot parts of the year. Most of the population moved seasonally between the sunny urban areas on the hill and the lush shady cultivated areas of the valley.
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Characteristic urban features of seventh-century M'zab communities included a network of wide streets and narrow alleyways designed for pedestrian and animal circulation. The wide streets connected the major community facilities; the Azzaba masjid and madrasa (school) in the centermost area of the ksar, public open spaces such as the suq, the cemeteries, and the summer valley town. Alleyways were used as passageways for pedestrian traffic, starting from wide streets and ending with cul-de-sacs. These alleys tended to follow the contours of the land and often were sheltered by the two-story houses, creating welcome shaded passageways in the Sahara sun.
To fortify the old city, a series of heavy walls protected the ksar with towers and gates located at strategic points. This allowed the M'zabites to selectively close off the town during times of exterior siege or internal strife. Even today, strangers and visitors to the town are required to leave the ksar at sunset, unless they are accompanied by a resident.
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The upper floor had a more open courtyard and contained male guest rooms, bedrooms, storage rooms, and other multipurpose spaces. This floor was usually reached by covered stairs and was connected to the neighboring house by a wall opening which facilitated socializing between female members of M'zab families.
The roof terraces contained many spaces divided by partitions for various summer family activities such as sleeping and sitting at night. The terraces were always reached by an open staircase. Underground floor spaces also contained main family spaces used in the summer day for activities such as sitting and sleeping.
Thus, the traditional M'zab house allowed residents to enjoy life in the open air and also live securely in a confined area completely protected on all sides. This type of setting maintained the privacy of domestic life in accord with the Muslim way of life, M'zabite socio-cultural values, and the severe environmental factors of the desert.
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Perhaps the most difficult aspect of modern life is the automobile, whose presence in the M'zab has significantly altered the proportion and use of open space. Recent planning and architectural innovations were mainly the result of the French colonization of Algeria and the recent exploitation of Saharan oil resources. At the same time, the M'zab was also subject to a very high rate of population growth and necessary expansion of the urban area.
As a result M'zab communities, which were traditionally controlled by the people who worked and shared ideas collectively, have now come under many outside influences, functioning through the authority of the municipalities, instead of the strictly independent Islamic community. The primary issue today is how to integrate these new developments into the community's principles and traditions.
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This material was excerpted from Khalifa A. Solieman's master's thesis entitled M'zab Community, Algeria, North Africa: Planning and Architectural Aspects--Past, Present, and Future.
Dr. Kenneth N. Clark (deceased) was a professor of architecture at the University of Arizona and served as advisor for Solieman's thesis committee. Clark's specialty was the design of arid lands architecture in North Africa, southern Spain, and Mexico.
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