The City of the Air
“Constantine, the city where man lives higher than the eagle.”
—Constantine the Great
If Algiers is a grand old lady, Oran a good-time girl, Mostaganem a bluestocking with a chequered past, Constantine is an eccentric great-aunt.
I imagine her dressed in flowing draperies, with perhaps an exotic silken turban perched on top of her henna’ed hair, and her veiny hands covered with age-spots and heavy gold rings. Her long, eventful past, stretching back nearly three thousand years, is reflected in her knowing black eyes. She is the doyenne of Algerian cities and the fabled Queen of the East. There are traces of past beauty, though, in her worn features, and you can see that she must have been dazzling in her younger days. And like many great aunts, you love her in spite of, or even because of, her eccentricities, paying her the homage that she is due.
As Malek Haddad, an Algerian poet, son of a Kabyle schoolteacher and native of Constantine, wrote: «On ne présente pas Constantine. Elle se présente et on la salue. Elle se découvre et nous nous découvrons » (You do not introduce Constantine. She introduces herself, and you salute her. She reveals herself and we discover each other.)
One of the oldest cities on earth, Constantine was originally founded by the Phoenicians, who, appreciating the defensive qualities of a city built on a rock, called it Sewa (Royal City). Later it was renamed Cirta by the Berber king Syphax, who turned it into his capital. It was subsequently razed to the ground during an internecine civil war between Roman leaders, to be rebuilt by Constantine the Great in the 4th century and named after him. The name stuck, rendered as Qasantina in Arabic, as the city became Arab, and then part of the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of years later.
Tarik and I had decided to visit Constantine during our short stay in the east of Algeria. It was an opportunity not to be missed, as I had heard so many stories about its unique site. The road that we drove along in the direction of Constantine resembled in many ways the roads in Kabylie, hugging the mountainside as it snaked upwards. It wound its way through craggy passes and tunnels blasted through the rock, before rounding a steep hairpin bend to reveal the city, with her skyline of minarets, cupolas and golden domes, appearing as if out of one of Coleridge’s opium dreams. Constantine had sneaked up on us. «Elle éclate comme un regard à l'aurore et court sur l'horizon qu'elle étonne et soulève,» wrote Haddad. (She bursts forth like the breaking of the dawn, and runs along a horizon that she astonishes and raises up.)
The city seemed to have been draped, not built, across her peaks and plateaux. The first thing I saw was a Trajan arch, surmounted with a winged victory and perched on a rocky outcrop far above the road. I later found out that this was a war memorial built by the French, but for one moment, it had seemed as though we had gone back in time and were entering a Roman imperial city. On the other side of the road was a sheer drop, and we could hear the sound of the Rhumel River hundreds of metres below. It was rushing and deep; pouring over rocks in a foaming waterfall, but so far down that its sound came to us only as a muffled splashing.
Picturesque bridges began to appear, linking one mountain top to another, looking like ribs holding the spine of the city together, or sutures stitching together the wound made by the deep rocky gorge, which plunged, clumps of cactus clinging to its sides, a dizzying three hundred metres. Not for nothing is Constantine called The City of Bridges, or, as the Arabs called her, far more poetically, Blad el-Hawa — The City of the Air.
Elegant residential buildings, similar to those in Algiers, from where strings of washing hung out over the gorge, had obviously been built during the French colonial period, although this was not a city of cool blues and whites like the capital. Located about one hundred kilometres inland, Constantine’s colours were warmer — faded oranges and pinks, reminding me of Italy, and echoing the colours of the crags and rocks surrounding the city. The buildings seemed to have grown almost organically out of the cliffs on which they had been built, their colours blending seamlessly together.
We spent the next couple of hours like tourists everywhere, wandering around; our mouths open in astonishment, taking in the sights. Although we had known about it before, it was strange to see that the traditional covering for women was different from that worn in Algiers or Oran. Although the voilette, a lacy face veil, was the same as in Algiers, the Constantine-style haïk, called the m’laya, was black instead of white, had a hood trimmed in red, and seemed much heavier and more voluminous.
I was to discover that the colour had been changed from white to black as a sign of mourning for Salah Bey, who had governed the province, or beylik, as it had been called under the Ottomans, for twenty years in the eighteenth century. He had quarrelled with Hussein, the Dey of Algiers, who had sent another official to replace him. Strangling his rival, he was then strangled in turn by his successor. An eventful past, indeed.
I never returned to Constantine, although its memory will stay with me forever.