The beginning could not be more romantic: legend tells that 20 companions of the hero Hercules sailed into the bay and settled here. The truth of the city’s earliest origins is lost in the sand or still buried beneath modern buildings, but there are clear signs that the bay, with its perfect natural harbour, attracted early settlers. The Phoenicians used it as a staging post between Carthage in the east and the pillars of Hercules to the west. For many centuries it was a convenient anchorage fought over by passing powers – the Romans took it in 146 BC, the Vandals swept through in the 5th century AD, during the 6th century the Byzantines retook it and developed a small Christian community, and in 650 it came under Arab control – but it remained insignificant until the 10th century and the emergence of a strong ruler. The local Berber leader Bologhin ibn Ziri took control of the region in the 970s, after the Fatimid moved their capital from Mahdia (Tunisia) to Cairo, and named the city El-Djezaïr, as it is still called today.
Successive Maghrebi rulers – the sultans from Tlemcen, Fès and elsewhere – always ensured they had control of the port, which still only had local strategic importance. All this changed in the 16th century when the great powers of the Mediterranean, the Spanish, French, Venetians, Genoese and Ottomans, fought for control of the sea. In 1510 the proselytising Spanish took control, but eight years later in an inspired move, the inhabitants declared themselves subjects of the Ottoman sultan and called on the Greek pirates, Aroudj and his younger brother Kheireddin Barbarossa to protect them. After Aroudj was killed fighting the Spanish, Barbarossa led the fight and finally defeated his more powerful adversary in 1529, establishing the regency of El-Djezaïr and becoming High Admiral of the Ottoman navy.
Barbarossa established the city as we can see it – the harbour with its protective arm, tipped with a lighthouse; the huddled houses of the Casbah sloping up the hill; the lookout and fortifications on the hilltop where the citadel now stands. The site was ideal, the place well planned and for 300 years, El-Djezaïr remained the pre-eminent Mediterranean pirate base that even the mighty British navy proved unable to destroy. Under Mohamed ben Osmane Khodja, dey from 1766–91, El-Djezaïr flourished into a well-fortified city of 100,000 inhabitants. The city became increasingly rich as one of the trailheads for the trans-Saharan caravans, as well as from demanding tribute from passing ships and taking action if the tribute was denied: there are many stories of both Christian and Muslim ships being captured by Algerian pirates, with all hands on board either being ransomed or pressed into slavery. It was during this period that many of the most interesting buildings in the city were constructed.
British Admiral Nelson bombarded the port in 1804, hoping to slow the movement of slaves; it didn’t work. In 1815 it was the turn of Commodore Decatur and his American squadron: they captured the Algerian flagship and forced the dey of El-Djezaïr into an agreement to end tribute and slavery. Decatur was dubbed the ‘conqueror of the Barbary pirates’. In August the following year a British and a Dutch squadron were sent to secure the release of the British consul and more than 1000 other Christians held captive in the city. The commander of the British ships, Admiral Pellew, again bombarded the city into submission, and forced the dey to abandon his palace for the safety of the citadel.
The continuing threat of piracy in the southern Mediterranean provided a resurgent France with the pretext it needed to move south. Their hope was to counterbalance British influence in the Mediterranean by controlling the southern straits of one of the sea’s more narrow passages. On 14 June 1830, a force of 37, 612 Frenchmen landed on the beach of Sidi Ferruch, just north of the city. The French claimed they had no initial plan to establish a colony, but in 1834 they officially annexed much of northern Algeria, making Algiers the capital of their new colony.
The city was rebuilt under French rule. The citadel, with its strategic position, was strengthened to ensure security and a large area of the lower Casbah was demolished to make way for new roads. After the French emperor Napoléon III and his wife, the empress Eugénie, visited in 1860, the area south of the Casbah was laid out as the Ville Nouvelle, with broad boulevards and large buildings. It was, in the words of an old colon (colonial) sifting through his memories, ‘one of the most beautiful cities the French ever built’. It also became part of metropolitan France, unlike other French-controlled cities in North Africa, such as Tunis and Casablanca, which were mere colonies.
Algiers’ strategic importance was underlined during WWII, when it became the base for Charles de Gaulle’s Free French army as well as the headquarters of British and American war planners. Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower were among the power players who spent time in the city from 1943 to the end of the war.
The independence movement’s origins stretch way back, but it began in earnest with the end of the war – VE Day celebrations in Constantine, Guelma and especially Sétif became bloody confrontations. Although Algiers was quieter than other northern towns and cities, by the late 1950s it was the epicentre of an increasingly savage struggle to free the country, which culminated in independence in 1962.
Algeria’s oil and gas resources have helped turn the former colonial capital into a modern city, although progress was halted in 1992 when the military-backed government annulled an election it had just lost to an Islamist party. The resulting violence, during which corpses were regularly thrown out into the streets, cast a pall of anxiety and suspicion over the city, which is only now, and very slowly, beginning to dissipate.