Algeria’s third city, Constantine, is one of the grand spectacles of the north, made by nature but embellished by man. Over time, the Oued Rhumel carved out a deep gorge around an outcrop of rock, creating a natural fortress that was already occupied in Neolithic times. Since then Constantine (Cirta as it was known in antiquity, Qacentina as it has also been called) has always been a city of political, cultural and economic significance.
The Numidians made it their capital and after Julius Caesar defeated the army of Juba I at Thapsus, it remained the capital of Roman Numidia. The Romans destroyed the city after a rebellion in AD 311, but the Emperor Constantine then gave orders for it to be rebuilt – and renamed, using his name.
The French writer Alexandre Dumas called it ‘a fantastic city, something like Gulliver’s flying island’. The sense of fantasy has still not left it, for however much building has gone on around, the heart of Constantine remains on that upland shelf, reached by bridges. It is a cosmopolitan place which, over the centuries, has attracted traders, as well as invaders, from around the Mediterranean including Jews from France and Spain, Ottoman Turks, Genoese and others. From the 16th century, after the Turks conquered much of what is now Algeria, Constantine – Qacentina – became an important, independent beylik, and even after the last bey was chased from his palace by the colonising French, the bey continued the struggle from elsewhere in the region until resistance became impossible, for a while. On 8 May 1945 (a date commemorated in street names across the region) it was here, and in neighbouring Sétif and Guelma, that the independence movement started.
Constantine today has grown far away from its original fortifications – the new city spreads down across the plain below the old battlements – but it has not lost sight of its origins. There is remarkably little to see, considering how long and interesting a history it boasts, but there is something special about the place, evident in malouf, its Arabo-Andalusian music, in its sophisticated embroidery and a dozen other ways that express Constantine’s long, proud story.