Introduction

In the river valley of the Oued M’Zab, in a long valley on the edge of the Sahara, is a cluster of five towns: Ghardaïa, Melika, Beni Isguen, Bou Noura and El-Atteuf. Often referred to collectively as Ghardaïa, the once distinct villages are gradually sprawling together, but retain separate identities.

The M’Zab is home to a conservative Muslim sect known as the Ibadites, who broke from mainstream Islam some 900 years ago. This is, some say, a country unto itself, with ancient, unchanging social codes. The traditional white haik (a head-to-toe wool wrap) is worn by most women, who cover their entire face, exposing only one eye. Men sport extravagantly pleated baggy trousers called saroual loubia. While locals here can be reserved, it’s a friendly and surprisingly laid-back place. The area is justifiably famous for its carpets – head for Ghardaïa’s market square for a good selection.