Algeria is a huge country in Northern Africa. It covers 920,000 square miles (2,380,000 sq. km), making it more than three times the size of Texas, and the 11th largest nation on Earth. It shares borders with Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia, and Western Sahara, and has coastline on the Mediterranean.
People have been living in the region that is now Algeria, and the surrounding Maghreb, for more than 200,000 years. The first civilizations sprang up between 4000 and 8000 years ago, eventually forming a cohesive population, usually referred to collective as the Berber culture.
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From about 900 BCE the area was invaded repeatedly by various peoples, mostly from across the Mediterranean. First the Phoenicians came, trading along the coast and eventually establishing Carthage in nearby Tunisia and various outposts in Algeria. Then came the Romans, who conquered the Berbers more or less completely by 24 AD. By the 4th century the region had been converted to Christianity.
Beginning in the 8th century Algeria, and the greater Maghreb, became a strategic target for the expanding Islamic world. By the end of the first decade of the 8th century the Umayyads had conquered all of North Africa, including Algeria. Over the next few centuries it converted to Islam and was Arabized dramatically.
In the 16th century the area came under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and became a center for Mediterranean piracy and privateering. It was in Algeria that the infamous pirate Red Beard — also known as Barbarossa — eventually was based, as a provincial governor. During this period both Arabs and native Berbers saw their roles diminished, as Turkish became the national language and Turks became entrenched in most positions of power. Piracy continued to spread and become institutionalized in the area, as well as its neighbors, in a confederacy known as the Barbary States. In addition to capturing the wealth of European traders, these pirates also began capturing Christians as slaves, a turn of events that eventually led the young United States to enter into two of its earliest wars against the Barbary Coast.
In the early 19th century Algeria was conquered by the French, who began to settle and develop the region. Although infrastructure developed under French control, to the majority of the Muslim inhabitants of the country, France was seen as a harsh colonial power. Resistance and open revolt continued throughout all of the French occupation, but it began to grow substantially and develop during the 1930s. Although relatively peaceful attempts were made for a Constitution and more equality in the mid-1940s, these were met with no support by the French government.
By 1954 the situation had gotten bad enough that the citizenry revolted on a massive scale. The National Liberation Front was the main body of revolt, launching a full-scale civil war that would last for eight years. In that time nearly two million Algerians died, and another two to three million were relocated. Independence was finally achieved in 1962, after one of the longest, bloodiest wars for independence in modern history.
Although the new constitution was somewhat democratic, it held very few checks on power for the elected head of state, who was able to form the government and could more or less define policy as he saw fit. Two years later a bloodless coup overthrew the elected president, and the minister of defense, Houari Boumediene took power, dissolving the constitution and consolidating his power base. In 1989 a new constitution was adopted allowing multiple parties to participate in government, and reducing the role of the military in the operation of the government.
In 1991, following the surprising success of a fundamentalist Islamic party, the FIS, the military effectively took power again, stopping any further elections. Since then there has been a low-grade civil war in Algeria, fought by the Islamic factions against the government. Elections have since been held, in 1999 and 2004, but only after changes to the Constitution were added banning Islamic parties from participating.
Because of the unstable political situation, visitors to this country should exercise caution. Bombings do take place with relative frequency, and banditry can be a problem in the south. For those willing to take care, however, the country can offer an amazing alternative to nearby Morocco. The violence has largely subsided in the past few years, but tourism has yet to catch up, leading to low prices and a lack of crowds at the country’s many amazing attractions. Of particular note are the oasis towns, such as Timimoun, where one can experience a setting right out of a storybook. Thousands of palm trees, beautiful architecture, and glittering views make it a sight worth seeing. The architecture throughout the country is one of its most appealing draws, with beautiful Islamic architecture on display in cities such as El-Oued, the Town of a Thousand Domes.
Flights arrive daily in Algiers from most major European cities and hubs within Africa. Traveling overland is not necessarily the safest proposition, and some borders, such as those with Morocco, are closed. It can be done, however, but special care should be taken to choose a reliable guide.