Subway excavation uncovers glimpse of Algeria's past

Mon Aug 17, 2009 9:25am EDT
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By Christian Lowe

ALGIERS (Reuters Life!) - Work to build a subway line through Algeria's capital has given archaeologists a chance to uncover traces of their country's ancient history that they thought had been erased by French colonial rule.

When engineers closed off part of Algiers' bustling Martyrs' Square to build an underground railway station, archaeologists seized the opportunity to investigate the site and, beneath layers of concrete, found a 5th century basilica.

They also found Ottoman-era metal forges and recovered cannonballs and a primitive pistol - an echo of the period in the 16th and 17th century when Barbary pirates used Algiers as a base to terrorize shipping in the Mediterranean Sea.

Historians are excited because the finds give a rare glimpse of the heart of ancient Algiers, the lower Kasbah, which was partially destroyed by 19th century French occupiers to make way for a parade ground and the colonial seat of government.

"This is our heritage," said Kamel Stiti, director of the team of Algerian archaeologists working on the site, as he sat in his office at the dig, a dusty steel container the other side of a metal fence from a busy bus stop.

"No one could have imagined that the earth was hiding these relics," he said. "Little by little we are in the process of rediscovering ... the Algeria which resisted colonization."

For centuries Algeria's coastline, with its fertile farmland and strategic ports, has attracted waves of invaders: Phoenicians, the Romans, Arab rulers, Ottoman governors and finally France, which ran Algeria until independence in 1962.

But now Algerian historians are focused on studying the indigenous cultures that lived alongside the occupiers -- part of the process of forging a national identity after French rule and a war of independence that killed around a million people.   Continued...

<p>The remains of an old colonial house is seen during a foggy morning in the hills above Dellys August 16, 2009. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra</p>