Algeria is the largest country in Africa and located on the Mediterranean coast between Morocco and Tunisia. At 2.38 million square kilometers (919,595.3 sq. miles), it is the tenth largest country in the world. Most of the cities in Algeria are near the coast. Algiers, located in northern Algeria, is the most populated city with 2.594 million residents. Oran, located in the north-west, is the second largest with 858,000 residents.
The Sahara Desert comprises 80% of the country. Algeria has a mostly arid climate with temperatures from 21-24° C (70-75° F) during the summer to 10-12° C (50-54° F) during the winter. One unique feature of Algeria’s climate is the Sirocco winds. The Sirocco winds are hot, sandy, gale force winds that are prominent in the summer season and occasionally strong enough to cause sandstorms.
There are large reserves of oil and gas scattered across the country. Some of the largest concentrations are on the eastern border with Libya, in the southern desert, and along the northern coastline. Offshore drilling is also utilized by Algeria to tap into oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean. The country’s first drilling contract was awarded to a French oil company in December 2012.
As with many countries in this region, Algeria suffers from a lack of arable land. Only 3% of Algeria’s land is arable. Currently, Algeria is facing soil erosion and desertification issues from over-grazing and poor farming practices. In addition, oil waste and fertilizers are polluting the water systems resulting in an inadequate supply of clean water. There are, however, companies committed to improving the water shortage crisis in Algeria that are building water desalination plants that convert sea water from the Mediterranean into fresh drinking water. General Electric completed the Hamma Seawater Desalination Plant in 2008, which today provides 25% of the country’s drinking water. In 2012, the power company Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) in partnership with the Hyflux Corporation began to supply electricity and technology to the Magtaa Reverse Osmosis Desalination Plant in Oran, located in northwest Algeria. The Magtaa Plant is the world’s largest desalination plant, providing water to over 2 million people in the region.
HISTORY & GOVERNMENT
The earliest recorded history in Algeria is from 6,000 BCE, and is depicted in the wall art of Tassili n’Ajer (see ‘Art’ section below for more details). Throughout ancient Algerian history, the majority of people lived in nomadic tribes until these bands of nomads coalesced into larger groups which established the Imazighen (Berber) civilization. The Berbers were the original inhabitants of the Maghreb, an area composed of modern day Algeria, Libya, Morocco, the disputed Western Sahara territory, Mauritania and Tunisia. However, using the term “Berber” to define them is considered offensive as it has negative connotations. “Amazigh” or the plural “Imazighen” (free people) are the names they use to refer to themselves. As the Imazighen civilization was established, three distinct Imazighen kingdoms arose—the Mauri in Morocco, Massyli in Tunisia, and the Masaesyli in Algeria. By the 2nd century BCE, Massyli and Masaesyli had combined into the Kingdom of Numidia, which was ruled by powerful kings who led opulent lifestyles. The Imazighen kings forged strong trade ties between Numidia and Rome. When Rome fell into civil war (130-30 BCE), warring Roman factions sought the aid of the Imazighen kings to help them take control of the empire. In 24 CE, the Romans annexed the Imazighen kingdom of Numidia.
The Romans ruled Algeria until the Vandals arrived in 429. The Vandals were driven out four years later when the Byzantine Empire—the eastern part of the Roman empire that had survived despite the western empire’s collapse—claimed the Maghreb. The territory remained under Byzantine rule until the Arab Umayyad Caliphate conquered the region in the mid-7th century.
The arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century led to the conversion of many Maghreb residents to Islam. For the next four hundred years, various caliphates ruled over the area. The Abbasid Caliphate succeeded the Umayyads in 750, to be followed by the Rustumids until the 10th century. Then, two groups arose with the intention of spreading Islam beyond North Africa: the Almoravids and the Almohads. The Almoravids, a Imazighen tribe from southwestern Sahara, practiced a less strict version of Islam than the Almohads. The Almoravids were able to march their way into Spain through Morocco, where they ruled the Maghreb from 1062-1147. The Almohads who replaced them until 1269, were an Amazigh tribe from Morocco that had little tolerance for non-Muslims and forced Christians and Jews to convert or identify themselves as non-Muslim through their attire.
In 1492, after centuries of Muslim rule, the Spanish monarchs Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, drove out the Muslims living in Spain and established imperial occupation of the Maghreb. The Spanish created fortress colonies, called presidios, along the Mediterranean coast that controlled the population and forced them to pay tribute to the Spanish crown. Barbary pirates who lived in Algeria took to the sea in an effort to prevent Spanish ships from delivering supplies to the ruling presidios.
History & Government Resources
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
Algeria and Morocco are regional rivals, and Algeria rejects Morocco’s administration of the Western Sahara territory. The Polisario Front, a rebel movement made up of the Sahrawi people living in Western Sahara, claims the territory as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The Polisario, however, was outlawed by Morocco and is currently in exile. Algeria supports the Sahrawi rebels, and the Polisario Front’s headquarters is in the Algerian city of Tindouf across the border from Morocco near the area claimed by the Sahrawi people. Although there have been protests by the Sahrawi in Western Sahara, Algeria and the Polisario have not engaged in armed conflicts with the Moroccans since the UN-issued ceasefire in 1991. There are approximately 90,000 Sahrawi refugees living in Algeria-sponsored camps. Since 2003, there have been talks between Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario to decide the future of the Western Sahara, with neither Algeria nor the Polisario willing to accept anything less than independence.
The border with Morocco is another source of tension, as both nations claim the other is harboring militants. This dispute dates back to the 1990s during the Algerian Civil War, in which Algeria accused Morocco of supporting the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, a terrorist organization. In 1994, after Morocco accused Algeria of being complicit in a bombing in Marrakesh and deported a majority of Algerians in the country, Algeria closed its border indefinitely. The border remains closed to this day, although Morocco has indicated its desire for its reopening. Algeria has been unreceptive to the rhetoric of Moroccan officials, claiming the reopening of the border would be detrimental to national security. Given the nature of tribal Imazighen culture, which is not divided by state lines, the closed border has had a profound impact on familial relations as movement between the adjoining countries is restricted.
PEOPLE & LANGUAGE
Algeria has a population of 39,542,166 million and is the 34th most populous country in the world. The majority of the population (66%) lives along the coastline and in urban areas. The homogeneous Arab-Berbers account for 99% of the total population and only 1% is made up of people from France, Corsica, Spain, Italy, and Malta. The official language of the country is Arabic, although French is used for business and administrative tasks.
While most Algerians are Berber in origin, only 15% (5.7 million) identify solely as Berber. This group rejects Arab culture and adheres to ancient Berber traditions, such as living in tribes and in isolation from the modern world. The Berbers are split into four main groups: Kabylies, Chaouias, M’zabites and Tauregs. The largest of these are the Kabylies, who live in the Kabylia Mountains east of Algiers and speak the Kabylie language. The Chaouias live in the Aurès Mountains of eastern Algeria and speak Shawiya Amazigh. The M’zabites in the northern Sahara live around isolated desert oases and speak Tumzabat. Finally, the Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people, travel through neighboring countries such as Mali, Niger, and Libya. They can be found in the Sahara desert in Algeria and speak Tuareg.
Berbers call themselves Imazighen, meaning noble or free born. The term ‘Berber’ derives from the Greek barbario and the Latin barbari from which Arabs derived the term “barbariy,” meaning primitive or foreign. The Berber people lived in Africa long before the arabization of Algeria in the mid-seventh century and their culture dates back almost 4,000 years. Since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, those who identify themselves as Berber have been fighting the Algerian government for increased political participation, governmental recognition, and use of the Berber languages in schools.
Of Algeria’s 39 million people 80.2% can read and write. There is a sizable literacy gap between the men (87%) and women (73%), likely due to the discouragement of female education among rural groups. Despite the literacy gap, women are seen as a driving force for social change. Women constitute 60% of university students, 70% of Algeria’s lawyers and 60% of its judges. Women have also gained greater protection against physical violence in Algeria’s legal code (see this link).
Overall Literacy Rate
Gender Divided Literacy Rate
% of Women
The average Algerian child can expect free and compulsory education for 9 years of primary school, starting at age 6. Less than half of students continue to secondary schooling which is divided into three branches: general, specialized/technical, and vocational. General and specialized/technical studies are completed in three years, whereas vocational may be completed in 1-4 years, depending on the industry in which the student is training. The University of Algiers, established in 1909, is the oldest institution of higher learning in Algeria. It offers degrees in law, Islamic sciences and medicine.
Healthcare is slowly improving in Algeria. Algeria slightly exceeds the WHO recommended ratio of physicians to patients at 1.2 doctors per 1,000 people, and the nation is focused on developing preventative care clinics instead of hospitals due to the youthful population. An immunization program is offered by the government, but poor sanitation and unclean water still causes cases of hepatitis, cholera, and dysentery, though they are infrequent. The poor receive free healthcare, and the wealthy are charged for healthcare based on a sliding scale. Healthcare access is increasing due to regulations that require all physicians to work in the public health sector for at least five years. Physicians are generally easier to access in the northern parts of the country than in the southern Sahara.
People & Language Resources
Islam is the state and dominant religion with 99% of the population identifying as Muslim. Most Muslims follow the Maliki school of thought, founded by Imam Malik (711-795), who wrote Al-Muwatta (The Approved). Al-Muwatta is a collection of rituals, rites, customs, traditions and laws from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Muwatta includes only the verbatim sayings of Muhammad, which makes it unique as the Hadith (the record of the prophet’s life that supplements the Quran as a source of religious guidance) contains the words of others in addition to Muhammad. Christianity first appeared in Algeria during the Roman Empire and started to disappear with its collapse, although interest in it was revitalized under the Byzantines. In the 7th century, after the Arab invasions, it disappeared entirely and did not return until the French colonization of Algeria.
Today the number of Christian Algerians is small, and there is limited freedom of religion. Although there are ordinances in place that allow non-Sunni Muslims to worship as they please, in practice, the rights of Jews, Christians and other Muslims to worship in public are often restricted. Worshippers in religious minorities often meet in secret or informally, as only Sunni Muslims have the full protection of the law. In addition, the Algerian constitution bans non-Muslims from holding high-level government positions. There is also a ban on proselytizing, which prevents open religious discussions, and Muslim converts to Christianity face imprisonment, fines, or pressure to revert back to Islam.
Algeria’s economy remains dominated by the state, a legacy of the country’s socialist governmental structure which emerged after its independence. In recent years the Algerian government has halted the privatization of state-owned industries and imposed restrictions on imports and foreign involvement in its economy. The state still dominates the economy, but in 2016 the government passed a series of major constitutional amendments to strengthen Algeria’s governing structure and deepen separation of powers. Oil and natural gas account for over 90 percent of exports and around 40 percent of GDP, which means Algeria is very sensitive to changes in the energy market. The slump in global oil prices since mid-2014 has significantly impacted Algeria’s economy, and were a major catalyst in the 2016 constitutional amendments.
With declining revenues caused by falling oil prices, the government has been under pressure to reduce spending. A wave of economic protests in February and March 2011 prompted Algiers to offer more than $23 billion in public grants and retroactive salary and benefit increases, moves which continue to weigh on public finances. In 2016, the government increased taxes on electricity and fuel, and in 2017 the value added tax was raised by 2% on nearly all products. The government has, however, refrained from directly reducing subsidies, particularly for education, healthcare, and housing programs.
Despite some changes to the economic structure, formal-sector unemployment and housing shortages remain high. Youth unemployment is still around 25%, and the budget deficit for Algeria was -13.3% of its GDP in 2016, placing it among the bottom 15 countries in the world. Long-term economic challenges for Algeria include diversifying the economy away from its reliance on hydrocarbon exports, bolstering the private sector, attracting foreign investment, and providing adequate jobs for younger Algerians.
Algerian culture is a unique blend of tradition and outside influence. Over the centuries it has been formed by the influence of three different civilizations: Arab, African, and Mediterranean. The geographical position of Algeria has facilitated exposure to a variety of cultures and the mixing of several cultures at once, through trade for instance.
Largely thanks to its rich history, and geographical location, Algerian cuisine reflects a variety of cultural influences. Durum wheat was a staple of the Berbers. When it is steamed it turns into couscous, which remains a staple of Algerian cooking to this day.
Couscous dishes (often served with lamb, chicken or cooked vegetables) are so common, they’re often referred to as ta’am in Arabic, which simply translates as ‘food’. Other kinds of grain – such as bulgur wheat and barley – can also be steamed (in a couscoussier) to create different varieties of couscous. Locally-grown crops such as potatoes, tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, olives and dates are common ingredients in Algerian dishes. In Saharan regions, dates and figs and hard cheeses are eaten with flat unleavened breads baked over fires.
Many dishes, especially stews, soups and sausages, have a hot or spicy flavor. A popular spicy soup is chorba (literally, “soup: in Arabic) The spicy flavors were brought over with the Arabs, who introduced Algeria to spices such as saffron, nutmeg and cinnamon.
The Ottoman Turks brought sweet pastries to the region. Many local sweets incorporate the staple wheat, such as tamina, into pastries or desserts. The wheat can for example be roasted with butter and honey. In former Spanish-controlled cities, such as Oran, dishes like paella are popular. The French introduced sidewalk cafés, and many eating places today serve traditional North African foods and drinks like mint tea and Turkish-style strong black coffee.
Algerian people have a strong sartorial tradition that isis still adhered to today. Folk dresses are commonly worn, especially in rural areas. Many local designers use the traditional features of Algerian outfits in modern clothes. Western dress is very common in Algeria as well.
A burnous is a long woolen cloak with a hood traditionally used by Algerian men. Many Algerian garments are hooded because of the practical uses associated with hoods for the Algerian climate. It protects the wearer from the sun, desert winds, and sand, and in the mountain regions it protects from the cold, rain, and snow. Usually, the burnous is white and made from the fine thin wool. A burnous is often very festive, decorated with embroidery, tassels, and patterns on the fabric. This garment is used in several Arab countries.
Another piece of Algerian traditional clothing is a djellaba, a garment that is used in several North African countries. It is a loose, long-sleeved robe with a hood, used by both men and women. The color of a djellaba tells the marital status of the wearer: light colors for married men and dark brown color for bachelors. Traditionally it was ankle-length or ground-length but modern djellabas are a little shorter. The male djellaba is more loose and plain than women’s one.
Traditional female outfits are usually bright and colorful, with rich decorations in gold and silver threads. The modest clothing is often fitted with lace, patterns on the fabric, jewelry, and so on. Algerian women wear different long dresses that cover their body from head to toe. Commonly, the traditional loose trousers are worn underneath the dress. Most Algerians are Muslim, so the women tend to cover their heads with types of veils.
One of the traditional Algerian dresses is called “karakou”. It always consists of a velvet jacket embroidered with gold threads. Usually, the jacket is worn with the traditional Arab trousers called “saroual”, but modern karakou can be used with a long skirt.
The traditional Algerian male headdress is a fez. It is a felt, tight-fitting cap in the shape of a short cylinder. Usually, a fez is red. The fez is particularly popular in the countries that used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire.
Watch the video below for a rare glimpse at traditional life in Algeria when Aljazeera goes behind the scenes at three weddings in western part of the country.
Wall and cave paintings found at Tassili n’Ajjer (left) are the oldest forms of art in Algeria and depict the lives of the ancient people that lived there. The art in Tassili n’Ajer has been classified into five different periods from 12,000 CE to 1,000 CE and later. The first is the Large Wild Fauna Period, which depicts the relationship the people had with the animals. The second is the Round Head Period, which shows human-like figures with large featureless round heads. The third is the Pastoral Period, which focuses on when the indigenous Algerians became dependent on pastoral animals, followed by the Horse Period, which begins showing men with weapons and chariots. The final period is the Camel Period, which depicts camels and uses the Taureg language. There are over 15,000 drawings and engravings at Tassili n’Ajjer.
Algerian artists are known for their intricate paintings, sculptures and woven tapestries. Mohammed Racim is a famous painter considered to be the “Father of Miniatures” and is recognized as one of the most highly regarded cultural and national influences in Algeria. His miniature paintings are hand-painted in water color or oil and are no more than a few inches in dimension. They usually contain historical recreations or depict everyday cultural events. Racim’s work in the 1930s made him a significant cultural and political figure in Algeria as his work often portrayed a fictional Algerian future without the influence of French colonizers and a rich and prosperous past before French rule.
A popular style of modern art displays abstract calligraphy and decorative traditions of Islamic art (such as traditional signs and symbols), combined with contemporary abstract art. Certain artists, for example, look to traditional Berber art for symbols, which they might use as structural elements in their works, amplifying some and reinventing others, as in the work of the Algerian artist Rashid Koraishi. Koraishi’s sculpture explorations extend across a range of media, including ceramics, textiles, various metals and painted silk, paper and canvas. Rashid begins with Arabic calligraphic scripts and incorporates symbols, glyphs and ciphers drawn from a wide variety of languages and cultures.
Two of the most popular genres of music found in the North African and Arab regions have originated in Algeria: Algerian Chaabi (“folk”) and Rai. Chaabi is a combination of classical Arab and Andalusian music with traditionally deep moral messages of love, loss, celebration, and friendship. El Hadj M’Hamed El Anka (1907-1978) is considered the master of both Andalusian and Algerian Chaabi music in Algeria. He was an accomplished musician who recorded over 360 songs on 130 albums throughout his lifetime
By far the most popular type of modern music is Rai, a mixture of Western and traditional Algerian Bedouin (nomadic) music. Translated as “opinion,” Rai appeals to young people who use it as an outlet to express political and social discontent. It is more abrasive and louder than the traditional music that comes out of the region. Rai music expresses opposition to government authoritarianism and conservatives’ religious ideals. Its popularity has spread to France, Spain and other Middle Eastern countries.
The most famous Rai artist is Cheb Khaled, the legendary “King of Rai.” Born in Oran, Algeria, he began recording in his early teens and is considered the most famous Algerian singer in the Arab world. He has sold over 46 million albums worldwide and his 1992 hit single, “Didi,” propelled him into international stardom. Likewise, Chab Khaled’s French and Algerian Arabic “Aicha“, released in 1996, rose to the top of a multitude of international music charts. The song features the title subject’s rejection of a suitor’s offer of fanciful gifts and adoration in favor of equal rights and respect as a woman.
Literature & FIlm
Algerian literature has a rich history, but only gained prominence outside of Algeria during the early to mid-20th century. The Nobel Prize-winning author Albert Camus was born in French-Algeria to French parents. Camus was a philosopher, novelist and playwright, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. Most of his stories are set in Algeria and he supported civil rights for the indigenous Algerians. However, Camus opposed Algerian independence, which has damaged his reputation in his homeland.
Frantz Fanon emerged as a revolutionary writer and figure for Algeria during its struggle for independence from France. Fanon was born in Martinique, but moved to Algeria in 1953, a year before the uprising against the French began. Fanon has emerged as one of the most influential writers on post-colonialism in the world, with books such as Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth) and L’An V de la Révolution Algérienne (A Dying Colonialism). He devoted much of his life to supporting the independence movement of Algerians and wrote about the cultural and political struggles of decolonization movements globally.
Algeria’s many mosques and places of worship draw many visitors. The Great Mosque of Algiers is the oldest mosque in the capital, from 1097 CE, and one of the oldest in the nation. Roman Catholic churches, reminiscent of colonial rule, such as la Cathédrale du Sacré-Coeur in Oran, are also of interest. This cathedral was founded in 1913 and converted into a public library in 1996. The city of Oran itself is a major tourist destination. It is often referred to as “little Paris” by locals due to the remnants of French influence noticeable in the city’s architecture. It is also the birthplace of Rai music.
Algeria is home to a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Roman ruins are common throughout the country and two of the best known are Timgad and Djemila. Timgad, about 68 miles southwest of Algiers was established as a Roman military colony by Emperor Trajan in 100 CE. Timgad prospered until it was sacked by Vandals in the 5th century. Djemila is notable for the adaptation of Roman architecture to a mountain environment. It was built in the first century C.E. by Nerva and occupied by Romans until the fall of the empire. Mzab Valley, 372 miles south of Algiers and in the heart of the Sahara, refers to the five fortified villages (ksour) that make up the area. The five villages circle a mosque and are known as the Pentapolis. Mzab Valley was established between 1012 and 1350 CE and exemplifies communal living in a harsh environment.
Tassili n’Ajjer, a mountain range in the Sahara Desert, is home to pictographs that depict human activities in the region from 6,000 BCE to the beginning of the current era (see ‘Art’). It also has more than 500 natural arches. Read more about the pictographs in the art section above.
Throughout Algeria’s history, fantasia has been a popular sporting event. Fantasia, or lab el baroud (the gunpowder play), is an event where a group of horsemen charge their horses at the same speed to a certain location, where they must fire muskets or muzzle-loading rifles in the air at the same time, with the goal of sounding as if only one rifle has been shot. Fantasia remains popular today.
Football (U.S. soccer) is Algeria’s most popular modern sport and is played by children and adults in the nation’s streets and parks. Founded in 1962, Algeria’s national football team has been represented three times in the FIFA World Cup and several times in the All-Africa Games. The men’s football team, the Fennec Foxes, won the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations and have earned the gold medal in both the Mediterranean (1975) and All-African Games (1978), and was an Olympic Qualifier in 1980, making it to the quarter final round.
Boxing is a relatively new sport to Algeria. The French introduced Algerians to the sport in 1930 and within 9 years, 11 major boxing clubs had formed. It remains popular to this day. The majority of Algeria’s Olympic medals have come from boxing and track and field events (six in boxing, 9 in track and field). Algeria has participated in all but one of the Summer Olympic Games (1976), winning five gold, four silver and eight bronze medals. Algeria has also been represented at 3 winter games but has yet to win a medal.