El-Atteuf: Known for its Intriguing Architecture

The city of El-Atteuf is one of the five cities making up what is referred to as the M’Zab Pentapolis, located north of the Sahara and around 500 kilometers south of Algiers in Algeria. As with the other four cities – Ghardaia, Bounoura, Melika and Beni Isguen – El Atteuf is a masterpiece of town planning, featuring superb architecture, and is home to a thriving community. The M’Zab Pentapolis has turned a rocky limestone plateau into a man-made oasis that lies as an island of green amidst parched desert landscapes, drawing tourists from far and wide to marvel at this region of great contrasts.

The area was first settled by the Mozabites a branch of a large Berber tribe, the Iznaten, who lived in middle southern Algeria. The Mozabites became Muslims of the Mu’tazili school after the Islamic conquest. However, following the fall of the Rostemid state, some of the Rostemid royal family along with a number of loyal citizens settled in the M’Zab Valley, where they proceeded to convert the Mozabites from Mu’tazili to Ibadi – a form of Islam separate from both the Shi’a and Sunni denominations. France annexed the valley in 1882 and upon Algerian independence in 1962, the M’Zab Valley was incorporated into Algeria.

The architecture of El-Atteuf was greatly influenced by the Ibadi principles of functional purism, which calls for strict organization of land and space. Referred to as a qsur (ksar), meaning a “walled village”, El-Atteuf’s central feature is a mosque, with the minaret serving as a watchtower. Houses are situated in concentric circles around the mosque. The entire layout of the settlement promotes communal living and equality of the residents, while still respecting family privacy. Ibadi continues to be the predominant religion in El Atteuf and the other cities of the M’Zab Pentapolis, with a federal council, known as Majlis Ammi Said, uniting the settlements with regard to religious, social and cultural matters. The local language is Tumzabt, being a branch of the Zenati group of Berber languages.

The M’Zab Valley, including El-Atteuf, Ghardaia, Bounoura, Melika and Beni Isguen, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 for it immense value as an intact example of traditional human habitat being perfectly adapted to the environment.