Touring Tabelbala

Algeria has numerous hidden gems that are rarely explored by visitors, chiefly because travelers are unaware of their existence. When traveling through the southwestern regions of Algeria, near the towns of Tindouf and Bechar is a very unique oasis that is historical, modern and fascinating. It is also significant in the fact that the oasis’ residents have their own language. Interestingly it consists not only of one large oasis but four segments make up Tabelbala. It has a total population of approximately six thousand residents, and is definitely worth the visit.

The commercial and administrative centre of the oasis is located in what is considered the recent settlement of Tabelbala, which began during the French occupation as a fort. The other three and older settlements are Makhlouf, which is located to the east of the centre, Cheraia in the west and Zaouia Sidi Zekri, also off to the east. Each of these settlements or villages is referred to as ksars. The administrative centre is referred to as Le Village. Many of the occupants of Tabelbala descend from their immigrant ancestors who came here in the twentieth century. Almost half the population therefore speaks Korandje, a language unique to them, and this is the only location in the entire country that does not have Berber or Arabic as their official language. Between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, Tabelbala was a vital oasis for large caravans traveling between Sijilmasa and Timbuktu.

Due to its location, many would be surprised to know that Tabelbala is a thriving agricultural area. It is surrounded by endless fields of sand dunes, but fortunately, the water table of the Erg Er Raoui to the north of the oasis is high and can therefore sustain agriculture. Zaouia is home to the burial sites of numerous revered saints, or walis, as referred to by the locals, and Sidi Brahim is believed to be the ancestor of everyone within this settlement. These important people are therefore buried in the main cemetery and include Sidi Brahim, Sidi Zekri and Sidi Larbi. Another significant burial site is located in Makhlouf, where Sidi Makhluf al-Balbali, a respected Islamic scholar from the sixteenth century, is laid to rest.