The term ‘Maghreb’ is derived from an Arabic word meaning ‘west’, and refers to the westernmost countries that fell to the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. Five countries make up this natural region which stretches from Mauritania in the west to Libya in the East and lies along an extended series of mountains between the northern fringes of the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Countries throughout the region have responded to a common threat of attack and invasion by developing fortified cities in a remarkably similar way.
Common elements of these fortified cities include imposing defensive walls and battlements, with (often quite elaborate) gates; tightly packed buildings with narrow alleyways (ideal for the climate as it remains cool in summer and maintains the warmth in winter); an abundance of mosques, public water fountains, hammams (public baths), and fondouks (lodging houses); lavishly decorated medersas (Koranic schools); covered, bustling Souqs (markets); and everywhere, decorative arched Arabic-style doors and windows, which give each building its distinctive character and individuality.
Most of the fortified cities in this category were established soon after the 7th century conquest, and encapsulate up to 1,400 years of history – a continuous process of development and re-development. Eight of the cities are still thriving, although new town extensions have spilled out way beyond the original walled cities. One of the cities, the Al Qal’a of Beni Hammad in Algeria was built on a monumental scale in 1007 only to be abandoned in 1090, and demolished in 1152. Another, the Punic town of Kerkuane, also in ruins, gives a vivid insight into life long before the Islamic conquest.
To read more about each of the fortified cities of the Maghreb, and see a slideshow of each place, follow these links: