Algeria’s ancient pyramid tombs still shrouded in mystery

Experts and students from Algiers University’s Archaeology Institute work on one of the Jeddars pyramid tombs, near the city of Tiaret, some 250 km southwest of Algiers. (AFP)
Updated 14 January 2019

Algeria’s ancient pyramid tombs still shrouded in mystery

  • Some rooms are equipped with benches, areas researchers believe may have been used for worship
  • The Jeddars were built several centuries after other imposing pre-Islamic funerary monuments

TIARET, Algeria: Dating back centuries, Algeria’s pyramid tombs are unique relics of an ancient era but a dearth of research has left the Jeddars shrouded in mystery.

The 13 monuments, whose square stone bases are topped with angular mounds, are perched on a pair of hills near the city of Tiaret, some 250 km southwest of the capital Algiers.

Constructed between the 4th and 7th centuries, the tombs are believed by some scholars to have been built as final resting places for Berber royalty — although nobody knows who truly laid within.

But Algerian authorities and archaeologists are now pushing to get the Jeddars listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, in the hope of assuring their preservation and study. Gaining such status is a lengthy process and the Culture Ministry said Algeria’s application to the UN body “will be filed during the first quarter of 2020.”

Experts from the National Center for Prehistoric, Anthropological and Historical Research have for more than a year been preparing their case for the Jeddars.

The goal is to “preserve this heritage, which is of immeasurable value and an ancestral legacy,” said Mustapha Dorbane, a professor at Algiers 2 University’s Archaeology Institute. When the Jeddars were built, Berber kings ruled the area in small fiefdoms whose history is poorly known and of which few traces were left.

It was a period of great unrest for the former Roman province of Numidia, as Rome’s western empire collapsed, Vandal and Byzantine troops invaded, and Arab forces stormed across North Africa.

For centuries these far-flung monuments sat largely ignored, delivered to the ravages of time and looters. But more recently a group of around 20 archaeology students and their teachers has been working at the monuments.

Moving slowly, they noted vandalized spots and used water and brushes to gently clean stone-engraved symbols before measuring them. A meticulous task, each entry may take upward of two hours.

Algerian archaeologist Rachid Mahouz, who has spent five years on a doctoral thesis about the tombs, deplores the lack of research devoted to the country’s “wonders.”

“The French archives on the Jeddars are not available and the objects and bones found during the colonial era were taken to France,” said Mahouz, who was born and raised nearby.

Archaeology was not taught at Algerian universities until the early 1980s, and until now, no speciality on funerary monuments is offered.

The research team has been working on Jeddar A, which sits on Mount Lakhdar along with monuments B and C. The remaining Jeddars are on a hilltop some 6 km away, Mount Arouri, and are known by the letters D through M.

Each contains at least one room, with the largest mound giving way to a labyrinth of 20 compartments, including funerary chambers.

Some rooms are equipped with benches, areas researchers believe may have been used for worship. Inside the tombs, traditional Christian symbols as well as hunting scenes and animal figures are carved above the doors.

Traces of inscriptions believed to be Latin mark the walls, but time has rendered them unreadable.

Among the layers of history, researchers say they have also found Greek letters — although others dispute this.

The Jeddars were built several centuries after other imposing pre-Islamic funerary monuments, which are found in present day northern Algeria, making them the last of their kind to be erected before the arrival of Islam.

“The most distinctive feature of the Jeddars is by far the date of their construction,” said Mahouz, the archaeologist.

The monuments show the evolution of burial practices in the area. From simple mounds of earth and stone, known as tumuli, to stone-walled tombs called bazinas.

But with some reaching heights of 18 meters, some researchers say the size of the Jeddars put them in a category of their own.

The earliest known written description of the Jeddars was made by historian Ibn Rakik in the 11th century, according to famed Arab thinker Ibn Khaldoun.

It was not until the mid-19th century and the first modern archaeological explorations in Algeria, brought on by French colonialism, that the Jeddars began to draw attention.

French troops and colonial authorities began explorations in 1865 of nine of the tombs.

Understanding of the Jeddars was boosted in the late 1960s by Algerian archaeologist Fatima Kadra’s three-year study of Jeddars A, B and C — the oldest of the 13 and the only ones to be explored since Algeria’s independence.

But several of the structures have never been entered, as gravity and time have brought mounds of dirt and stone crashing down on the tombs within.

Looting and deterioration have worsened an already difficult task for modern-day researchers with little backing.


In Iraq, virus revives traumas of Daesh survivors

Updated 04 December 2020

In Iraq, virus revives traumas of Daesh survivors

BAJET KANDALA CAMP, Iraq: For half a decade, Zedan suffered recurring nightmares about militants overrunning his hometown in northern Iraq. The 21-year-old Yazidi was just starting to recover when COVID-19 revived his trauma.
Zedan had lost several relatives when Daesh stormed into Sinjar, the rugged heartland of the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq’s northwest.
The militants killed Yazidi men, took the boys as child soldiers and forced the women into sexual slavery.
Zedan and the surviving members of his family fled, finding refuge in the Bajet Kandala camp near the Syrian border where they still live today.
“We used to be farmers living a good life. Then IS (Daesh) came,” he said, wringing his hands.
In a pre-fabricated building hosting the camp’s mental health clinic, Zedan shared his traumas with Bayda Othman, a psychologist for international NGO Premiere Urgence. Zedan refers to the violence of 2014 vaguely as “the events.”
The UN says they may constitute something much more serious: Genocide.
“I started having nightmares every night. I would see men in black coming to kill us,” Zedan said, telling Othman that he had attempted suicide several times. He has been seeing her for years, learning how to cope with his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through breathing exercises that she taught him.
Earlier this year, his nightly panic attacks stopped. Finally, he could sleep again. But only for a few months.
In March, Iraq declared a nationwide lockdown to try to contain the spread of Covid-19. Zedan broke down.
“I fear that my family could catch the virus or give it to me,” he said. “It obsesses me.”
As lockdown dragged on, Zedan’s brother lost his job at a stationery shop on the edge of the camp.
“There’s no more money coming into the family now. Just thinking about it gives me a panic attack,” he said.
“The nightmares returned, and so did my desire to die.”
Out of Iraq’s 40 million citizens, one in four is mentally vulnerable, the World Health Organization says.
But the country is in dire shortage of mental health specialists, with only three per 1 million people.

HIGHLIGHT

The Daesh extremists killed Yazidi men, took the boys as child soldiers and forced the women into sexual slavery.

Speaking about trauma or psychological problems is widely considered taboo, and patients who spoke to AFP agreed to do so on the condition that only their first names would be used.
In camps across Iraq, which still host some 200,000 people displaced by violence, the pandemic has pushed many people with psychological problems into remission, Othman said.
“We noticed a resurgence of PTSD cases, suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts,” she told AFP.
In October, there were three attempted suicides in Bajet Kandala alone by displaced people, who said their movements outside the camp were restricted by the lockdown, or whose economic situation had deteriorated even further.
A tissue factory who fired people en masse, a potato farm that shut down, a haberdashery in growing debt: Unemployment is a common thread among Othman’s patients.
“It leads to financial problems, but also a loss of self-confidence, which rekindles trauma,” she said.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), about a quarter of Iraqis who were employed prior to lockdown have been permanently laid off.
Youth were particularly hard hit: 36 percent of 18-24 years old who had been employed were dismissed, the ILO said.
A new patient in her forties walked toward the clinic, her hair covered in a sky-blue veil.
Once settled in a faux-leather chair, Jamila revealed that she, too, feels destabilized by the pandemic.
The Yazidi survivor lives in a one-room tent with her son and four daughters. But she doesn’t feel at home.
“I have totally abandoned my children. I feel all alone even though they’re always at home. I hit them during my panic attacks — I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.
Othman tried to soothe Jamila, telling her: “Hatred is the result of untreated sadness. We take it out on relatives, especially when we feel devalued — men prey on women, and women on children.”
But the trauma is not just an issue for the displaced, specialists warn.
“With the isolation and lack of access to care, children who have lived a genocide develop difficulties as they become adults,” said Lina Villa, the head of the mental health unit at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in northern Iraq.
“We fear suicide rates will go up in the years to come.”