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.


Trump plan calls for Palestinian state with capital in eastern Jerusalem

Updated 21 min 53 sec ago

Trump plan calls for Palestinian state with capital in eastern Jerusalem

  • United States will recognize Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank
  • The absence of the Palestinians from Trump’s announcement is likely to fuel criticism that the plan tilts toward Israel

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump on Tuesday proposed creation of a Palestinian state with a capital in eastern Jerusalem, dependent on Palestinians taking steps to become self-governing, in an effort to achieve a peace breakthrough in their decades of conflict with Israel.
Senior administration officials, briefing Reuters on the plan the president announced at the White House, said that under Trump’s proposed Middle East peace plan the United States will recognize Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank.

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Read the full report here: Middle East peace plan

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In exchange, Israel would agree to accept a four-year freeze on new settlement activity while Palestinian statehood is negotiated.
“Today, Israel has taken a giant step toward peace,” Trump said as he announced the plan at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, saying he also sent a letter about it to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“This is a historic day,” Netanyahu said, comparing Trump’s peace plan to former President Harry Truman’s 1948 recognition of the state of Israel. “On this day, you became the first world leader to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over areas in Judea and Samaria that are vital to our security and central to our heritage,” he added, using the Biblical names for the West Bank.
While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump’s long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders had rejected it even before its official release, saying his administration was biased toward Israel.
The absence of the Palestinians from Trump’s announcement is likely to fuel criticism that the plan tilts toward Israel’s needs rather than those of the Palestinians.
Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it was far from clear that the Trump plan will resuscitate them.
US officials said they were braced for initial Palestinian skepticism but hoped that over time they will agree to negotiate. The plan places high hurdles for the Palestinians to overcome to reach their long-sought goal of a state.
It remains to be seen also how Israel responds, given the pressures its right-wing prime minister, Netanyahu, faces going into his third attempt at re-election in less than a year.
The US plan represented the most dramatic and detailed attempt to break the historic deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians in several years, the result of a three-year effort by Trump senior advisers Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz and former adviser Jason Greenblatt.
Trump has endorsed a proposed map outlining the two states, the officials said. The Palestinian state would be double the size of land that Palestinians currently control and would be connected by roads, bridges and tunnels, the official said.
Trump briefed Netanyahu and his rival in Israel’s March 2 elections, Blue and White Party chief Benny Gantz, in talks on Monday.
Asked what Washington was prepared to do to advance negotiations, the officials said it was up to the Palestinians to come forward and to say they are prepared to negotiate.
They said both Netanyahu and Gantz had said they were willing to support the effort.
Israeli leaders have agreed to negotiate on the basis of the Trump plan and agreed to the map, the officials said. Israel’s agreement on statehood for Palestinians is dependent on a security arrangement to protect Israelis, they said.
Israel will also take steps to ensure Muslim access to Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and respect Jordan’s role regarding holy sites, the officials said.
Palestinian statehood would be dependent on Palestinians taking steps for self-government, such as respect for human rights, freedom of the press and having transparent and credible institutions, the officials said.
“In doing the map it’s incredibly difficult to try to create contiguity for a Palestinian state based on what’s happened over the past 25 years so if we don’t do this freeze now I think that their chance to ever have a state basically goes away,” said one official in reference to the growth of Jewish settlements.
“So what we’ve done is basically we’ve bought four more years for them to get their act together and try to negotiate a deal for them to become a state, and I think this is a huge opportunity for them,” the official said.
The official said the question for Palestinians is will they “come to the table and negotiate?“
If they agree to negotiate, there are some areas that can be compromised in the future, the official said without offering details.
Trump’s plan calls for Palestinians to be able to return to a future state of Palestine and creates a “generous compensation fund,” the official said.
About Israel retaining the settlements, a US official said: “The plan is based on a principle that people should not have to move to accomplish peace ... But it does stop future settlement expansion which we consider to be the most realistic approach.
“The notion that hundreds of thousands of people, or tens of thousands of people, are going to be removed either forcibly or not from their homes is just not worth entertaining,” the official said.
Before the Trump announcement, thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza City and Israeli troops reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the West Bank.
A Netanyahu spokesman said the Israeli leader would fly to Moscow on Wednesday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposals.
Palestinian leaders had said they were not invited to Washington, and that no plan could work without them.
On Monday Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.
Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.
The Trump administration in November reversed decades of US policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.
Both Trump and Netanyahu face political challenges at home. Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.
On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Both men deny any wrongdoing.