The M'Zab Valley is located in the northern Sahara, in the Ghardaïa wilaya province of Algeria, around 600km south of Algiers. The area is the site of a unique grouping of settlements, and there is evidence of systematic occupation of the land, and the adaptation of a strikingly original architecture to its semi-desert environment, since the beginning of the 11th century.
The selection of this area as a home by the Ibadi people was based primarily on the defensive advantages it offered to the community, who were determined to protect their religious, social and moral ideals even at the expense of geographical isolation. There are five ksour (fortified villages) situated on the rocky outcrops of the valley: El Atteuf, Bou Nora, Beni Isguen, Melika and Ghardaia. Each of these settlements was encircled by fortified walls and dominated by a mosque, the minaret of which was used as a watchtower. The mosques were constructed with arsenals and grain stores, and intended to serve as a fortress in themselves, a last refuge in the event that the village was laid under siege. The houses of the community were then built in concentric circles around the mosque, extending to the outer fortifications.
The lifestyle of the Ibadi also included a summer migration, when the population of the villages moved into the surrounding palm groves, where a "summer citadel" was established.
These various elements found in the valley communities served to illustrate "a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared", and were "an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement... which is representative of a culture or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change." Also, it was noted that the settlements at the M'Zab Valley had exerted a considerable influence on architects and city-planners of the 20th century, from Corbusier to Pouillion, and as such "exhibit[ed] an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design". Accordingly, UNESCO listed the site as a World Heritage Site in 1982, an intact example of traditional human habitat perfectly adapted to the environment.
- UNESCO Site entry. Accessed 13 January 2008