November 2018: The time had come for me to finally visit Algeria, a country known for its visa and access difficulties like Libya, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia. I had put it off because I had already been to the Sahara in Libya, and I wasn’t looking forward to the red tape of obtaining an Algerian visa. But with all countries like Algeria, the window for obtaining a visa is a revolving one and when the opportunity is available, you can’t hesitate. In 2018, Algeria was reportedly issuing tourist visas, so as part of a larger trip visiting multiple countries in North Africa and Somalia, my friend Richard and I set out to visit Algeria with a main goal of finding a mysterious fortress hidden inside a giant sand sea in the Sahara Desert. 

About Algeria

Algeria is massive. It is Africa’s largest country and most of it lies within uninhabitable Sahara Desert. The majority of the country’s population lives along the fertile coastal zone leaving the Sahara empty. The Mediterranean coast and Sahara Desert is separated by the Atlas Mountains that rise to approx. 10,000′ in height. Algeria was an important part of the Roman Empire and a major trading center between sub-Sahar Africa and the Mediterranean. The people speak Arabic and French, while the people of the Sahara also speak Berber. Algeria was a colony of France for over 100 years up to 1962 and like with many African countries post-colonial independence, it suffered tremendously from a civil war that just ended in 2002 with over 150,000 total deaths. The war gave rise to Islamic insurgency and terrorism that still plagues the region. Because of a concern that terrorists may kidnap or murder foreigners, authorities have been hesitant to grant tourist visas or permission to travel freely within the country and in some places forbid travel all together.

 

Map of my route in Algeria

In order to make the visa process easier, I obtained a letter of invitation through a Algerian fixer. In some cases, visa applications submitted without a letter of invitation had been rejected. Luckily ours were approved and I also organized vehicle transports through the fixer for our time in Algeria.

We arrived in Algiers, the capitol of Algeria, a beautiful coastal city with French colonial architecture along the Mediterranean. We met our fixer for dinner and Richard and I explored Algiers on foot.  We stayed at a 5 Star hotel in Algiers that had provided breakfast on the top floor in probably what is the best view in Algiers.

 

View from top floor of hotel during breakfast

Timimoun and a Desert Fortress in the Middle of the Sand Sea

The next morning, it was time to fly domestic from Algiers to Timimoun, a small town in the Sahara Desert. I had one plan for our time in the Sahara and that was to travel across a remote stretch of sand dunes to an abandoned fortress I found on Google Earth when searching things to do in Algeria. There was no information on the fortress. Why it was there and who built it? it was a giant round coliseum looking fortress made of stone in the middle of sand dunes. It was just absolutely bizarre. The fortress was 30 miles into one of the largest sand seas in the Sahara that stretches for hundreds of miles, and the only way to reach it would be via a 4WD truck with a knowledgeable local driver. My fixer had never heard of Ksar Draa and had never heard of anyone who had been there, but he did find a local Berber in Timimoun who did know of it.  Berbers are traditionally desert nomads and if anyone could find the fort, it would be them.

There was a problem however. The Berber driver our fixer arranged to take us into the Sahar had called him to tell him that the local police District had denied our request to sleep in or even visit an abandoned fort in the sand sea outside of Timimoun due to security reasons. Additionally, the Sahara had been hit my a huge storm in the previous days leaving large tracts of sand impassible in the mud, so wemight not be able to reach the fort even if the police were to allow it. Despite these issues, I told the fixer that we would still try and reach the fortress. He smiled and agreed, we could try.

We flew to Timimoun as scheduled on a 2 hour turbo prop plane, and checked in to our hotel, a nice hotel with a beautiful garden and pool over looking the sand dunes. Timimoun is an oasis town that sits on the edge of a sand sea.

 

Ksar Draa in the middle of sand dunes as shown in Google Earth

Mawlid festival-Muhammad Birthday

We spent about 3 days in Timimoun. Coincidentally, we were in Timimoun during the Mawlid festival, when thousands of tribal men from all over the Sahara come to Timimoun with Islamic flags, their finest camels and traditional clothes and partake in competitions, horse races, camel contests all in celebration of Muhamed’s birthday. During the multi-day festival Timimoun comes to life in celebration, singing, flute music and drums. While men performed on the streets, most women and children sat along the tops of walls and rooftops watching from above. Timimoun is one of the few places in the Islamic word that celebrates Muhammeds birthday, since many Muslims believe it is haram to do so because celebrating Muhamed is a form of idolatry that takes the focus away from Allah. In case of a terrorist attack, military security was everywhere and soldiers with submachine guns patrolled the city during the festival.

Being one of the only foreigners in Timimoun during the festival, it didn’t take long for me to attract attention. Luckily the attention was all friendly. A few Algerians from Algiers I met greeted me and escorted me around the festivities explaining to me what was going on and invited me to a traditional dinner at their hotel at night with some live music from the area, which I was more than thrilled to join.

 

Mawlid Festival, Timimoun

Police Force at Mawlid Festival

Locals at Mawlid Festival

Mawlid Festival, Timimoun-Tribes Carrying Islamic Flags

Mawlid Festival

Mawlid festival-Horse Races

My Algerian friend who invited me to dinner with his friends

Mawlid celebration I was invited to with my new Algerian friends

Ksar Draa Fortress

In my travels, I am always seeking places that defy imagination where few have visited. Ksar Draa, a mysterious circular rock fortress, is one of those places. The fort lies in the middle of sand dunes a few hours’ drive by 4wd vehicle from the nearest Berber village. To get to there you need to hire a local Berber, who is familiar with the desert. According to out Berber guide, the fortress is very old, and no one knows exactly who built it and why, but he thinks it was built be Jews because in that day he said the Jews were chased away and forced to live in the desert where they would be safe.

Our Berber driver showed up at our hotel early before sunrise to pick us up in his Hilux truck. Since we knew the police would prevent us from visiting Ksar Draa for ‘security reasons,’ We would set off early to avoid attention from the police checkpoints and cut across desert tracts to evade them. This is exactly what we did, and it became clear right away that our Berber driver and guide knew the desert better than anyone and we wouldn’t have to worry about the police. We however, decided to push our luck and camp in the fort overnight. I would have loved if we did.

We stopped at a Berber village before heading into the sand sea and loaded up on food and water for the desert and then set off into the sand dunes after slightly deflating our tires for better stability on the sand. Driving over the towering dines and into the valleys between them was an exciting roller coaster ride and slightly dangerous if we were to flip accidentally and go tumbling over a steep ledge never to be found again at the bottom of a sand pit. There were also a few deep patches of sand where we ended up stuck and had to dig ourselves out. But eventually after an endless sea of sand dunes, the fortress appeared like a ship in the distance.

 

Our Berber guide fron a Timimoun village near Ksar Draa Fortress

Driving in the Desert

Berber women collecting firewood from bushes in the desert

Me Looking out over the sand dunes

Stuck in the sand

Ksar Draa Appearing in Horizon

Ksar Draa 

Ksar Draa

Ksar Draa

Our guide cooked us lunch by heating up the sand and made tea and we explored the inside of the castle. There was only one entrance into the double walled castle. Our Berber guide explained it was circular to prevent sand from drifting on any one side of the castle. There were different sections of the interior and small rooms some of which were enclosed but there were no obvious clues inside the castle as to its purpose or who built it.  It was a magical experience being at the castle listening to deafening silence of the empty Sahara Desert all around us. I wished we could have spent the night there to fully experience the castle, but we knew this would attract attention from the police and the Berbers with us warned us that the castle is haunted by genies at night-evil spirits. After a few hours, we headed back across the rolling sand dunes, and we reached our hotel in Timimoun by nightfall.

 

Inside of Ksar Draa

Inside of Ksar Draa

Timgad-Roman Ruins

From Timimoun we flew via the Algeria domestic airline to Constatine via Algiers, where we spent one night. The next morning, we hired a driver to take us up into the Atlas Mountains to the edge of the Sahara Desert to the 2000-year-old Roman city of Timgad. The 2000-year-old city was enormous, and I was blown away by how perfectly laid and organized this vast ruined city was that lay before me.  Timgad is one of the earliest examples of a city built using the grid system and during its time it was a city built to reward veteran Roman soldiers. Amphitheaters, baths, archways are common in the city, and you can definitely get a feeling for how beautiful it must have been during its era. Timgad was well preserved because of all of the sand from the Sahara that buried it protecting it over the millennia. Richard and I wondered the giant empty ruined Roman city by ourselves. It was a haunting feeling to imagine his place once so full of life and now lying on ghostly ruins.

Timgad Roman Ruins

Timgad Roman Ruins

Timgad Roman Ruins

Timgad Roman Ruins

Timgad Roman Ruins

Timgad Roman Ruins

In the evening, we flew back to Algiers from Constatine on a domestic flight and spent one more night in Algiers before continuing our trip to Tunisia.

 

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