March 9, 2020:Our day would be filled with visits to several sites surrounding Biskra: Sidi Okba, Tolga, and El Kantara…
The morning began with a trip to the oldest surviving mosque in Algeria – Sidi Okba Mosque. Built around the mausoleum for Uqba Ibn Nafi, a companion to the Prophet and a commander during the Muslim conquest of Algeria, the mosque is built of limestone mortar and palm tree logs in a very old Islamic style. It has gone through several renovations, which have contributed to its irregular shape. Due to its popularity as a pilgrimage site and its small size, a new mosque now adjoins it. We were provided with robes so that we would be respectfully dressed to enter both sites.
The Old Sidi Okba Mosque
The new Sidi Okba Mosque
As we left the mosque grounds, Abdelkader pointe out the old mosque water well then lead us into the village of Sidi Okba for tea and coffee. Along the way we passed a couple of shops, one for souvenirs (Kohl and kohl containers for eyeliner, a twig for healthy gums and whiter teeth) and one for dates (date flour, date syrup, candies,...) and numerous other date products. Amel was excited to find date flour! Outside the shops was a goatskin water container and cup should anyone be thirsty - we decided ti wait for tea. Basking in the sun on the sidewalk were palm flowers, part of the process they use to assist in the fertilization of the dates to ensure their crops.
Tea was served in a garden behind the café, a nice morning break.
From Sidi Okba, we then journeyed to Tolga, stopping for lunch along the way. Tolga is known worldwide for its exceptional dates. Built on a cliff next to a river and the date oasis, the old mud brick village is mostly abandoned now and most of the residents have moved to newer housing nearby. The date palms in the older section of the oasis were no longer producing and obviously burnt to make way for new plantings. Though the village was crumbling, there were a few signs of renovation to this historic sight. We came across a few residents and 2 boys playing soccer with a homemade ball of paper and tape. Abdelkader couldn't resist joining in!
Our last stop for the day was an old Roman bridge near the village of El Kantara. The bridge spans a river in a deep, narrow gorge, Katara Gorge, known as the “Mouth of the Desert”. Originally built by roman soldiers, the bridge sits on an ancient Roman road which was an important caravan route. In 1862 soldiers of Napoleon III rebuilt it. You can see reminisces of the old roman road leading to it. Presently, a new, modern bridge is being built to carry more traffic through the gorge. Of course, there were souvenirs and local crafts available for purchase!