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The mystery of the ‘pyramids’ of Algeria

Older than 16 centuries, Frenda’s Jedars, thirteen pyramids erected on two neighbouring hills in the north of Algeria, still keep many secrets for researchers.

The only certainties being, these 13 stone buildings with a square base and a pyramidal elevation, unique in Algeria and the Maghreb, were funerary monuments and were built between the 4th and 7th century near Tiaret (250 km south west of Algiers).

On the other hand, opinions diverge on those who were buried there, possibly dignitaries. At the time, Berber kings ruled the region on small principalities whose history is poorly known and of which little remains.

The thirteen pyramids were built over three centuries in a time of profound upheaval in northern Algeria, which back then was Roman Numidia, an era that witnessed the decline of the Western Roman Empire, vandal and Byzantine invasions and the beginning of the Arab conquest. These monumental Jedars (up to 18 meters high with a base varying between 11.5 meters and 46 meters) are erected on two hills 6 kilometres apart near Frenda. With the three oldest on mount Lakhdar and the remaining on mount Araoui.

All contain one or more rooms (up to 20 for the largest) connected by a system of galleries, including burial chambers, suggesting collective burials took place. Some rooms have benches, possibly places of funeral worship, according to some researchers.

The stone lintels of the inner doors are carved with traditional patterns of Christian buildings (rosettes, rafters…) but also hunting scenes or animal figures. But the inscriptions, probably Latin, are too degraded to be interpreted; some researchers have seen Greek letters, which others dispute.

The particularity of the Jedars resides in the date of their construction,” coinciding with the last funerary monuments erected in Algeria before the arrival of Islam and the end of this type of construction, says Rachid Mahouz, Algerian archaeologist who devoted a doctoral thesis to these pyramids.

Their construction occurred centuries after other imposing pre-Islamic funerary monuments identified in northern Algeria: the Medracen, Numidian mausoleum (3rd century BC), the tomb of Massinissa, first king of Unified Numidia (2nd century BC) and the Royal Mauritanian Mausoleum (known as the “Christian Tomb“, 1st century BC).

Some researchers see in all these monuments an evolution of tumuli (simple piles of stone over a grave) and ‘bazinas‘, funerary dry stone buildings common in the Maghreb and the Sahara, thousands of years old.

The earliest known written description of the Jedars is one of the historian Ibn Rakik, in the 11th century, reported in the 14th by Ibn Khaldoun, a Maghrebi thinker of the time. But for centuries, these monuments located in a sparsely populated area have not garnered interest, neglected and left at the mercy of looters.

It was not until the 19th century, with the first modern archaeological excavations introduced by the French settlers in 1830, that the Jedars induced the interest of French civil servants and soldiers. Prompting them to start exploring nine from 1865 onwards.

Decades later, Algerian archaeologist Fatima Kadra, who died in 2012, studied in depth the three oldest Jedars at the end of the 60s in the only excavations since the independence of Algeria, thus allowing a better understanding of the monuments.

The looting and deterioration of Jedars over time makes it difficult for researchers. Some, collapsed, have never been searched for lack of access to the interior, and may still contain remains, stated archaeologist Rachid Mahouz.

“The French archives on the Jedars are not available, the objects and bones found in some during the colonial era were taken to France,” he regrets.

A native of the region, he deplores the lack of research devoted to these “wonders“, with archeology having only begun to be taught in the early 1980s, no specialists in funerary archeology were trained at the time.

Jedars have been part of the Algerian national heritage since 1969. The country’s authorities and archaeologists are pushing towards registering them on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which would make it easier to preserve and study. The National Center for Prehistoric, Anthropological and Historical Research (CNRPAH) has been preparing for more than a year the application to be submitted to UNESCO, a complex procedure according to the archeologists. It must be “filed during the first quarter of 2020“, the Algerian Ministry of Culture told the AFP.

Meanwhile, research and conservation efforts continue. In Frenda, about twenty archeology students and their professors work around one of the oldest Jedars. They record and list the degradations, clean the symbols engraved on some stones then measure them. A meticulous operation that can take up to two hours for each registration.

For Mustapha Dorbane, professor at the Archeology Institute of Algiers, it is important to preserve this heritage, “an ancestral legacy of inestimable value“.

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