Cherchell (older Cherchel, Arabic: شرشال) is a seaport town in the Province of Tipaza, Algeria, 55 miles west of Algiers. It is the district seat of Cherchell District. As of 1998, it had a population of 24,400.
The Phoenicians of Carthage settled at Cherchell in the 4th century BC and named the town Iol or Jol. The town became a part of the kingdom of Numidia under Jugurtha, who died in 104 BC. The town became very significant to the Berber monarchy and generals of Numidia. The Berber Kings Bocchus I and Bocchus II lived there, as occasionally did other Kings of Numidia. Iol was situated in an area called Mauretania, which was a part of the Numidian kingdom.
The last Numidian king Juba II and his wife, the Greek Ptolemaic princess Cleopatra Selene II were forced to flee the other part of Numidian kingdom because the local population disapproved of their king being too Romanized, which caused civil unrest between 26 BC-20 BC. Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus had intervened in the situation and divided the Numidian Kingdom into two. One half of the kingdom became a part of the Roman province of Africa Nova. Western Numidia and Mauretania (the second half of the kingdom) became one kingdom. Iol was renamed Caesaria or Caesarea, in honor of the emperor. Caesaria would become the capital of the Roman client kingdom of Mauretania. The kingdom of Mauretania became one of the important client kingdoms in the Roman Empire, and their monarchs were one of the most loyal client monarchs that served Rome.
Juba and Cleopatra did not just rename their new capital, but rebuilt the town in fine Roman style on a large, lavish and expensive scale. The construction and sculptural projects in Caesaria and throughout the kingdom were built on a rich mixture of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman architectural styles. The monarchs are buried in their mausoleum, the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania which can still be seen. The seaport capital and its kingdom flourished during this period with most of the population being of Greek and Phoenocian origin with a minority of Berbers. It remained a significant power center under Numidian rule with a Greco-Roman Civilization as a veneer, until 40 AD, when its last monarch Ptolemy of Mauretania was murdered on a visit to Rome. The murder of Ptolemy set in motion a series of reactions resulting in a devastating war with Rome.
In 44 after a four year bloody revolt, the capital was captured and Roman Emperor Claudius divided the Mauretanian kingdom into two provinces. Caesaria became the capital of Mauretania Caesariensis, one of the two provinces and had it settled colonized with Roman soldiers. Claudius gave Caesaria two names: the capital Caesariensis while the town became the a Roman colony Colonia Claudia Caesarea.
In later centuries, the Roman population expanded as did the Berber population resulting in a mixed Greco-Phoenocian, Berber, and Roman population. The city featured a Hippodrome, Amphitheatre, Coloseum, Basilica, numerous Greek Temples, and Roman civic buildings. During this heyday, the city had its own School of Philosophy, Academy, and Library. As a significant city of the Roman Empire it had trading contacts across the Roman world.
Subsequently, the town was the birthplace to the Roman Emperor Macrinus and Greek grammarian Priscian. Additionally, the city also featured a small but growing population of converted Christians and was noted for the religious debates and tumolts which featured the hostility of Roman public religion toward Christians. Caesaria thus has its own martyred Catholic Saint, Marciana (her feastday is on 9 January). This virgin martyr was accused of vandalizing a statue of the goddess Diana. After being tormented, Marciana was gored by a bull and mauled by a leopard in the amphitheatre at Caesaria. By the 4th century, the conversion of the population from pagan to Christian beliefs resulted in nearly half of the population being Christianized. From 314 to 484, four titulars and one Donatist served the local Christian community.
In the 5th century, the city remained an extremely loyalist power for the Roman Empire. Additionally, the city's elite held considerable control of international trade. Although the city had been in a state of stagnation for over a hundred years and had even lost population as most cities in the Roman Empire, it still remained much as it had been since establishment. Consequently, the Roman Empire relied on much of its North African dominion for essential food stuffs, luxury goods, and not an insignificant number of elite rulers.
Thus, in the waning days of the Empire it became a target of the Vandals and their expedition to bring down their Imperial opponents. A Vandal Army and Fleet burnt the town and fortified many of its old magnificent Roman era buildings into Vandal citadels. Although this devastation was significant, the Vandal era saw restoration of much of the damage, an expansion in the size of the population, and the creation of a vibrant Romanized German community.
The city's port meanwhile served as a base for some of the Vandal fleet which continued to reign supreme in the Western seas. In turn, the city saw its economic fortunes revive as Vandal merchants cornered the market on shipping. However, much of this wealth was channeled by necessity toward military developments as the Vandals were forced to defend their conquest against both Byzantine and Berber attacks.
After several decades of war with the Eastern Roman Emperor, the Vandal Kingdom of Africa was ground down and the city was recaptured under the Byzantine Empire's Emperor Justinian I. The Emperor kept the walls strong but tore down the Vandal citadels, restored the old Roman buildings and returned to the city to a traditional post of Byzantine civilization. However, the vibrant Germanic community which had brought new economic development to the area was ruthlessly suppressed. Although the majority of its population was left unscathed, its economic power was ruined and its place as an aristorcracy was overthrown with new Byzantine courtiers.
However, the unintended consequences of the Byzantine's wars and suppression of the Vandals left much of the coast without the strong military abilities of the Vandal nobility and their armies. As a result, Berber raids and settlements, which had been checked by the Vandals returned once more. Additionally, under the stratified and centralized economic practices of the Empire, many of the small freeholding farmers both of Vandal and Roman origin lost economic opportunities which left them prey to more powerful rich landlords. Thus, the whole system decayed to the point it became vulnerable to powerful movements such as Islam which ultimately conquered the city. This only further worsened the local economy further impoverishing its inhabitants who became increasingly acculturated toward Berbers and Arabs. By the tenth century, the city's name had transformed in the local dialect from a Latin to a Berber and ultimately into the Arabized name of for Ceasaria, Sharshal. Finally, following reconquest by Europeans in the 19th century the city name was changed to Cherchell which is the French spelling of the contemporary Arabic/Berber name of the town.
In the city's remaining Byzantine history, it went into slow decline in which the city's remaining Roman and what remained of the semi-Romanized Vandal elite held a stratified position over the growing numbers of Berbers it allowed to settle in return for cheap labor. However, this reduced the economic status of small freeholders and urban dwellers, especially what remained of the Vandal population who provided most of the local military forces. Furthermore, the increasing use of Berber workers ground down the Roman population of free peasants. By the 8th century, the city and surrounding area was lacking both a strong urban middle class of free citizens, or a rural population of freeholding farmers, or a crack military aristocracy of Vandal warriors and their retinue. Lacking both a strong and motivated local militia for emergencies, or a large enough local military aristocracy, the province which includes present day Algeria succumbed to Arab Moslem Jihad.
Over a period of fifteen years, successive waves of Islamic Jihads into Byzantine North African territory wore down the smaller and less motivated Imperial armies, until finally, Moslem tribesmen lay siege to the city of Ceasaria. Despite being resupplied by Byzantine fleets, the small Byzantine ruling class and its dependents were eventually overwhelmed by Islamic forces. Much of the Byzantine nobility and its civil service fled to other parts of the Empire, while what remained of the Roman and semi-Roman population accepted Islamic supremacy in return for protected status.
However, hope of living as free Christians under Islamic rulers was dashed. For two generations what remained of the Roman population and Berbers launched several revolts often in conjunction with reinforcements from the Empire. In turn, Islamic forces would react with even more death and oppression. After several revolts by Berbers and what remained of the Roman and tiny Vandal populations, Arab Moslems tore down much of the city's defenses and recycled its crumbling Roman buildings, leaving the former city little more than a town and pale relic of its former glory, surrounded by a camp of Moslem warriors and their retinue. Additionally, the various Jihads and growing numbers of Arab tribesmen forcibly converted the majority of the population to Islam over two centuries of oppression and war. As a result, most of what remained of Greco Roman and Vandal civilization, including its language disappeared under the twin onslaughts of Arab and Berber barbarization.
Nonetheless, later Berbo-Islamic rule was more tolerant and respectful of its Greco-Roman Christian past and endeavored to rebuild aspects of the towns former civilization. For the following few centuries, the city remained a power center of Arabs and Berbers with a small but significant population of semi-Roman Christians. During this period, several attempts at reconquest were made by Europeans, who under various nationalities such as Spanish, French, or Norman managed to hold the city off and on for a few generations before being pushed out again by Moslems. The most significant of these in providing material for historical review, especially of what remained of its Roman and Byzantine infrastructure and population was the Norman Kingdom of Africa.
Eventually, Ottoman Turks managed to successfully call an all Islamic Jihad which reconquered the city from Spanish occupation in the 16th century. These later sieges and conquest obliterated what remained of any of the city's ancient architecture and left the city primarily a fortified port. Under Turkish occupation, the city's importance as a port and fort led to it being inhabited by thousands of Moslems from various nationalities who were interested in raiding, rapping, looting and pillaging European Christian vessels and coasts as part of Jihad.
From 16th to the 19th centuries it became infested with Moslem pirates who preyed upon European shipping. In 1520, Hayreddin Barbarossa captured the town and annexed the Algerian Pashalic. His elder brother Oruç Reis built a fort over the town which obliterated any vestigial remnants of Roman and Byzantine architecture from view. The fort became a place where Europeans were regularly imprisoned for slavery and was notorious for its nexus as part of the White slave trade.
In reply, European navies and especially the French Navy and the Knights Hospitallar laid siege to the city and sometimes captured it for periods of time. For a century in the 1600s and for a brief period in the 1700s the city either was under Spanish or Hospitallar control. During this period a number of palaces were built, but the overwhelming edifice of Hayreddin Barbarossa's citadel, despite its evil history, was considered to militarily valuable to destroy and uncover the previous ancient buildings of old Ceasaria.
In 1738, a terrible earthquake shook the town and left its defenses damaged. While Europeans were engaged in their own wars, Turkish Imperial officials were not derelict in taking advantage of this perilous situation. Turkish officials called a Jihad of local Berber tribesmen, who soon recaptured the city. In turn, it once again became a stronghold of Islamic Jihad, piracy, and slave trading for the next century. During this last Barbary Pirate period, the city for brief period of time held upwards of 30,000 Europeans as prisoners and white slaves, including over 1,200 Americans during the early 1800s.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Revolutions of the early 19th century, the French under both British, American, and other European powers were encouraged to attack and destroy the Islamic Barbary Pirates. From 1836 to 1840 various allied navies, but mostly French hunted down the Barbary pirates and conquered the Barbary ports while threatening the Ottoman Empire with war if it intervened.
In 1840, the French after a significant siege captured and occupied the town. The French lynched the Barbary Pirates including the local pasha for Crimes against the laws of nations. Additionally, confident of their own overwhelming military power, the French felt free to obliterate the hated Islamic fortification and slave cellars destroying Hayreddin's fort completely destroyed. Additionally, the French using documentation gathered during the Norman Kingdom of Africa began attempts at uncovering Byzantine and Roman buildings underneath the debris of Islamic vandalism and war.
In turn, many ancient statues and buildings were either restored and left in Cherchell, or taken to museums in Algiers, Algeria or Paris, France for further study. However, not all building projects were successful in uncovering and restoring the ancient town. The Roman amphitheatre was considered mostly unsalvageable and unnecessary to rebuilt. Its dress stones were used to the build a new French fort and barracks. Materials from the Hippodrome were used to build a new church. The steps of the Hippodrome were partly destroyed by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie in a search for the tomb of Saint Marciana. Nonetheless, in contrast to its long Moslem occupation the city's ancient heritage was somewhat uncovered and a more civilized city was established.
French occupation also brought new European settlement. While the city had a long established Christian and European population, it was beleaguered population of semi-Arabized Christians of local origin and old European merchant families who had eked out an existence during the centuries. Under French incorporation, the city had a rebirth of European and Christians who became a majority of the population once again until World War II.
In the immediate years before World War Two, losses to the French national population from World War One, and a declining birthrate in general among Europeans kept further colonial settlement to a trickle. In contrast, under European medical supervision and opportunities provided by European infrastructure, the Arab and Berber populations started seeing an increase in growth. The opportunities of cheap labor provided by this new growth of Berbo-Arab Algerian population was too much to resist for Franco-Algerian colonial officials and landowners. Consequently, they encouraged ever larger numbers of surrounding Berber tribesmen to move into the surrounding regiona farm and grove fields. In turn, more and more Berbers and Arabs moved into the city seeking employment. By 1930 the combined Berbo-Arab Algerian population represented nearly 40% of the city's population.
However, the changing demographics within the city were disguised by the large numbers of French military personnel based there and the numbers of European tourists visiting the what had become known as the Algerian Riviera. Additionally, during World War II, Cherchell, with its libraries, cafes, restaurants, and hotels served as a base for the United States Army and Allied War Effort, hosting a summit conference between the US and UK in October 1942.
The end of the war with its departure of Allied forces and a reduction of French naval personnel due to rebasing saw an actual decline in Europeans living in the city. Additionally, the general austerity of the post-war years dried up the tourism industry and caused financial stagnation and losses to the local Franco-Algerian community. More ominously for colonial authorities, this combination of events uncovered the large numbers of non-Europeans in the city and a decline in French colonial prestige. Subsequently, in 1952, a census recorded that the Frenco-Algerian population had declined to 50% of the popupation.
For the remaining 1950's Cherchell was only slightly caught up by the Algerian War of Independence. With its large proportion of Europeans, French control and influence was strong enough to discourage all but the most daring attacks by anti-French insurgents. Nonetheless, Cherchell's brief resurgence since 1849 as a European civilized city came to the end with the independence of Arab Algeria in 1962.
Although it was promised by the Algerian revolutionaries that Christians, Europeans, and pro-French Algerians would not be molested, subsequent events proved this wrong. Although a few massacres of French civilians had occurred during the war, in 1962 even larger massacres against pro-French Arab and Berber civilians along with mass rioting by anti-French revolutionaries in the city's center convinced Europeans they would not be safe. By 1966 Cherchell had lost nearly half of its population and all of its Franco-Algerian population.
Despite its decline as a center for European civilization, for the remaining 20th century, Cherchell has seen its Moslem population grow to around 60,000 inhabitants. Although its history as a center of European learning, tourism, and industry left with the departure of the French, Cherchell still has industries in marble, plaster quarries and iron mines. The town trades in oils, tobacco and earthenware. Additionally, the ancient cistern first developed by Juba and Cleopatra Selene II was restored and expanded under recent French rule and still supplies water to the town.
Although the Algierian Riveria ended with the war, Cherchell is still a popular tourist places in Algeria. Cherchell has various splendid temples and monuments from the Punic, Numidian and Roman periods, and the works of art found there, including statues of Neptune and Venus, are now in the Museum of Antiquities in Algiers. The former Roman port is no longer in commercial use and has been partly filled by alluvial deposits and has been affected by earthquakes. The former local mosque of the Hundred Columns contains 89 columns of diorite. This remarkable building now serves as a hospital. The local museum displays some of the finest ancient Greek and Roman antiquities found in Africa. Cherchell is the birthplace of writer and movie director Assia Djebar.
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