1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Constantine (Algeria)

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CONSTANTINE, a city of Algeria, capital of the department of the same name, 54 m. by railway S. by W. of the port of Philippeville, in 36° 22′ N., 6° 36′ E. Constantine is the residence of a general commanding a division, of a prefect and other high officials, is the seat of a bishop, and had a population in 1906 of 46,806, of whom 25,312 were Europeans. The population of the commune, which includes the suburbs of Constantine, was 58,435. The city occupies a romantic position on a rocky plateau, cut off on all sides save the west from the surrounding country by a beautiful ravine, through which the river Rummel flows. The plateau is 2130 ft. above sea-level, and from 500 to nearly 1000 ft. above the river bed. The ravine, formed by the Rummel, through erosion of the limestone, varies greatly in width—at its narrowest part the cliffs are only 15 ft. apart, at its broadest the valley is 400 yds. wide. At the N.E. angle of the city the gorge is spanned by an iron bridge (El-Kantara) built in 1863, giving access to the railway station, situated on Mansura hill. A stone bridge built by the Romans, and restored at various times, suddenly gave way in 1857 and is now in ruins; it was built on a natural arch, which, 184 ft. above the level of the river, spans the valley. Along the north-eastern side of the city the Rummel is spanned in all four times by these natural stone arches or tunnels. To the north the city is commanded by the Jebel Mecid, a hill which the French (following the example of the Romans) have fortified.

Constantine is walled, the extant medieval wall having been largely constructed out of Roman material. Through the centre from north to south runs a street (the rue de France) roughly dividing Constantine into two parts. The place du Palais, in which are the palace of the governor and the cathedral, and the kasbah (citadel) are west of the rue de France, as is likewise the place Négrier, containing the law courts. The native town lies chiefly in the south-east part of the city. A striking contrast exists between the Moorish quarter, with its tortuous lanes and Oriental architecture, and the modern quarter, with its rectangular streets and wide open squares, frequently bordered with trees and adorned with fountains. Of the squares the place de Nemours is the centre of the commercial and social life of the city. Of the public buildings those dating from before the French occupation possess chief interest. The palace, built by Ahmed Pasha, the last bey of Constantine, between 1830 and 1836, is one of the finest specimens of Moorish architecture of the 19th century. The kasbah, which occupies the northern corner of the city, dates from Roman times, and preserves in its more modern portions numerous remains of other Roman edifices. It is now turned into barracks and a hospital. The fine mosque of Sidi-el-Kattani (or Salah Bey) dates from the close of the 18th century; that of Suk-er-Rezel, now transformed into a cathedral, and called Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs, was built about a century earlier. The Great Mosque, or Jamaa-el-Kebir, occupies the site of what was probably an ancient pantheon. The mosque Sidi-el-Akhdar has a beautiful minaret nearly 80 ft. high. The museum, housed in the hôtel de ville, contains a fine collection of antiquities, including a famous bronze statuette of the winged figure of Victory, 23 in. high, discovered in the kasbah in 1858.

A religious seminary, or medressa, is maintained in connexion with the Sidi-el-Kattani; and the French support a college and various minor educational establishments for both Arabic and European culture. The native industry of Constantine is chiefly confined to leather goods and woollen fabrics. Some 100,000 burnouses are made annually, the finest partly of wool and partly of silk. There is also an active trade in embossing or engraving copper and brass utensils. A considerable trade is carried on over a large area by means of railway connexion with Algiers, Bona, Tunis and Biskra, as well as with Philippeville. The railways, however, have taken away from the city its monopoly of the traffic in wheat, though its share in that trade still amounts to from £400,000 to £480,000 a year.

Constantine, or, as it was originally called, Cirta or Kirtha, from the Phoenician word for a city, was in ancient times one of the most important towns of Numidia, and the residence of the kings of the Massyli. Under Micipsa (2nd century B.C.) it reached the height of its prosperity, and was able to furnish an army of 10,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry. Though it afterwards declined, it still continued an important military post, and is frequently mentioned during successive wars. Caesar having bestowed a part of its territory on his supporter Sittius, the latter introduced a Roman settlement, and the town for a time was known as Colonia Sittianorum. In the war of Maxentius against Alexander, the Numidian usurper, it was laid in ruins; and on its restoration in A.D. 313 by Constantine it received the name which it still retains. It was not captured during the Vandal invasion of Africa, but on the conquest by the Arabians (7th century) it shared the same fate as the surrounding country. Successive Arab dynasties looted it, and many monuments of antiquity suffered (to be finally swept away by “municipal improvements” under the French régime). During the 12th century it was still a place of considerable prosperity; and its commerce was extensive enough to attract the merchants of Pisa, Genoa and Venice. Frequently taken and retaken by the Turks, Constantine finally became under their dominion the seat of a bey, subordinate to the dey of Algiers. To Salah Bey, who ruled from 1770 to 1792, we owe most of the existing Moslem buildings. In 1826 Constantine asserted its independence of the dey of Algiers, and was governed by Haji Ahmed, the choice of the Kabyles. In 1836 the French under Marshal Clausel made an unsuccessful attempt to storm the city, which they attacked by night by way of El-Kantara. The French suffered heavy loss. In 1837 Marshal Valée approached the town by the connecting western isthmus, and succeeded in taking it by assault, though again the French lost heavily. Ahmed, however, escaped and maintained his independence in the Aures mountains. He submitted to the French in 1848 and died in 1850.