Augustine in Algeria:  2001
by James J. O'Donnell
About this Site

When Augustine (354-430CE) lived and died as bishop of Hippo Regius in Roman Africa, there was no Algeria.  Africa began at Carthage for the Romans and extended east and west along the coast for hundreds of miles.  Africa Proconsularis was the name of the province Carthage ruled, and it included Augustine's Hippo 200 miles to the west.  Behind and beyond to the West lay Numidia and three divisions of Mauretania (Mauretania Sitifensis, Mauretania Caesariensis, and [reaching to the Atlantic] Mauretania Tingitana).  The modern geography of North Africa is a result of the interplay of medieval and modern Islamic history with the whims and conveniences of colonialists.  If Carthage was Rome's first landfall in Africa, Algiers played the same role for France, and Algeria rotates around that capital and has an identity that is and isn't French, is and isn't Islamic, is and isn't African.

And so Augustine has become Algerian in spite of himself, but he can never become Islamic.  Hence the paradoxes and opportunities of the "premier colloque international sur saint Augustin" just concluded (1-7 April 2001) in Algiers and Annaba.  About 75 non-Algerians were invited to participate, including mainly scholars of various Augustinian topics from Europe, America, and Japan.

Such scholars are used to the ethic and culture of conference life.  Breathing hotel air, eating hotel food, wearing badges, punctuating the day with lectures, coffee breaks, surreptitious getaways for an outing on the town by day, and perhaps a group escape to a well-regarded local restaurant by night.  This venue brought some unfamiliar constraints on that pattern.

It's not only that Algeria is very much an ex-colony of France, but it's an Islamic country with a simmering decade-long civil war being fought over the nature of its affiliation with Islam.  A 1992 election that would have brought what westerners call Islamic fundamentalists to power was cancelled at the last moment and a more "moderate" regime has held on, in one form or another, through fighting that is generally credited with bringing 100,000 deaths since 1992.  Journalistic reports say that almost 1000 people have died in fighting this year, mostly in isolated incidents at some distance from major cities:  families massacred by night in their homes, raids on police stations, raids on militant hideouts, etc. A parallel line of unrest among the Berber population has been grabbing the headlines since our visit.

A high profile conference in the capital devoted to scholarly exploration of the legacy of a Christian saint who happened to live out most of his days inside the confines of what is now Algeria is more than just a scholarly diversion in such a setting.  To participate in this conference, or merely for an Algerian to have an opinion about it, is to play a part, however small, in the larger and very grim social drama going on in the country.

Internet resources for Algeria

The political setting was clear.   Invitations came from the Haut Conseil Islamique, declaring joint Algerian-Swiss sponsorship and listing an address to the conferees by President Bouteflika as the opening event on Sunday, 1 April.  The address came as the culmination of a large and elaborate opening session at a facility some distance from the center of Algiers -- the full text was distributed to participants. It was abundantly clear throughout the conference that the event had the full support and protection of the government and was being carefully stage-managed to achieve the desired effect.  Commemorative stamps were issued, and the press broadly invited; conference events were reported on the main TV channel's main news report nightly and on the front pages of the main newspapers (as well as newspapers abroad, including Le Monde, which published one article before the conference, and an additional article at its conclusion), even those not fully on board with the program. 

PDF file of an article in the Algerian press the week before the conference.
One French language newspaper whose report I read in Annaba said that the point of the conference, in the president's eyes, was to prove that it is possible to be Algerian without being Muslim, but rejoined that it was at least as important to show that you can be Muslim without being Taliban.

Western invitees all knew something of this story, as distilled through western media to be sure, and all accepted their invitations with some wariness.  (There were reports of other invitees who had chosen not to come "because of the security situation", though it is never quite clear whether that really means regard for one's own skin or a more complicated refusal to play a certain part in a political drama.)  The number of invitees was strictly limited and the choices made were sometimes inscrutable, though a preponderance of speakers had shown some scholarly attention to the specifically African setting of Augustine's work and thought.  The themes of the conference were to be "Africanité et Universalité" -- and speakers were encouraged to address questions of both local identity and the link from local identity to citizenship in a wider world.  The tensions of those themes would be evident in many of the papers.

This document is meant to be a personal report of the conference and is intended in the main for students of Augustine who were not able to participate.  Besides the conference, there were three days of visits to archaeological sites of intense and deep interest to Augustine scholars, sites not often seen by many non-Algerians these days.  The photos linked to this account are meant to give some idea of the nature of the sites and to whet a general appetite for times when travel and discussion will be easier than is now the case.  (In general, every image on these pages will lead either only to a larger version of the same image or to a page of related images.) But in the end, this will only be a personal report, inevitably limited and one-sided.  As a website, it will allow emendation and supplementation, and I particularly invite those who read these lines who were themselves with us on this trip to offer additional observations and reflections for posting here.  Finally, please know that this report is written in late April 2001 at a moment when the political situation in Algeria remains volatile. 

Conference ----  Site Visits  ---- Travelers' Tales  ---- Security Situation