The U.S. embassy in the North African city of Algiers, Algeria, reduced the number of its American personnel in 1993 because of a growing insurgency in the country. I was one of those reassigned from Algiers to another post after serving only three months of what was supposed to be a two-year assignment. The insurgent movement has continued into the present, as evidenced by the recent taking of Western oil workers as hostages, including Americans.
In 1993 Algeria was my first choice for assignment to a new post. I anticipated exploring the region’s long history. My novel, A SENSE OF MISSION, summarizes this sweep of history:
Over millennia, Roman, Vandal, Arab, Turk, and French had conquered Algeria, each playing their role in turn. Known in early Christian history by the church fathers, Algeria was the birth place of one of the most famous, Augustine. He died there, as barbarian Vandals besieged his city of Hippo, a sign of the world to come after the Roman Empire crumbled.
At the other end, I suppose, of the theological spectrum, Albert Camus, the modern novelist, was born in Algeria of a French settler family. He based his novel The Plague in the Algerian city of Oran.
I was privileged to visit Oran and other sites on an official trip before the insurgency began. We drove through country that reminded me of Washington State’s Palouse region, covered with rounded brown hills. In Roman times, North Africa was the breadbasket for the Roman Empire. In recent years, the country has pursued oil rather than agriculture.
Next we traveled to the town of Tlemcen, a trading nexus and an ancient center of Islamic learning. I remember standing before the ruins of ancient buildings while an Algerian friend recited Arabic poetry. A gray drizzle threatened. Easy to imagine empires, whole armies, rising and falling.
I hoped to explore more of Algerian history, from remnants of the Roman Empire to World War II landing sites. Unfortunately, it was not to be. We cut short our trip when the Embassy reached us with news that two French diplomats had been kidnapped.
Even on that trip, the Algerian government felt it necessary to provide us with armed guards. I remember them, cheerful fellows, standing watch with automatic weapons.
Earthly empires fall, so Augustine wrote. Only the City of God endures. The history of Algeria bears witness to his message.