Thousands of Tuareg gather in Algerian desert oasis for ancient Sebeiba festival

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A multitude of Tuareg people have gathered at the Sebeiba festival, an annual event that symbolizes the end of an ancient tribal feud. This festival, which takes place in a desert oasis town deep in the Algerian Sahara, draws thousands of semi-nomadic Tuareg, a Berber-descendant community that practices Islam and resides across regions of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

The Sebeiba festival, dating back over 3,000 years, coincides with the Shiite Muslim Ashura commemoration and is held in the town of Djanet, located 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) southeast of Algiers. During the 10-day celebration, male dancers dressed as warriors, brandishing swords, perform in harmony with women adorned in dazzling jewelry and henna tattoos, who sing and beat the tambourine.

As part of the ritual, the men form a ceremonial circle and continuously rattle their swords while the women sing traditional songs, recounting the time when the Tuareg tribes of El Mihane and Zelouaz put an end to their long-standing conflict. According to oral tradition, their feud ended when both sides learned of the death of the Egyptian pharaoh, similar to the biblical tale, who perished in the Red Sea while pursuing Moses and the fleeing Israelites. This day was marked as a celebration of the pharaoh’s demise.

Local elder Elias Ali, aged 73, explained, “Our ancestors kept the date of the day the pharaoh drowned in the sea and celebrated the death of the pharaoh.”

Before the festival commenced, the town of Djanet, with a population of approximately 15,000, was bustling with preparations. Hassan Echeikh, a 64-year-old festival participant, shared that children learn to dance during rehearsals, and the festival provides a cathartic release for everyone involved.

In recognition of its cultural significance, UNESCO added the Sebeiba ritual and ceremonies to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014. The listing also acknowledges the essential role played by local craftspeople in creating the uniforms, weapons, jewelry, and musical instruments used in the ceremonies.

UNESCO emphasized that Sebeiba serves as a crucial element of cultural identity for the Tuareg community residing in the Algerian Sahara, fostering a strong connection to their ancestral traditions and heritage.

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