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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Africa: Vol. XXIV. 1876–79.

The Barbary States: Algiers

Under the Olives

By Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829–1925)

  • “The Sahel of Algiers is the range of hills lying between the sea and the Atlas Mountains. They are of an average elevation of 600 feet, but occasionally attain much greater height. This belt of hills is exceedingly rich and fertile in vegetation, and is cut by numerous deep ravines whose sides are clothed with large olive-trees, with ilex, lentisk, aloes, cactuses, and a profuse undergrowth of shrubs and wild-flowers. In some places a narrow plain intervenes between the hills and the sea, but at the town itself this plain becomes a mere strip covered by the great square and two streets east and west, at the back of which the houses mount the hill abruptly, divided by steep narrow streets, which frequently break off into steps, and up which no vehicle can pass. On each side of the town the slopes are dotted with country-houses and lovely gardens. The Gardens of the Hesperides are placed by the poets somewhere at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, whose snowy summits can be seen from the Sahel of Algiers.”—Ballads and Songs.

  • SEATED in a Moorish garden

    On the Sahel of Algiers,

    Wandering breezes brought the burden

    Of its history in past years.

    Lost amidst the mist of ages,

    Its first chronicles arise;

    Yonder is the chain of Atlas,

    And the pagan paradise!

    Past these shores the wise Phœnicians

    Coasted outwards towards the west,

    Hoping there to find Atlantis,

    And the Islands of the Blest.

    Somewhere in these mystic valleys

    Grew the golden-fruited trees,

    Which the wandering son of Zeus

    Stole from the Hesperides.

    Many monsters, famed in story,

    Had their habitations here,

    Scaly coats and tresses hoary

    Struck adventurous souls with fear.

    Not far off lived Polyphemus,

    Glaring with his single eye;

    Sailors wrecked upon these waters

    Only gained their brink to die.

    But if ever, while carousing,

    Rescued travellers told their feats,—

    How the elephants came browsing

    From the inner desert-heats,

    How the dragons and the griffins

    Likewise howled along the shore,—

    Those who listened bade their footsteps

    Seek those dreadful realms no more!


    When the veil of History rises,

    Carthage owns the glorious state,

    Planted with the Arts of Commerce,

    And the men who made her great.

    Rivalled only by Etruria,

    She was mistress of the main;

    Still we have the solemn treaty,

    Drawn in brass betwixt them twain.

    One among her many daughters,

    Iol at her altars prayed;

    Merchants, storm-struck on the waters,

    Sought this harbor when afraid.

    All this coast of ancient Afric

    Bore her sway and owned her name;

    To her western port of Iol

    Buyers flocked and sellers came.

    Yearly swarming populations

    Poured through Carthage’ busy gates,

    Bearing forth the seed of nations;

    And her ships bore living freights

    Costlier far than pearl or coral,—

    Hardy, brave, adventurous men!

    As our exiles cling to England,

    Sons of Carthage loved her then.

    They, when working mines in Cornwall,

    Gathering ivory near the Line,

    Pressing grapes from vines of Cadiz,

    Also thought her gods divine!

    These blue peaks and golden valleys,

    Those white waves of northern foam,

    Also had their groups of eager,

    Loving hearts, who called her “home.”

    But, “Delenda est Carthago!”

    Was the threat proclaimed of yore,—

    Scarce a bird now flaps his pinion,

    White-winged vessels dance no more.

    Heaps of stone, o’ergrown with brambles,

    Mutely eloquent, attest,

    Men who once called Carthage mother,

    Sleep forgotten on her breast.

    Lo! a troop of white-robed Arabs,

    Passing in a silent file,

    Fix the eye which else would vainly

    Range the plain from mile to mile.

    Not a dwelling known to Carthage!

    Not one temple on the hill!

    Empty lie the land-locked harbors,

    Margins bare, and waters still!

    Empty graves, through which the hyena

    Ranges, laughing at decay,

    Strike their dark and dangerous labyrinth

    Inward from the light of day.

    And such utter desolation

    Triumphs here, it may be said,

    That of this forgotten nation

    Even the graves give up their dead!

    On which summit was the Byrsa

    Scipio fought five days to gain?

    Here is naught but what the footstep

    In five minutes might attain.

    Can it be that once a million

    People dwelt upon this plain!


    Such is Carthage, lying eastward

    Ten days’ journey from Algiers;

    On the grassy slopes of Iol

    Lie two thousand nameless years.

    Dead her sailors, sunk her vessels,

    Merchants seek her marts no more;

    I have walked midst broken columns

    Strewed about her sounding shore,

    And I have retraced the story,

    How across that bright blue sea,

    Clove the sharp prows, keen for glory,

    Straight from distant Italy,

    Manned by warriors whose unbounded

    Thirst for conquest nerved them well;

    And the state by Dido founded

    Vainly struggled, sadly fell.

    Even as the walls of Veii

    Fell beneath a Latin wile,

    Carthage also lowered her sceptre

    From the Atlantic to the Nile.

    This was then called old Numidia,

    Underneath the Roman sway;—

    Ere through centuries dark with bloodshed

    Rose the Crescent of the Dey.

    Once these hills were crowned with villas,

    Ripe with harvest all these plains;

    Scarce a trace of Roman splendor

    Or Athenian art remains.

    Little dreams the colon d’ Afrique,

    Roughly ploughing round his home,

    These ravines midst which he labors

    Once were “granaries of Rome.”

    From this harbor of Icosium

    Passed the many-oared trireme,

    Laden with colonial produce

    Bound for Ostia’s yellow stream.

    Sacks of corn and oil of olives,

    Strings of dates and jars of wine,

    Such the tribute yearly rendered

    Hence unto Mount Palatine.

    Now, across that waste of waters,

    Sailless is the lonely sea,

    Not a vessel tracks the pathway,

    Rome, betwixt Algiers and thee!

    For the pulses of a people

    With their rulers rise and fall,

    And Numidia gives her harvest

    To defray the tax of Gaul!


    What is that red cloud ascending,

    Scarcely bigger than a hand,

    From where sea and sky are blending,

    Till it hovers o’er the land?

    See! the mists are slowly dwining,

    We shall see its brightness soon!

    ’T is no cloud with silver lining,

    But the perfect crescent moon!

    ’T is the emblem of the Prophet

    Hanging in a violet sky,

    While amidst the cloudy olives

    Breaks the jackal’s evening cry.

    Just as if to help my story,

    Signs and sounds came into play,

    Crescent of a fearful glory!

    War-cry of a beast of prey!

    Dark and dreadful is the legend

    Of a thousand years of crime,

    Since the writer of the Koran,

    Flying, marked the flight of Time.

    Since, from depths of far Arabia,

    Rolled the fierce, resistless throng,

    And the race was to the swift one,

    And the battle to the strong.

    As I sit within this garden,

    All the air is soft and sweet;

    Endless length of famous waters

    Roll to northward at my feet—

    Waters where the pirate vessels,

    Year by year and hour by hour,

    Swept across a trembling ocean,

    Seeking what they might devour!

    Still in sunlight lies the city,

    Here and there a palm-tree waves

    Over Moorish mosque and rampart,

    Over nameless Christian graves.

    These fair clumps of winter roses

    Once drank dew of bitter tears;

    Christian hearts grew sick with sunshine

    On the Sahel of Algiers!

    Yet how gallant is the poem

    Of the triumph of the Cross!

    How the ranks of instant martyrs

    In the front filled up the loss!

    How the slave died in the bagnio!

    The crusader at his post!

    And for each priest struck, another

    Served the altar and the Host!

    Hither came the good St. Vincent,

    Brought a captive o’er the sea,

    Slave unto a learned doctor

    For two weary years was he;

    Next he served the gentle lady,

    Wife to an apostate lord;

    But, behold, his prayers were fruitful,

    And he brought them to accord!

    In these prisons languished hundreds;—

    Oft the mystic sound of wails,

    Wafted over leagues of ocean,

    Wept and murmured past Marseilles.

    In the chapels shook the tapers

    As the spirit-wind passed by,

    And the noblest swords in Europe

    Leapt responsive to the cry.

    When, at length, the Sails of Rescue

    Loomed upon the northern wave,

    All the voices of the martyrs

    Welcome breathed from this their grave.

    Past the town, and round the mountains,

    See the stately fleet advance;—

    And the children of St. Louis

    Plant the fleurs-de-lis of France!


    Seated in a Moorish garden

    On the Sahel of Algiers,

    I can hear a tender burden,

    Like the music of the spheres.

    Not from any mortal voices

    Could that tender music come!

    No! It is a strain familiar—

    ’T is the hymn we sing at home!

    As it soars above the olives,

    Drops below the pine-clad hills,

    What a vast and tender memory

    Mine imagination fills!

    From the grave where She lay buried,

    Fifteen hundred years are rolled,

    And the church of St. Augustine

    Steps regenerate as of old!

    Hippo lies a shapeless ruin,

    All her ramparts overthrown;

    Yet, wherever men are Christians,

    Her great Bishop’s name is known.

    Over Hippo blow the breezes,

    Sighing from the great blue sea;—

    Yet of all our living preachers

    Who so powerful as he?

    Once, upon a Sabbath morning,

    I at Bona heard the bells

    In a chorus—as the water

    Sharply ebbs and softly swells.

    And to me it seemed the mountains

    Echoed back a sweet refrain,

    That the ruined church of Hippo

    Harbored prayer and praise again!

    When the bared, bowed head of Jerome

    Fell before the flashing sword;—

    When both Marcellin and Cyril

    To the last confessed the Lord;

    When St. Felix fell at Carthage,

    Struck with clubs; and in the flames

    Saints Severian and Aquila

    (Married lovers) knit their names

    In a more immortal linking,

    As twin martyrs for the faith;

    When St. Marcian at Cherchell

    Faced the cruel teeth of death;—

    They did more than bear brave witness

    To the glorious hearts of old;

    For they laid the strong foundation

    Of the universal Fold.

    In that great stone ring at Cherchell

    Grass hath muffled all the ground;

    All the circling seats are empty,

    Not a motion or a sound!

    Pause! O feet that here tread lightly!

    Hush! O voice discoursing here!

    Spirits of the just made perfect

    Doubtless often linger near!

    What if in that calm arena

    Where the sunbeams softly sleep,

    You, with many an aching bosom,

    Dared not cry and could not weep!

    What if Marcian wore the features—

    Dear blue eyes and soft brown hair,—

    And you saw the savage creatures

    Leap infuriate from their lair?


    Yet, O dreadful dream of Cherchell!

    That was what was undergone

    In that circle where the fruit-trees

    Like a faint reflection shone.

    Now for every martyr noted

    In the list I read to-day,

    Is a tender special mention

    When Algerian Christians pray.

    Down the hill I see the belfry

    And the quaint old Moorish porch;

    Hark! the little bell is swinging,

    Calling willing feet to church.

    Down the lane between the olives,

    Then across the wide white road;

    Stranger, if your heart is heavy,

    Take it to that hushed abode,

    Where the lamp burns ever dimly

    All throughout the sunny day,

    But shines clear upon the arches

    As the twilight fades away.

    You will find the weight drop from you,—

    Leave it there among the flowers,

    Which beneath the Christian altar

    Mark the change of Christian hours.

    Quaint old court of True Believer,

    All thy truth is overthrown!

    Servants of another Master

    Now have claimed thee for their own;

    Built his altar, placed around it

    Irises and asphodels;—

    Where to-morrow some new glory

    Will unfold its buds and bells.

    Sitting in this golden stillness

    All my thoughts turn back to them

    Who in such an Eastern sunshine

    Worshipped at Jerusalem!

    Are they then a living presence,

    After all these changing years?

    Hark, how many bells are ringing

    On the Sahel of Algiers!