The city of Algiers is located on the western shore of a bay on what is now the Algerian Mediterranean coast and faces roughly northeast. It was built on a mountain slope rising up from the sea, so its buildings ascended the slope. In Reverend Ólafur’s time, the city was divided into two sections: a lower portion (known as Al‑Wata – The Plains), containing the public buildings and the commercial, administrative, and military sectors, and an upper portion (known as Al‑Gabal – The Mountain), containing private dwellings, tightly packed with individual houses and neighborhoods. At the top of the Al‑Gabal sat the Kasbah (Al‑Qasaba – The Fort), some 400 feet (122 meters) above sea level and enclosed by its own walls. These three sections together formed a single municipal entity, bounded by an encircling, defensive wall studded with towers. A series of gates set into the wall gave access to and from the city. Roads from the main gates converged in the center of the Al‑Wata.
The Arabic name for Algiers is Al-Jazāʾir (The Islands), taken from the several islands that once dotted the bay (on one of which the Spanish built a fort known as the Peñon). In Reverend Ólafur’s day, these islands had been merged into a single entity connected to the city by a mole which Hayreddin Barbarossa had ordered constructed after his capture of the Peñon.
The city was protected by an encircling, defensive wall, studded with towers, which was something like 22 feet (7 meters) high and about 9 feet (almost 3 meters) thick. There was a dry moat outside it, though this was poorly kept up and filled with trash.
Within the walls, the city was crowded, containing perhaps fifteen thousand households and a population of around one hundred thousand. According to Emanuel d’Aranda, who was enslaved in Algiers from 1640 to 1642, this population consisted of "twelve thousand soldiers, Turks belonging to the Garrison, thirty or forty thousand slaves of all nations, and the rest Citizens of Algiers, Moors, Moriscos, Jews, and some Christian merchants.”
D’Aranda, also observed that “the want of room has forced them to build houses on the ramparts, which serve for one side of walls. The streets are very narrow, and are chained up at night, save only the principal street, which runs across the City.”
Antonio de Sosa, who was enslaved in Algiers from 1587 to 1581, has this to say on the streets: “Neither a horseman not two people walking side by side could pass through them easily. The entire city is so dense, and the houses so close to each other, that it all seems like a very tight pine cone.”
Several streets running from the major gates down to the center of the Al‑Wata were more than mere alleyways, but the principle street was the widest. De Sosa estimated it to be 30 feet (9 meters) across. It transected the city, running parallel with the waterfront. The souks (markets) were laid out along it, including the slave market (known as the Batistan) where the Icelanders were auctioned off. The street derived its name from these souks: Al‑Souk al‑Kabir (the Great Street of the Souks). Two of the main gates were located at either end of Al‑Souk al‑Kabir: the Bab al-Oued (Gate of the River) at the northern end, and the Bab Azzoun (Gate of Grief) at the southern. Captives were marched publicly along Al‑Souk al‑Kabir to the Batistan to be sold.
Aside from the mass of private dwellings, there were a number of public buildings. Mosques dotted the city. There was also the residence of the Ottoman Governor, located on the Al‑Souk al‑Kabir, which Father Pierre Dan, a Trinitarian friar who was in Algiers in 1634, described as "the most beautiful house in Algiers." The city also contained several large public baths, which the citizens apparently used on a regular basis. As well, it had a number of bagnios (which de Sosa characterized as "corrals") where the slaves were kept.
Since the city was built on a slope rising up from the coast, its buildings ascended progressively higher, tier upon tier.
Here is d’Aranda’s description:
“The situation of this famous den of pirates is on the ascent of a mountain, which rises by degrees from the seaside up into the country, representing to those who sail by it the several stories [i.e., tiers of seats] of a theater.”
Here is Father Dan's description:
“This city, with its whitewashed houses, looks extremely nice when you approach it from the sea. It presents itself to one’s view . . . mounting like an amphitheater. Even though it is square, the city seems much less wide at the top than at the bottom, which happens, according to the rules of perspective . . . and it seems to form a pyramidal shape.”
With its whitewashed buildings, seen rising up out of the shoreline from the sea on a sunny day, the city could present a splendid appearance—if those viewing it were in a state of mind to appreciate such a sight.
The Icelandic Background
A Brief History
Iceland was first settled in the second half of the ninth century by Vikings, whose descendants live there still. The island is known as the land of ice and fire—of glaciers and volcanoes. There are a dozen or so sizable glaciers. Vatnajökull, the biggest of them, is the world’s third largest ice sheet (after Greenland and Antarctica), with ice up to a kilometer thick. Depending on how one counts them, the island contains about 130 volcanoes (active and inactive), and eruptions have been constant (though intermittent) events throughout the centuries. Iceland lies just south of the Arctic Circle, but thanks to the moderating effect of the Gulf Stream, among other things, its climate is milder than one would expect. Present-day winter temperatures rarely dip below 15 Fahrenheit (–10 Celsius) and summer temperatures can reach 70 Fahrenheit (21 Celsius) or higher. Because of the latitude, the amount of daylight varies dramatically with the seasons: the short winter days are only about four hours long; long summer days are up to twenty-one hours. Iceland is a land of contrasts, of darkness and light, sea-girt coasts and inland deserts, glaciers and volcanoes, a land of stark, surprising beauty—and not at all an easy place to live without the support of modern technology. Iceland today is a contemporary European country, a thriving democracy with a high standard of living. In Reverend Ólafur’s day, however, it was a very different place.
For one thing, it was colder. The so-called Little Ice Age—a period of colder temperatures that lasted several centuries—was in progress, and the period from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth centuries was one of significantly colder temperatures than today. Among other things, this meant a shorter growing season. In a place like Iceland, that could be dire.
Iceland also suffered from natural calamities. There were no less than sixteen separate volcanic eruptions in the seventeenth century—including Katla (near the south coast across from the Westman Islands) in 1625, and Grímsfjall (in the southeast) in 1629, just before and just after Reverend Ólafur’s ordeal. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there were recurrent epidemics of smallpox. Famine was common. Bubonic plague reached the island in the early fifteenth century, having the same devastating effect there as it did elsewhere. Estimates are that it killed a third or more of the population. At that time, Iceland was economically dependent on trade with Norway, but the plague struck Norway, too, and trade was crippled, leaving the Icelanders, who lacked forests of their own from which to build ships, in a dangerously precarious position.
In Reverend Ólafur’s day, the climate may have been cold—in the early part of the seventeenth century, Iceland experienced a series of terrible winters, during which thousands of people starved to death—but things had begun to improve economically, at least a little. In the early fifteenth century, first English and then German (Hanseatic League) traders had appeared, looking for cod. This precipitated a sometimes violent rivalry that lasted the better part of a century, but their presence did help boost the floundering Icelandic economy. By the close of that century, Denmark had regained control of the Icelandic fisheries, and some semblance of commercial order was restored. There were, however, pirate attacks to contend with, not only the corsair raid but also forays by Spanish and English pirates.
During all this, the Icelandic people survived as best they could. Lacking forests or hewable stone, they built their houses out of chunks of lava, layers of turf, and driftwood. In the summers they fished, farmed what they could, tended cattle and sheep. They spent the long, dark winters in their farmhouses, carding wool, making repairs, and reading to each other from the sagas by the light of flickering oil lamps (Icelanders have a long tradition of literacy). In a good year, fish, mutton, and garden vegetables might be plentiful. Good year or bad, though, nearly everything else had to be imported.
Estimates are that during Reverend Ólafur’s day, the population of Iceland was perhaps 50,000 hardy souls.
The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)
The Westman Islands are an archipelago of small islands off the south coast of Iceland. Only the largest, Heimaey (pro- nounced “hay-mah-ay”), is permanently inhabited. Heimaey was first peopled by Vikings around 900 AD. These Vikings brought Irish thralls (slaves) with them when they settled Iceland. The story has it that some of these Irish slaves killed the blood-brother of Ingólfur Arnarson, one of Iceland’s first settlers, and fled to the islands, where Ingólfur found them and killed them in revenge. Since Ireland is west of Scandinavia, the Vikings called the Irish the Westmen—and so the islands got their name.
The inhabitants of Heimaey survived by fishing, subsistence farming, hunting seabirds, and collecting seabird eggs. In Reverend Ólafur’s day, the island contained about eighteen farmsteads with livestock, and forty houses without livestock. An estimated four to five hundred people lived on the island at the time of the corsair raid. This gives a sense of the scale of the tragedy: the corsairs killed somewhere between thirty and forty people and took away two hundred and forty-two, men, women, and children. Basically, they depopulated the island.