BISKRA, a town of Algeria, in the arrondissement of Batna, department of Constantine, 150 m. S.W. of the city of Constantine and connected with it and with Philippeville by rail. It lies in the Sahara 360 ft. above the sea, on the right bank of the Wad Biskra, a river which, often nearly dry for many months in the year, becomes a mighty torrent after one or two days’ rain in winter. The name Biskra applies to a union of five or six villages of the usual Saharan type, scattered through an oasis 3 m. in length by less than 1 m. broad, and separated by huge gardens full of palm and olive trees. The houses are built of hardened mud, with doors and roof of palm wood. The foreign settlement is on the north of the oasis; it consists of a broad main street, the rue Berthe (from which a few side streets branch at right angles), lined with European houses, the whole in the style of a typical French winter resort, a beautiful public garden, with the church in the centre, an arcade, a pretentious mairie in pseudo-Moorish style with entrance guarded by terra-cotta lions, some good shops, a number of excellent hotels and cafés, a casino, clubs, and, near by, a street of dancing and singing girls of the tribe of Walad-Nail. East of the public garden is Fort St Germain, named after an officer killed in the insurrection of the Zaatcha in 1849; it is capable of resisting any attack of the Arabs, and extensive enough to shelter the whole of the civil population, who took refuge therein during the rebellion of 1871. It contains barracks, hospital and government offices. To the south-east lies the Villa Landon with magnificent gardens filled with tropical plants. The population (1906) of the chief settlement was 4218, of the whole oasis 10,413.
From November to April the climate of Biskra is delightful. Nowhere in Algeria can be found more genial temperature or clearer skies, and while in summer the thermometer often registers 110° F. in the shade, and 90° at night, the pure dryness of the air in this practically rainless region makes the heat endurable. The only drawback to the climate is the prevalence of high cold winds in winter. These winds cause temperatures as low as 36°, but the mean reading, on an average of ten years, is 73°.
In the oasis are some 200,000 fruit trees, of which about 150,000 are date-palms, the rest being olives, pomegranates and apricots. In the centre of the oasis is the old kasbah or citadel.
In 1844 the duc d’Aumale occupied this fort, and here, on the night of the 12th of May of that year, the 68 men who formed the French garrison were, with one exception, massacred by Arabs. In the fort are a few fragments of Roman work—all that remains of the Roman post Ad Piscinam.
Biskra is the capital of the Ziban (plural of Zab), a race of mixed Berber and Arab origin, whose villages extend from the southern slopes of the Aures to the Shat Melrir. These villages, built in oases dotted over the desert, nestle in groves of date-palms and fruit trees and waving fields of barley. The most interesting village is that of Sidi Okba, 12 m. south-east of Biskra. It is built of houses of one story made of sun-dried bricks. The mosque is square, with a flat roof supported on clay columns, and crowned by a minaret. In the north-west corner of the mosque is the tomb of Sidi Okba, the leader of the Arabs who in the 1st century of the Hegira conquered Africa for Islam from Egypt to Tangier. Sidi Okba was killed by the Berbers near this place in A.D. 682. On his tomb is the inscription in Cufic characters, “This is the tomb of Okba, son of Nafi. May God have mercy upon him.” No older Arabic inscription is known to exist in Africa.