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berbers in north africa

The modern-day region of Maghrib - the Arab "West" consisting of present-day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - is inhabited predominantly by Muslim Arabs, but it has a large North Africa served as a transit region for peoples moving toward Europe or the Middle East. Thus, the region's inhabitants

have been influenced by populations from other areas. Out of

this mix developed the Berber people, whose language and culture,

although pushed from coastal areas by conquering and colonizing

Carthaginians, Romans, and Byzantines, dominated most of the land

until the spread of Islam and the coming of the Arabs. The

purpose of this research is to examine the influence of the

Berbers on North Africa.

The cave paintings found at Tassili-n-Ajjer, north of

Tamanrasset, and at other locations depict vibrant and vivid

scenes of everyday life in the central Maghrib between about 8000

B.C. and 4000 B.C. They were executed by a hunting people in the

Capsian period of the Neolithic age who lived in a savanna region

teeming with giant buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, and

hippopotamus, animals that no longer exist in the now-desert

area. The pictures provide the most complete record of a

prehistoric African culture.

Earlier inhabitants of the central Maghrib have left behind

equally significant remains. Early remnants of hominid

occupation in North Africa, for example, were found in Ain el

Hanech, near Saida (200,000 B.C.). Later, Neanderthal tool

makers produced hand axes in the Levalloisian and Mousterian

styles (43,000 B.C.) similar to those in the Levant. According

to some sources, North Africa was the site of the highest state

of development of Middle Paleolithic flake-tool techniques.

Tools of this era, starting about 30,000 B.C. are called Aterian

( after the site Bir el Ater, south of Annaba) and are marked by

a high standard of workmanship, great variety, and


The earliest blade industries in North Africa are called

Ibero-Maurusian or Oranian (after a site near Oran). The

industry appears to have spread throughout the coastal regions of

the Maghrib between 15,000 and 10,000 B.C. Between about 9,000

and 5,000 B.C., the Capsian culture began influencing the Ibero-

Maurusian, and after about 3,000 B.C. the remains of just one

human type can be found throughout the region. Neolithic

civilization (marked by animal domestication and subsistence

agriculture) developed in the Saharan and Mediterranean Maghrib

between 6,000 and 2,000 B.C. This type of economy, so richly

depicted in the Tassil-n-Ajjer cave paintings, predominated in

the Maghrib until the classical period.

The amalgam of peoples of North Africa coalesced eventually

into a distinct native population that came to be called Berbers.

Distinguished primarily by cultural and linguistic attributes,

the Berbers lacked a written language and hence tended to be

overlooked or marginalized in the historical accounts. Roman,

Greeks, Byzantine, and Arab Muslim chroniclers typically depicted

the Berbers as "barbaric" enemies, troublesome nomands, or

ignorant peasants. They were, however, to play a major role in

the area's history.
Phoenician traders arrived on the North African coast around

900 B.C. and established Carthage ( in present-day Tunisia)

around 800 B.C. By the sixth century B.C., a Phoenician presence

existed at Tipasa (east of Cherchell in Algeria). From their

principal center of power at Carthage, the Carthaginians expanded

and established small settlements (called emporia in Greek) along

the North African coast; these settlements eventually served as

market towns as well as anchorages. Hippo Regius (modern Annaba)

and Rusicade (modern Skikda) are among the towns of Carthaginian

origin on the coast of present-day Algeria.

As Carthaginian power grew, its impact on the indigenous

population increased dramatically. Berber civilization was

already at a stage in which agriculture, manufacturing, trade,

and political organization supported several states. Trade links

between Carthage and the Berbers in the interior grew, but

territorial expansion also resulted in the enslavement or

military recruitment of some Berbers and in the extraction of

tribute from others. By the early fourth century B.C., Berbers

formed the single largest element of the Carthaginian army. In

the Revolt of the Mercenaries, Berbers soldiers rebelled from 241

to 238 B.C. after being unpaid following the defeat of Carthage

in the First Punic War. They succeeded in obtaining control of

much of Carthage's North African territory, and they minted

coins bearing the name Libyan, used in Greek to describe natives

of North Africa. The Carthaginian state declined because of

successive defeats by the Romans in the Punic Wars; in 146 B.C.

the city of Carthage was destroyed.

As carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders

in the hinterland grew. By the second century B.C., several

large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged. Two

of them were established in Numidia, behind the coastal areas

controlled by Carthage. West of Numidia lay Mauretania, which

extended across the Moulouya River in Morocco to the Atlantic

Ocean. The high point of Berber civilization, unequaled until

the coming of the Almohads and Almoravids more than a millennium

later, was reached during the reign of Masinissa in the second

century B.C. After Masinissa's death in 148 B.C., the Berber

kingdoms were divided and reunited several times. Masinissa's

line survived until A.D. 24, when the remaining Berber territory

was annexed to the Roman Empire.
Increases in urbanization and in the area under cultivation

during Roman rule caused wholesale dislocations of Berber

society. Nomadic tribes were forced to settle or move from

tradional rangelands. Sedentary tribes lost their autonomy and

the connection with the land. Berber opposition to the Roman

presence was nearly constant. The Roman emperor Trajan (ruled

from 98-117 A.D.) established a frontier in the south by

encircling the Aures and Nemencha mountains and building a line

of forts from Vescera (modern Biskra) to Ad Majores (Hennchir

Besseriani, southeast of Biskra). The defensive line extended at

least as far as Castellum Dimmidi (modern Messaad, southwest of

Biskra), Roman Algeria's southernmost fort. Romans settled and

developed the area around Sitifis (modern Setif) in the second

century, but farther west the influence of Rome did not extend

beyond the coast and principal military roads until much later.

The Roman military presence in North Africa was relatively

small, consisting of about 28,000 troops and auxiliaries in

Numidia and the two Mauretanian provinces. Starting in the

second century A.D.,these garrisons were manned mostly by local


Aside from Carthage, urbanization in North Africa came in

part with the establishment of settlements of veterans under the

Roman emperors Claudius (ruled 41-54 A.D.), Nerva (ruled 96-98

A.D.), and Trajan. In Algeria such settlements included Tipasa,

Cuicul (modern Djemila, northeast of Setif), Thamugadi (modern

Timgad, southeast of Setif), and Sitifis. The prosperity of most

towns depended on agriculture. Called the "granary of the

empire," North Africa, according to one estimate, produced one

million tons of cereals each year, one-quarter of which was

exported. Other crops included fruit, figs, grapes, and beans.

By the second century A.D., olive oil rivaled cereals as an

export item.

The beginnings of the decline of the Roman Empire were less

serious in North Africa than elsewhere. There were uprisings,

however. In A.D. 238, landowners rebelled unsuccessfully against

the emperor's fiscal policies. Sporadic tribal revolts in the

Mauretanian mountains followed from 253 to 288. The towns also

suffered economic difficulties, and building activity almost


The towns of Roman North Africa had a substantial Jewish

population. Some Jews were deported from Palestine in the first

and second centuries A.D. for rebelling against Roman rule;

others had come earlier with Punic settlers. In addition, a

number of Berber tribes had converted to Judaism.

Christianity arrived in the second century and soon gained

converts in the towns and among slaves. More than eighty

bishops, some from distant frontier regions of Numidia, attended

the COuncil of Carthage in 256. By the end of the fourth

century, the settled areas had become Christianized, and some

Berber tribes had converted en masse.

A division in the church that came to be known as the

Donatist controversy began in 313 among Christians in North

Africa. The Donatists stressed the holiness of the church and

refused to accept the authority to administer the sacraments of

those who had surrendered the scriptures when they were forbidden

under the Emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305). The Donatists also

opposed the involvement of Emperor Constantine (ruled 306-337) in

church affairs in contrast to the majority of Christians who

welcomed official imperial recognition.

The occasionally violent controversy has been characterized

as a struggle between opponents and supporters of the Roman

system. The most articulate North African critic of the Donatist

position, which came to be called a heresy, was Augustine, bishop

of Hippo Regius. Augustine (354-430) maintained that the

unworthiness of a minister did not affect the validity of the

sacraments because their true minister was Christ. In his

sermons and books, Augustine, who is considered a leading

exponent of Christian truths, evolved a theory of the right of

orthodox Christian rulers to use force against schismatics and

heretics. Although the dispute was resolved by a decision of an

imperial commission in Carthage in 411, Donatist communities

continued to exist through the sixth century.

Led by their king, Gaiseric, some 80,000 Vandals, a Germanic

tribe, crossed into Africa from Spain in 429. In the following

year, the invaders advanced without much opposition to Hippo

Regius, which they took after a siege in which Augustine died.

After further advances, the Vandals in 435 made an agreement with

Rome to limit their control to Numidia and Mauretania. But in

439 Gaiseric conquered and pillaged Carthage and the rest of the

province of Africa.

The resulting decline in trade weakened Roman control.

Independent kingdoms emerged in mountainous and desert areas,

towns were overrun, and Berbers, who had previously been pushed

to the edges of the Roman Empire, returned.

Belisarious, general of the Byzantine emperor Justinian

based in Constantinople, landed in North Africa in 533 with

16,000 men and within a year destroyed the Vandal kingdom. Local

opposition delayed full Byzantine control of the region for

twelve years, however, and imperial control, when it came, was

but a shadow of the control exercised by Rome. Although an

impressive series of fortifications were built, Byzantine rule

was compromised by official corruption, incompetence, military

weakness, and lack of concern in Constantinople for African

affairs. As a result, many rural areas reverted to Berber rule.

Unlike the invasions of previous religions and cultures, the

coming of Islam, which was spread by Arabs, was to have pervasive

and long-lasting effects on the Maghrib. The new faith, in its

various forms, would penetrate nearly all segments of society,

bringing with it armies, learned men, and fervent mystics, and in

large part replacing tribal practices and loyalties with new

social norms and political idioms.

Nonetheless, the Islamization and arabization of the region

were complicated and lengthy processes. Whereas nomadic Berbers

were quick to convert and assist the Arab invaders, not until the

twelfth century under the Almohad Dynasty did the Christian and

Jewish communities become totally marginalized.

The first Arab military expeditions into the Maghrib,

between 642 and 669, resulted in the spread of Islam. These

early forays from a base in Egypt occured under local initiative

rather than under orders from the central caliphate. When the

seat of the caliphate moved from Medina to Damascus, however, the

Umayyads (a Muslim dynasty ruling from 661 to 750) recognized

that the strategic necessity of dominating the Mediterranean

dictated a concerted military effort on the North African front.

In 670, therefore, an Arab army under Uqba ibn Nafi established

the town of Al Qayrawan about 160 kilometerss south of present-

day Tunis and used it as a base for further operations.

Abu al Muhajir Dina, Uqba's successor, pushed westward into

Algeria and eventually worked out a modus vivendi with Kusayla,

the ruler of an extensive confederation of Christian Berbers.

Kusayla, who had been based in Tilimsan (modern Tlemcen), became

a Muslim and moved his headquarters to Takirwan, near Al


This harmony was short-lived, however. Arab and Berber

forces controlled the region in turn until 697. By 711 Umayyad

forces helped by Berber converts to Islam had conquered all of

North Africa. Governors appointed by the Umayyad caliphs ruled

from Al Qayrawan, the new wilaya (province) of Ifriqiya, which

covered Tripolitania (the western part of present-day Libya),

Tunisia, and eastern Algeria.

Paradoxically, the spread of Islam among the Berbers did not

guarantee their support for the Arab-dominated caliphate. The

ruling Arabs alienated the Berbers by taxing them heavily;

treating converts as second-class Muslims; and, at worst, by

enslaving them. As a result, widespread opposition took the form

of open revolt in 739-740 under the banner of Kharijite Islam.

The Kharijites objected to Ali, the fourth caliph, making peace

with the Umayyads in 657 and left Ali's camp(khariji means "those

who leave"). The Kharijites had been fighting Umayyad rule in

the East, and many Berbers were attracted by the sect's

egalitarian precepts. For example, according to Kharijism, any

suitable Muslim candidate could be elected caliph without regard

to race, station, or descent from the Prophet Muhammad.

After the revolt, Kharijites established a number of

theocratic tribal kingdoms, most of which had short and troubled

histories. Others, hhowever, like Sijilmasa and Tilimsan, which

straddled the principal trade routes, proved more viable and

prospered. In 750 the Abbasids, who succeeded the Umayyads as

Muslim rulers, moved the caliphate to Baghdad and reestablished

caliphal authority in Ifriqiya, appointing Ibrahim ibn Al Aghlab

as governor in Al Qayrawan. Although nominally serving at the

caliph's pleasure, Al Aghlab and his successors ruled

independently until 909, presiding over a court that became a

center for learning and culture.

Just to the west of Aghlabid lands, Abd ar Rahman ibn Rustum

ruled most of the central Maghrib from Tahirt, southwest of

Algiers. The rulers of the Rustumid imamate, which lasted from

761 to 909, each an Ibadi Kharijite imam, were elected by leading

citizens. The imams gained a reputation for honesty, piety, and

justice. The court at Tahirt was noted for its support of

scholarship in mathematics, astronomy, and astrology, as well as

theology and law. The Rustumid imams, however, failed, by choice

or by neglect, to organize a reliable standing army. This

important factor, accompanied by the dynasty's eventual collapse

into decadence, opened the way for Tahirt's demise under the

assault of the Fatimids.

In the closing decades of the ninth century, missionaries of

the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam converted the Kutama Berbers of

what was later known as the Petite Kabylie region and led them in

battle against the Sunni rulers of Ifriqiya. Al Qayrawan fell to

them in 909. The Ismaili imam, Ubaydallah, declared himself

caliph and established Mahdia as his capital. Ubaydallah

initiated the Fatimid Dynasty, named after Fatima, daughter of

Muhammad and wife of Ali, from whom the caliph claimed descent.

The Fatimids turned westward in 911, destroying the imamate

of Tahirt and conquering Sijilmasa in Morocco. Ibadi Kharijite

refugees from Tahirt fled south to the oasis at Ouargla beyond

the Atlas Mountains, whence in the eleventh century they moved

southwest to Oued Mzab. Maintaining their cohesion and beliefs

over the centuries, Ibadi religious leaders have dominated public

life in the region to this day.

For many years, the Fatimids posed a threat to Morocco, but

their deepest ambition was to rule the East, the Mashriq, which

included Egypt and Muslim lands beyond. By 969 they had

conquered Egypt. In 972 the Fatimid ruler Al Muizz established

the new city of Cairo as his capital. The Fatimids left the rule

of Ifriqiya and most of Algeria to the Zirids (972-1148). This

Berber dynasty, which had founded the towns of Miliana, Medea,

and Algiers and centered significant local power in Algeria for

the first time, turned over its domain west of Ifriqiya to the

Banu Hammad branch of its family. The Hammadids ruled from 1011

to 1151, during which time Bejaia became the most important port

in the Maghrib.

This period was marked by constant conflict, political

instability, and economic decline. The Hammadids, by rejecting

the Ismaili doctrine for Sunni orthodoxy and renouncing

submission to the Fatimids, initiated chronic conflict with the

Zirids. Two great Berber confederations- the Sanhaja and the

Zenata- engaged in an epic struggle. The fiercely brave, camel-

borne nomads of the western desert and steppe as well as the

sedentary farmers of the Kabylie region to the east swore

allegiance to the Sanhaja. Their traditional enemies, the

Zenata, were tough, resourceful horsemen from the cold plateau of

the northern interior of Morocco and the western Tell in Algeria.

In addition, raiders from Genoa, pisa, and Norman Sicily

attacked ports and disrupted coastal trade. Trans-Saharan trade

shifted to Fatimid Egypt and to routes in the west leading to

Spanish markets. The countryside was being overtaxed by growing


Contributing to these political and economic dislocations

was a large incursion of Arab bediun from Egypt starting in the

first half of the eleventh century. Part of this movement was an

invasion by the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym tribes, apparently

sent by the Fatimids to weaken the Zirids. These Arab bediun

overcame the Zirids and Hammadids and in 1057 sacked Al Qayrawan.

They sent farmers fleeing from the fertile plains to the

mountains and left cities and towns in ruin. For the first time,

the extensive use of Arabic spread to the countryside. Sedentary

Berbers who sought protection from the Hilalians were gradually


The Almoravid movement developed early in the eleventh

century among the Sanhaja of the western Sahara, whose control of

trans-Saharan trade routes was under pressure from the Zenata

Berbers in the north and the state of Ghana in the south. Yahya

ibn Ibrahim al Jaddali, a leader of the lamtuna tribe of the

Sanhaja confederation, decided to raise the level of Islamic

knowledge and practice among his people. To accomplish this, on

his return from the hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) in 1048-49,

he brought with him Abd Allah ibn Yasin al Juzuli, a Moroccan

scholar. In the early years of the movement, the scholar was

concerned only with imposing moral discipline and a strict

adherence to Islamic principles among his followers. Abd Allah

ibn Yasin also became known as one of the marabouts, or holy

persons (from al murabitun, "those who have made a religious

retreat." Almoravids is the Spanish transliteration of al


The Almoravid movement shifted from promoting religious

reform to engaging in military conquest after 1054 an was led by

Lamtuna leaders:first Yahya, then his brother Abu Bakr, and then

his cousin Yusuf ibn Tashfin. With Marrakech as their capital,

the Almoravids had conquered Morocco, the Maghrib as far east as

Algiers, and Spain up to the Ebro River by 1106. Under the

Almoravids, the Maghrib and Spain acknowledged the spiritual

authority of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, reuniting them

temporarily with the Islamic community in the Mashriq.

Although it was not an entirely peaceful time, North Africa

benefited economically and culturally during the Almoravid

period, which lasted until 1147. Muslim Spain (Andalus in

Arabic) was a great source of artistic and intellectual

inspiration. The most famous writers of Andalus worked in the

Almoravid court, and the builders of the Grand Mosque of

Tilimsan, completed in 1136, used as a model the Grand Mosque of


Like the Almoravids, the Almohads found their initial

inspiration in Islamic reform. Their spiritual leader, the

Moroccan Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Tumart, sought to reform

Almoravid decadence. Rejected in Marrakech and other cities, he

turned to his Masmuda tribe in the Atlas Mountains for support.

Because of their emphasis on the unity of God, his followers were

known as Al Muwahhidun (unitarians, or Almohads).

Although declaring himself mahdi, imam, and masum

(infallible leader sent by God), Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Tumart

consulted with a council of ten of his oldest disciples.

Influenced by the Berber tradition of representative government,

he later added an assembly composed of fifty leaders from various

tribes. The Almohad rebellion began in 1125 with attacks on

Moroccan cities, including Sus and Marrakech.

Upon Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Tumart's death in 1130, his

successor Abd al Mumin took the title of caliph and placed

members of his own family in power, converting the system into a

traditional monarchy. The Almohads entered Spain at the

invitation of the Andalusian amirs, who had risen against the

Almoravids there. Abd al Mumin forced the submission of the

amirs and reestablished the caliphate of Cordoba, giving the

Almohad sultan supreme religious as well as political authority

within his domains. The Almohads took control of Morocco in

1146, captured Algiers around 1151, and by 1160 had completed the

conquest of the central Maghrib and advanced to Tripolitania.

Nonetheless, pockets of Almoravid resistance continued to hold

out in the Kabylie region for at least fifty years.

After Abd al Mumin's death in 1163, his son Abu Yaqub Yusuf

(ruled 1163-1184) and grandson Yaqub al Mansur (ruled 1184-1199)

presided over the zenith of Almohad power. For the first time,

the Maghrib was united under a local regime, and although the

empire was troubled by conflict on its fringes, handcrafts and

agriculture flourished at its center and an efficient bureaucracy

filled the tax coffers. In 1229 the Almohad court renounced the

teachings of Muhammad ibn Tumart, opting instead for greater

tolerence and a return to the Maliki school of law. As evidence

of this change, the Almohads hosted two of the greatest thinkers

of Anadalus: Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushid (Averroes).

The Almohads shared the crusading instincts of their

Christian adversaries, but the continuing wars in Spain over-

taxed their resources. In the Maghrib, the Almohad position was

compromised by factional strife and was challenged by a renewal

of tribal warfare. The Bani Merin (Zenata Berbers) took

advantage of declining Almohad power to establish a tribal state

in Morocco, initiating nearly sixty years of warfare there that

concluded with their capture of Marrakech, the last Almohad

stronghold, in 1271. Despite repeated efforts to subjugate the

central Maghrib, however, the Merinids were never able to restore

the frontiers of the Almohad Empire.

From its capital at Tunis, the Hafsid Dynasty made good its

claim to be the legitimate successor of the Almohads in Ifriqiya,

while, in the central Maghrib, the Zayanids founded a dynasty at

Tlemcen. Based on a Zenata tribe, the Bani Abd el Wad, which had

been settled in the region by Abd al Mumin, the Zayanids also

emphasized their links with the Almohads.

For more than 300 years, until the region came under Ottoman

suzerainty in the sixteenth century, the Zayanids kept a tenuous

hold in the central Maghrib. The regime, which depended on the

administrative skills of Andalusians, was plagued by frequent

rebellions but learned to survive as the vassal of the Merinids

or Hafsids or later as an ally of Spain.

In conclusion, to the strong loyalties of the tribe, the

Berber added individualism, democratic participation in inter-

tribal affairs and fierce opposition to foreign invaders. Over

the centuries, many conquerors came to the Maghrib, but few

established durable empires, and few exercised a significant

cultural influence. In the religious sphere, the Berbers

continued to practice their animistic beliefs, while often

adopting religious heresies to oppose their Christian, Jewish or

Islamic overlords.

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