Berbers are the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa who generally call them-selves Imazighen (singular amazigh) meaning the “free people.” Berbers inhabit a wide area from Siwa Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert to the Atlantic coast of Morocco and from the Mediterranean south to the Sahel in Niger and Burkina Faso. The total number of Berbers is difﬁ-cult to determine, mainly because of the different ways people can be counted as Berber or not.
In Morocco, between 30 percent and 60 percent of the popula-tion can be counted as Berber, depending on whether or not speaking Berber as the language of the home is part of the identity. If speaking Berber as the ﬁrst language is considered, then around 30 percent to 40 percent of Morocco’s people are Berbers; but if other aspects are taken into consideration, such as family name, place of origin, and cultural afﬁnity, then as many as to 60 percent of Moroccans are Berbers. Berbers number at least 10 million, with the largest populations in Algeria and Morocco.
The term Berber derives from the Greek word barabaroi, which they used to mean those who could not speak Greek. It was borrowed into Latin as barbar, from which the English language takes the word bar-barian. The Latin term was also borrowed into Arabic as barbar (plural barabar) and generally was applied to much of North Africa or Barbary by Europeans.
Arabic speakers usually referred to Berbers as Shluh, which derives from the Arabic for someone who speaks a broken form of Arabic, though recently, the more proper amazigh/imazighin has been adopted by most North African countries. The Berber language, generally called Tamazight, belongs to the Afroasiatic group and seems to have divided from Semitic some-time around 11,000 BCE.
The origin of the Berbers has been a source of controversy, especially after the emergence of the highly romantic Berber-isme or Berber Myth movement supported by Europeans and Americans in the early 20th century. The Berber Myth originated with the work of the French ofﬁcer Robert Montagne, who was commissioned by the French Governor-General of Morocco, Hubert Lyauty, to study the Berbers. He sought to ﬁnd Berber origins in Europe, perhaps related to the Basques.
The Berber Myth of lost Europeans pushed an agenda to “free” the Berbers from their occupation and suppression by the Arabs and Islam. Medieval Arab historians and geographers followed Berber genealogies that gave themselves Yemeni origins claiming to descend from the Himyarites. Berbers sought to place themselves on an equal footing with Arabs by claiming prestigious Arab genealogies. Recent studies by physical and medical anthropol-ogists note the Y chromosome and DNA place Berbers as sharing common links to African and Middle Eastern peoples.
Archeologists believe that what they call proto-Berbers inhabited most of the Mediterranean coastal regions of North Africa in the late Paleolithic period (for-merly called the Mesolithic) and produced the Capsian culture. By the Neolithic period, around 7000 BCE, Berbers pro-duced some of the rock art found in the Sahara. Evidence is backed up not only by genetic research, but also by represen-tations of nomadic life, tent structures, and clothing that are very similar to those found in ancient Egyptian representations of the Libu and other Berber peoples from historic times.
The ancient Egyptians provided a good amount of detail about the Libu/Rebu, Tehenu, and Temehu peoples who lived in the Western Desert and in eastern Libya. The Algerian archeologist Malika Hachid argues that the Tuareg are the modern-day descendants of the ancient Garamantes mentioned by Greek and Roman geographers. Some of the Berbers, mainly those in contact with Egypt and Punic Carthage, organized themselves into states. Numidia arose in the fourth century BCE in the region close to Carthage and divided into two main lineages/kingdoms of Massyles and Masaeyles.
A third king-dom, Mauritania (no connection with the modern country of Mauritania) under the Bogud lineage, emerged in the ﬁrst cen-tury BCE. The Berber kings were greatly inﬂuenced by Punic culture and took on a number of elements, including worship of the two principal Punic gods Tingit and Ba‘al-Hammon. The Numidian rulers became embroiled in the conﬂict between Rome and Carthage. The last independent Numidian ruler, King Jugurtha (118–105 BCE), fell out with Rome, with whom he fought a seven- year war.
Jugurtha was eventually betrayed by his cousin, the king of Mauritania, and was taken to Rome for execution. Numidia was allowed to continue to exist, but was broken up into small, contesting city-states until the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pom-pey when King Juba I (68–46 BCE) tried to use the civil war for his own beneﬁt. However, Pompey’s forces were beaten by Caesar and Numidia was annexed as the Roman province of Africa.
The Kingdom of Mauritania remained a “Friend and Ally of Rome.” Its last major ruler, Juba II (25 BCE–23 CE), was taken to Rome, where Julius Caesar had him educated in Latin and Greek. During this time, he became a close friend of Octavian and they remained close the rest of their lives. His kingdom was annexed by Rome in the year 40 CE after the emperor Caligula had King Ptolemy (23–40 CE) poisoned.
The city of Volubilis rose in resistance under the command of the Aedemon, King Ptolemy’s servant, but, in 42, the rebels were defeated. Rome con-trolled all of North Africa including the provinces of Africa (Tunisia), Numidia (eastern Algeria), Mauritania Ceasaria (western Algeria), and Mauritania Tingitania (Morocco). Berber resistance led by Tacfarinas (17–24 CE) in what is today Algeria was also crushed. As the empire weakened, Rome withdrew from Mauritania in 285, though it kept the ports of Tangier and Sebta/Ceuta.
During the later Roman period, Berbers in Tunisia and eastern Algeria were attracted to the Donatist and Arian forms of Christianity and rose in rebellion against the Catholic Church and the wealthy land-owners. However, Saint Augustine of Hippo (340–430), who was of Berber origin, wrote to defend the Church of Rome, and he argued against the theological points of Donatists, Arians, and Palegians as well as against the ideas of the last of the pagan philosophers. His major work, The City of God (De Civitate Dei) argued for the supremacy of the Catholic Church of Rome, which formed the basis for the secular as well as religious power that the Church was able to maintain throughout the European medieval period as the true inher-itor of imperial Rome.
By the ﬁfth century CE, the edges of the Roman possessions in Africa were under pressure from camel pastoral nomadic Berber tribes and, with the arrival of the Arabs in 647, Rome/Byzantium lost Libya and Tunisia to the Muslims. Berber resis-tance to the Arabs was led by two remark-able ﬁgures. The ﬁrst was Kusaylah ibn Lamzan, who was able to push the Arabs out of Tunisia brieﬂy, and the second was the queen of the Gerawa Berbers, al-Kahinah or the Priestess, who was not defeated until 701. Following the collapse of the last resistance, Berber conversion to Islam happened quickly, and by 711 when the Muslims conquered Spain, nearly everyone in the army, including their commander, Tariq bin Ziyad, were Berbers.
Berbers were attracted to both early Shi‘ism and Kharaji forms of Islam. Both forms of Islam were brought to North Africa by populations from the Middle East trying to escape persecution by the Umayyads and ‘Abbasids. Along Morocco’s Atlantic plain, the Barghwata Berbers developed their own version of Islam following their prophet Salih ibn Tarif, who compiled his own Berber version of a “revealed book” to rival the Qur’an. In central Morocco, the proto-Shi‘ite Idrisi dynasty was established by Idris I (788–791/792), a descendant of the Prophet, in 788. Berbers also were the main supporters of the Isma‘ili Shi‘ite Fatamids who arose in Tunisia in 909.
Sunni Orthodoxy of the Maliki madh-hab (School of Law) was ﬁrmly estab-lished in North Africa with the rise of the al-Murabatin (Almoravids), who devel-oped in the Sahara among the pastoral nomadic Sanhaja tribes. By 1056, they had begun their conquest of Morocco, and by 1070, they had consolidated their control over all of Morocco and expanded into Algeria as far as the city of Algiers. The al-Murabatin were asked by the Muslim rulers of Spain to assist them against the pressures from the king of Castile. In 1086, they responded, and by 1110, all of the Muslim states of Spain were under Murabati rule, creating a uni-ﬁed state from the Ebro River in Spain to the Senegal River.
The al-Murabatin were replaced by another Berber dynasty, the al-Muwahhidin (Almohades), by 1147 when the Murabati capital Marrakech fell. The al-Muwahhidin had their main support among the settled farming Masmuda Berbers of the High Atlas. The al-Muwahhidin claimed the al-Murabitin were not truly pious, but in 1212, the al-Muwahhidin were defeated by the Christian king of Castile at the Battle of Hisn al-‘Uqab or Las Navas de Tolosa, and the subsequent abandonment of the Muslims of Spain caused them to lose moral authority.
Al-Muwahhidin control weak-ened, and the Bani Ghaniya in southern Tunisia broke from them in the early 13th century as did the Hafsids of Tunis. The Bani Marin of the Berber Zanata tribal confederacy began their slow conquest of Morocco between 1244 and 1274. The Mar-inids were unable to halt the advance of both Spanish and Portuguese expansion along the coasts of Morocco, and in 1415, the Portu-guese seized the port of Sebta/Ceuta. Between 1486 and 1550, nearly every Atlantic port of Morocco was taken by the Portuguese, and the Marinids lost popular support. The Marinids marked the last of the major Berber dynasties, and they were followed by the Arab Sa‘adians who claimed legitimacy through direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
Today, most Berbers are Sunni Muslim, belonging to the Maliki school or madh-hab. The Berber al-Murabitin imposed Sunni Islam and the Maliki school and ended both Shi‘ite and Kharaji forms of Islam, though small communities of Khar-aji Muslims have been able to survive in the Mzab of Algeria, on the Island of Jerba in Tunisia, and the Jabal Nafusa in Libya. In addition, many of Morocco’s Jews were Berber-speaking and belonged to one of the oldest Jewish communities outside of the Middle East. Their own history states that they were sent with Phoenician traders by King Solomon. Christianity was embraced by some Berbers in the past, but most Berber Christians today were converted during the French colonial period, with the majority found among the Kabyli Berbers of Algeria.
Berber society was mainly tribally organized. People belonged to particular lineages and, like the Arabs, they had demonstrated descent, meaning that it would be possible to name a person’s ancestors back to the founder of the lineage. Berbers were pastoral nomads,with mixed economies of husbandry and farming, while those who lived in oases practiced intensive agriculture. Each lineage among the nomads was under the leadership of an amghar, similar to the Arab shaykh, while the settled population had elected assemblies (of leading line-ages) generally called jama‘a.
Until recently, Berber culture was side-lined to folklore by most North African governments. Berber contributions to Andalusian architecture and music have not been well studied, but the three main Berber dynasties that ruled most of North Africa and Muslim Spain between 1050 and 1510 patronized the arts. The al-Muwahhidin marked their empire with major mosques with massive minarets in Marrakech, Rabat, Seville, and Tunis. The Marinid period marks the high point in Andalusian architecture, and they encouraged the best and brightest from Spain to work for them. The al-Murabatin court promoted poetry and philosophy, in the universal language of education in the Muslim world, Arabic, and made Arabic the ofﬁcial language of the state.
Berbers nonetheless have a rich herit-age in domestic architecture, building in stone, mud brick, and pise´ or pounded earth. This architecture shows a sophisti-cated knowledge of thermal and structural aspects of the building materials. Among the most notable structures are the fortiﬁed granaries or agadir that often stand in the middle of villages.Berber literature is mainly oral, and most of the texts written in Tiﬁnagh or Libyan script are monumental inscrip-tions.
Berbers wrote in Latin or, with the arrival of Islam, in Arabic. Some Berber language texts in southern Morocco are written using Arabic letters. In general, most Berber literature is in the form of poems that are preserved by the imdiyazin or bards. These poems are frequently sung, and two major types of dance are associated with them, the ahidus of the Middle Atlas, and the ahwash of the High Atlas and Sus.
Other Berber arts include silver jewelry, often very large and heavy. Silver jewelry has a wide variety stretching from Siwa to the Atlantic, though use of geometric designs such as triangles is common. Ber-ber weaving is famous, and Berber kilims are excellent, though knotted carpets have large “clunky” knots and are not as reﬁned as those from Iran or Turkey. Use of embroi-dered patters of sunbursts, sun wheels, and triangles in bright orange, red, and yellow silk ﬂoss link communities as distant as Siwa in Egypt and the Taﬁlalt in Morocco. Berber silver jewelry, embroidery, and car-pets have become collectors’ items.
Berbers in Algeria and Morocco have recently engaged in a revival of their identity and culture. In Algeria, where Berbers have been able to develop a sense of nationalism, a political movement began in the late 1970s. In 1980, the Berber Spring occurred with a widespread strike by Kabayli Berbers in response to the government banning a conference where the Kabayli intellectual Mouloud Mammeri was scheduled to speak. Sub-sequently, several Berber associations were founded, and eventually the Algerian government made some concessions, including declaring Berber to be a national language in 2001, though Arabic remains the ofﬁcial language.
In Morocco, King Muhammad VI insti-tuted the Royal Institute for Berber Culture (IRCAM) with the main purpose of study-ing and publishing on Berber language, his-tory, and culture. Nonetheless, the Amazigh Moroccan Democratic Party (AMDP), formed in 2005, was declared illegal by Moroccan courts in 2008. Moroccan Ber-bers have been able to get Berber introduced as a language of instruction in regions where Berber is the main language of the home, but have not been able have it declared on par with Arabic. Some still say that they have difﬁculty having local ofﬁcials register their children with Berber names.
John A. Shoup
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