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For almost three thousand years the Berber peoples of North Africa have clung to their distinct identity and language, sheltering in the mountains and in desert oases from infringing invaders.

Most of the North African population is originally of Berber stock that has been largely Arabised. There remain 20 million people who are still distinctly Berber, speaking their ancient dialects as a first language (although most Berbers are bi-lingual) and clinging to their old culture.

There are some real differences between Berbers and Arabs, but they also have many crosscultural links. Arabic is the official language of all Maghreb states and it is also the language of religion and culture. Living in a mountainous environment and in a tribal society divided by many dialects, there has always been much political fragmentation amongst the Berbers. There is little pan-Berber nationalism as they identify primarily with their family and tribe. Fighting used to be endemic to their way of life and they have a intense love of independence.

Their origin is shrouded in mystery. Some think they crossed over from the Iberian Peninsula many thousands of years ago, others that they have always lived in North Africa. Many invaders and colonists reached the Maghreb, including Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and French.

The name Berber evolved from the Greek custom of calling all non-Greek speaking people Barbarians. The Berbers call themselves "Imazighen", the free.

The Berbers originally lived all over the Maghreb from western Egypt to the Atlantic. The culturally distinct Berber communities of today survive in pockets in the mountains and in the Sahara desert, scattered over a large area from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to the Atlantic and from the Niger river and the Sahel in the south to the Mediterranean. Their density increases from east to west, Morocco being the state with most Berbers living in it.

Today they are concentrated mainly in the Rif and the Atlas mountains (and also in the Sous plain) of Morocco, and in the Kabyle and Aures mountains as well as the Mzab and other Saharan oases of Algeria. Small communities are still found on Djerba Island and in a few mainland villages in Tunisia, in the Jebel Nafusah mountain and the Ghudamis and Ghat oases of Libya, and in the Siwa oasis in Egypt.

Many Berbers are farmers who grow wheat, barley, fruits, nuts, vegetables and olives for oil in the lowlands in winter and graze flocks of sheep and goats in the mountains during the summer. Some are still nomads who migrate with their camels and herds around the desert plateaus and oases. Their fortified villages are often located high on the mountain ridges and are composed of houses, a mosque, a fortified threshing floor (kasbah) and a gathering place for the assembly of elders (Jama'ah) which controls village life.

Increasing population density and poverty have caused many Berbers to migrate to the large cities of North Africa in search of employment, there to form an urban proletariat. Others have emigrated to France, which has the largest Berber population outside of the Maghreb, and also to Spain, Belgium and other countries of western Europe.

Most Berbers are Sunni Muslims of the Maliki school, with Sufi orders very popular amongst them. Small communities of 'Ibadis (an ancient Islamic Khariji sect) survive in some isolated areas.

The foreign invaders usually occupied the coastlands, so the Berbers found refuge in the inaccessible mountain and desert areas where they could continue to speak their own languages undisturbed, and live in accordance with their own customary laws.

Morocco has the main Berber concentration: 10.4 million (40% of the population). Algeria comes next with 6.5 million (25% of the population). Tunisia has 200,000, Libya and Egypt each have some 150,000 Berbers, whilst Mauretania has some 50,000 (mainly Tuaregs). Niger and Mali have 650,000 each - mainly Tuareg tribesmen and Burkina-Fasso 300,000 Tuaregs.

Berber communities contain clans claiming descent from the Prophet (Sharifs), who are regarded as holy men having supernatural powers.





MOROCCO (40% of the total population - 10.4 million in 3main groups):


Shluh, 5.1 million in the High and Anti-Atlas and the Sous, speaking Shilha (Tashilhait).

Berraber, 3.2 million in the Middle Atlas speaking Tamazight.

Riff, 1.8 million in the north speaking Rif (Tarifit, Zenatiya).

Others: Harratin, Zenaga, Tuareg, 0.3 million.


ALGERIA (25% of the population - 6.5 million in 4 main groups):


Kabyle, 4.4 million speaking Kabyle, (Tamazirt, also called Zwawah).

Shawiya, 1.7 million speaking Shawiya in the Aures massif.

Mzab, 0.16 million in the Mzab oases.

Tuareg, 50,000 in the Ahaggar mountains of the far south and nearby Saharan areas, speaking Tamarshak.


In LIBYA, 4 groups of Berbers, including Zenaga and Tuareg, total population of 150,000, living in Jebel Nafusah,ÿGhat and Ghudamis oasis and roaming the Sahara.


In TUNISIA, 200,000 Berbers, mainly on Djerba Island and some villages of the south.


In EGYPT, 150,000 still speaking their dialects, mainly in the Siwa oasis.


In MAURITANIA some 50,000 Tuaregs, Zenaga and others. Manyÿtribes in Mauritania are of Berber origin, but have mixed with the invading Beduin tribes and now speak Hasaniya Arabic.









The Shluh live in the Sous plain and in the High-Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco. In the mountains their villages lie in the high altitude river valleys (over 2000m). The houses are built in steep terraces, dominated by the Kasbah, the communal fortified granary and threshing floor. They use the mountain slopes for pasture and cultivation. Lower lying land is irrigated by diverting water from the wadis and can yield two crops a year (cereals in winter and vegetables in summer). The shepherds migrate seasonally with their sheep between the winter lowlands and the summer uplands.

The Shluh language is called Tashilhait and has many local dialects. The Sous plain was a famous centre of Berber poetry and literature. Many Shluh have migrated to the large cities, especially Casablanca, where they are active in trade.





Some thirty Rif tribes live in the Rif mountains of northeastern Morocco, a district bordered by two rivers and 145 miles of Mediterranean coastline. The Rif work in farming, growing fig and olive trees that cover the mountain slopes, in herding and in sardine fishing.

They fought fiercely against Spanish and French occupation in the 1920s, led by the famous Abd el-Krim who established an independent Rif republic. Finally submitting to the colonial powers, many of them served in the French and Spanish armies where they were valued for their fighting capabilities. Today many of them serve in the Moroccan armed forces.





The Berraber are semi-nomadic pastoral tribes who live in permanent villages for part of the year and also move between their summer pastures in the highlands and the lower lying winter grazing lands. Their area is less densely populated than that of most other Berber groups, so they tend less to emigrate. They also stick more to customary law than the southern Shluh. The Ait-Atta are a famous nomadic Berraber tribe.





The Harratin are "Black Berbers" descended from African slaves or tribes that moved north into Berber territory and adopted Berber language and culture. They were treated as inferior by the "White Berbers". The Harratin live mainly in South Morocco, Mauritania and the Sahara oases where they are farmers who supply their produce to the nomadic tribes. They used to pay tribute to the Berber or Arab nomadic tribes in return for armed protection. They are still a modest people, content with their subordinate role in society.







The Shawiya live in the Aures Mountains of northeastern Algeria (Batnah province), an area of steep cliffs and long straight ridges which contains the highest mountains of Algeria, reaching 2280m. Their villages are built of stone houses lying in terraces one above the other, dominated by a fortified granary (guelaa, kasbah). The Shawia live in their upland villages only in the summer, as in winter they migrate with their flocks to the lowlands, where they pitch tents or live in caves. They return to the highlands in summer to irrigate the land and grow sorghum, vegetables, apricots and apples.

The Shawiya have been relatively isolated, trading mainly with their Kabyle neighbours. They strongly opposed the French in the Algerian revolution of the 1950s.






The Kabyle live in a mountainous coastal region in northern Algeria known as Kabylia, that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the southern slopes of the Grand Kabylie Mountains.

In Kabylia the Berbers and their culture have survived relatively unscathed. They fiercely resisted all invaders and were never fully subdued. Many Kabyles fought against the French in the war for independence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Kabyle villages contain stone houses with red tile roofs. They were divided into clans and castes, with smiths and butchers kept on the fringes. Each village was administered by an assembly of adult males (Jama'a) and customary law dealt with all problems of property and crime.

They work mainly in farming, growing figs and olives and herding goats. Due to overpopulation poverty was widespread inducing many to migrate to France and to the large cities of Algeria. Recently there has been much government sponsored investment in the area in an effort to improve the situation. The Kabyle are also skilled craftsmen working with wood, silver, and wool.





The Mzabis number 150,000 living mainly in the Mzab oases in the Sahara, some 560 kilometers south of Algiers. They are Ibadis, who in the 11th century they were forced to flee from Tiaret and found shelter in the most inhospitable region they could find along the Oued-Mzab river valley. They founded their first settlement, el-Ateuf, in 1010 AD. They are unique in being the only city dwellers in the Sahara.

They founded a league of five walled cities administered by an assembly of 12 scholars centred on Ghardaia their administrative capital. Beni-Isjan is their holy town where strangers are not allowed to stay overnight. Melika is populated mainly by black Africans, and Bou-Nouara is built on a rock overlooking the river. Two other towns, Garara and Berian were added in the 17th centuries.

'Ibadism is a strict puritan and legalistic form of Islam. No non-'Ibadi is permitted to enter a Mzabi mosque. The M'zabis do not marry ouside their community. The men may travel all over Algeria working mainly as shop keepers and running small businesses, but the women must stay in the oasis.


The Mzab oasis is a large palm grove irrigated by over 4000 wells. It stretches for 8 kilometers along the riverbed that is usually dry, water being found underground and tapped by the wells. Fruit, grains and vegetables are grown beneath the date palms. A small industrial zone has been set up to provide additional jobs. The traditional handicrafts are pottery, brassware, jewelry and carpets.






The Tuaregs are a nomadic Berber people numbering some 1.5 million people and living mainly in the Sahel states of Niger, Mali, and Burkina-Fasso and in the Saharan districts of the Maghreb. They migrate over a huge area of the Sahara and the Sahel crisscrossing existing national borders. Their political organisations also extend across national boundaries and as a result they live in constant strife with the central authorities. The terrible droughts of the 70s and 80s have hit them hard killing most of their livestock and forcing many of them to look for jobs in farming, trade and industry.

The Tuaregs live in tribal confederations that include the tribes of the Ahaggar and Ajjer mountains in the north, and the Asben, Ifora, Itesen, Aulliminden and Kel-Tademaket in the southern steppes and savannahs. The southerners breed zebu cattle and camels, the northerners mainly goats. In the past they were great raiders of caravans and of other tribes, provided guides for trans-Saharan caravans, exacted tribute from them and engaged in the salt trade.

Their society was feudal and hierarchical, and included noble, religious, vassal, craftsmen and slave classes which are now being gradually eroded. When on the move they live in tents of red dyed skin. All adult males wear a distinctive blue veil over the lower part of the face which it is a shame for them to remove. They speak Tamarshak and have preserved an ancient script (Tifinagh) similar to that used by the ancient Libyans.







Berbers have lived in the Maghreb from remote times. The early Libyans were Berbers influenced by the ancient Egyptian civilisation which filtered through to them across the massive desert expanses.

All we know about the Berbers in ancient times comes from the writings of those who colonised them: Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. These foreigners had an impact on the Berber population of the coastal towns, but the inhabitants of the mountain and desert areas remained relatively untouched.

Berber society was made up of many small tribes, who would unite briefly to fight off intruders and would then return to their independent lifestyle. Fragmentation, fighting against each other and love of freedom have always characterised Berber culture.



2. CARTHAGE 814 BC - 140 BC


Phoenician traders started colonising the North African coast in the 10th century BC. They founded Carthage in 814 BC and it developed into a powerful empire which at its zenith controlled the whole African coastline from the Gulf of Sidra to the Atlantic and included parts of Spain as well as the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. It established many colonies to protect its trade routes.

Carthaginian culture was Semitic and it strongly influenced the Berbers' religion and language. It taught them better farming methods and encouraged a move from seminomadic to a stable way of life.

Whilst the Phoenicians settled in the western parts of the Maghreb, the Greeks colonised the coasts of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (Libya) which developed somewhat separately from the rest of the Maghreb, being more tied to Egypt and the Hellenistic civilisation that developed there after its conquest by Alexander the Great.





Carthage was destroyed by the Romans (146 BC), who called the Berbers Mauri and Numidae. The Romans gradually established their provinces in Africa by settling veteran soldiers and pacifying the interior.

During the wars between Rome and Carthage and later under Roman rule, some Berber states emerged but they were all incorporated in the great Roman provinces of North Africa: Numidia, Mauretania and Africa which became very prosperous.

The cities flourished under Roman rule and there was a rise in the population which is estimated at 6.5 million in the 3rd century AD of which 40% lived in the towns. Carthage, the largest, had a population of 250,000. Ruins of the great Roman towns and public works can still be seen all over the Maghreb.

Roman ruled lasted until the fifth century AD. The inhabitants of the coastal towns became Romanised, acquiring Roman citizenship and speaking Latin, but the tribes of the interior were barely touched and continued their old way of life in the mountains and deserts. The Romans were content to receive tribute and auxiliary troops from them, leaving the tribal chiefs in charge of local affairs.

Christianity spread quickly in North Africa and was firmly established by the 3rd century. Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine were all famous North African Church Fathers.

The independent Berber spirit expressed itself in the adoption of sectarian teachings, such as Montanism, Donatism, Pelagianism and Arianism. Especially in the 4th century when Rome's power was waning, there was much religious infighting with the dominant party persecuting the "heretics". This made it easier for Vandals, Byzantines and later for the Muslim Arabs to conquer the land.



4. VANDAL 429 - 533 AD and Byzantine 533 - 643 AD PERIODS


The Vandals were a Germanic tribe who crossed from Spain into North Africa in 429 AD under their king Gaiseric. This invasion brought much destruction and economic decline and it further split Christianity as the Vandals belonged to the Arian sect. During their reign, independent Berber kingdoms managed to arise in remote inland areas.

The Byzantine Empire destroyed the Vandal Kingdom in 533 AD. It was however weakened by its endless wars with Persia and could not control the vast Maghreb spaces. Byzantine forces held the coastal towns and played off Berber tribes against each other. Inland the Berbers were practically independent and busy fighting each other as usual. There were three main Berber groups: the Luwata tribes in the east, the Sanhaja in the west and center, and the Zanata in the south and the south-west.





Islamic armies started raids from Egypt into Cyrenaica and Tripolitania in 642 AD. The Byzantines responded by bribing them to leave.

In 670, 'Uqbah ibn Nafi', later regarded as the patron saint of all the Maghreb, invaded Tunisia with an Arab army and founded the garrison city of al-Qayrawan, which became the main centre of Islam in the Maghreb. From Ifriqiyeh (Tunisia) he gradually extended Arab rule over the whole Maghreb. In 683 'Uqbah undertook an expedition into southern Morocco but on his return he was defeated and killed by a Berber tribal chief named Kusayla.

For 15 years the Berbers under Kusayla and later under a woman leader, Kahinah, held out against the troops of the Umayyad Caliphate. Musa ibn-Nusayr finally used Berber tribes converted to Islam to help him subdue all of North Africa between 703 and 711. He encouraged Berbers to join his army with promises of rich rewards in plunder. Berbers formed the nucleus of the Muslim forces which under their general Tarik subjugated all the Maghreb and started the conquest of Spain in 711.





Only some 100,000 Arabs actually settled in the new province of Ifriqiyah. The Berbers soldiers however were not given their promised fair share of the spoils of war and were treated as inferiors by the Arabs. In protest, many converted to the Khariji sect and revolted against the Umayyad Arabs (740 - 742), managing to free most of North Africa for a while.

In 761 the 'Abassid Caliphs of Baghdad regained control over Ifriqqiyeh, but it took them another forty years of incessant fighting to reconquer all of the eastern Maghreb (Egypt to Algeria). In the remaining western areas small independent Khariji Berber states arose, including Tahart, Sidjilmassa, Tlemcen, Nakur and Barghawata. In the 9th century, Idris I who claimed descent from 'Ali ibn Abi-Talib set up a Shi'a Kingdom in Fez aided by some Berber tribes.

In 908 the Isma'ilis, with the help of the Berber Kutama tribes, succeeded in setting up a Fatimid kingdom in Qayrouan. From this springboard they later conquered Egypt and established the Fatimid Caliphate as a rival to the 'Abassid Empire of Baghdad. Many Berber tribes then became Shi'a, leaving the Kharijism they had accepted in the preceeding century.

The Fatimids however were more interested in the eastern Arab world and lost interest in the Maghreb. Without a strong central government, Berber tribes again fought each other, none of them being strong enough to establish its dominance. The wars between the Sanhajah tribes of the east, fighting for the Shi'a-Isma'ili Fatimids of Cairo and the western Zanatah tribes fighting for the Sunni Ummayyad Caliphs of Cordoba evolved into a Hundred Years War of the Maghreb.

The Isma'ili Zirid state in Ifriqiyeh finally disintegrated and a new dynasty, that of the Hammadids, arose in its place and accepted the authority of the Sunni 'Abassid Caliphs of Baghdad. The Fatimids, fearing an attack on their western flank, encouraged the Arab Beduin tribes of the Beni-Hillal to invade the whole of the Maghreb in 1051.

This invasion was a catastrophe, causing decades of warfare between various Berber tribes and the invading Beduins. The Beni-Hillal were later joined by the Beni-Sulaym tribes, and as they slowly moved westward, they destroyed the Berber farming economy, forcing many settled tribes to become Arabised nomads.

In the 11th century there was a Sunni revival amongst the nomadic Berber Lamtunah tribe who used to migrate between southern Morocco and the Niger river. They invaded south Morocco where they founded the town of Marrakesh as their capital in 1070. Under Yusuf ibn-Tashufin they conquered first the western and central Maghreb and then Muslim Spain (1062-1092). This al-Murabitun (Almoravid) dynasty built up its Empire with amazing speed but was soon exhausted by its war effort.

During the Almoravid reign, Spanish Muslim culture and art spread into the Maghreb, and many beautiful monuments were built in the cities of Morocco.

Ibn-Tumart, a puritan reformer converted the Masmuda tribe of the Atlas mountains to his teachings and then rebelled against the Almoravids and set up the al-Muwahhidun (Almohad) Kingdom in its place (1147). 'Abd al-Mu'min, their first Caliph, expelled all Christians from the coastal ports they still held and conquered all the Maghreb from the Gulf of Syrte (Libya) to the Atlantic.

The al-Muwahhidun built a great Berber Empire over the whole of North Africa and of Muslim Spain with its capital at Marrakesh. It lasted for a century and saw a flowering of Berber Islamic civilisation which was greatly influenced by the culture of Muslim Spain (al-Andalus). During their reign many great mosques, palaces and schools were erected in the towns of the Maghreb. Also during that period, Sufism (Islamic mysticism) penetrated North Africa from Spain and gradually gained a hold over the majority of the population, setting up many Sufi brotherhoods.

As the Almohad Empire disintegrated, three Berber dynasties arose in new centres of power (13th-15th centuries): the Marinid dynasty at Fez, the 'Abd al-Waddid dynasty at Tlemcen and that of the Hafsids at Tunis. This was the basis for the modern division of the Maghreb into Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. These dynasties constantly fought against each other whilst at the same time having to quell rebellions by tribes in their own domains.

During all these centuries the Arab Beduin tribes continued to steadily advance westwards, alternately fighting and intermingling with the Berbers. The Berber Sultans used them as mercenaries in their armies, and this facilitated their spread to the west.

The Beduins destroyed much of the fertile farming land worked by the Berber peasants and cut down the forests. They grazed their herds in cultivated fields, forcing Berbers to abandon their villages, fields, gardens and orchards. The economy of the Maghreb has never quite recovered from this terrible blow.

Many Berber tribes responded to the Beduin threat by retreating into their inaccessible strongholds in the mountains and deserts, retaining only a thin veneer of Islam over their semi-pagan culture. In the 15th and 16th centuries they were re-islamised by the Marabouts, fanatic Sufis from southern Morocco, who preached a return to a pure Islamic way of life and resisted all foreign influences.

In Morocco, the Arabised cities and plains under central government control were known as Bled el-Mekhzen, whilst the semi-autonomous Berber mountain areas were known as Bled el-Siba.





Muslim Spain was reconquered by the Christian kingdoms of the north in the 15th century. Many of the expelled Moors and Jews settled in the Maghreb, enriching the area with their culture and skills.

In the 16th century the expanding Ottoman Empire reached towards the Maghreb. Facing increased Spanish and Portuguese pressure the Ottomans aided local pirate chiefs in their attacks on European shipping and bases.

The Barbary pirates were very powerful in the 17th century and they turned Algiers into an important city. The Turkish Maghreb was divided into three protectorates, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, each developing in its own separate way. Whilst Algeria and Tunisia were firmly under Ottoman rule, Morocco was semi-independent under its 'Alawi dynasty and isolated from the outside world.

From 1830 onwards France started to establish its colonial rule in the Maghreb, first over Algeria (1847), then over Tunisia (1881) and finally over Morocco (1912). Spain took control over Western Morocco and Italy over Libya. Following the takeover, European immigration was encouraged, introducing the French language and culture (in Libya it was Italian). The colonial powers faced many rebellions, in which Berbers tribes played a leading part, but the modern European armies ultimately destroyed the political and military power of the tribes. Strong central rule was imposed on each country.

Following World War II all North African states gained their independence from the colonial powers: Libya in 1951, Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, Mauretania in 1960 and Algeria finally achieved its independence in 1962 after a violent struggle. Berbers took a leading part in the armed struggle against the colonial powers in all Maghreb lands.

After independence the new regimes in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia tried consolidate their power by stressing the unity of their Arabic heritage. A new elite from the Arabised large cities emerged to replace the French colonials who left, creating a new middle class of civil servants, army personnel and technicians. The Berber districts were relatively neglected, and this fueled an undercurrent of Berber dissatisfaction with Arab hegemony.

Improved hygiene had lowered the mortality rate so that the population increase in the Maghreb is amongst the highest in the world (over 3 %). Coupled with industrialisation, this has fostered a mass migration of peasants from the countryside to the cities were they form a proletariat living in shantytowns. Many also migrated to France and Spain and other Western European countries. These changes have resulted in a breakdown of the extended family and of traditional communities, causing an intensive mixing of the population in the cities of the Maghreb. The Berbers in Europe however have witnessed a renewed cultural revival expressed in Berber publications.

In the Maghreb, despite the growth of the towns the population is still mainly rural. Society is in a transition stage and thus displays many tensions. On the one hand there is a resurgence of fundamentalist Islam, whilst on the other there is an emphasis on modernisation and secularisation. There is a state encouraged Arabisation of the education system opposed by a resurgence of Berber identity. The uniqueness of the Berber culture is still a fact of life in the Maghreb, but it seems to have no political expression because of the historic tribalism and fragmentation of Berber society.





At independence in 1956, Morocco's Berbers were divided on how best to relate to the new state. The Riffians who had been fairly autonomous under the French and strongly represented in the armed forces, feared the results of integration in a unified state. The Middle Atlas Berbers were supporters of the nationalist Istiklal movement, but were soon disappointed to see the Arab elite of Fez and Rabat take hold of most power centres whilst the Berbers seemed to be marginalised and pushed into poverty.

Most Berbers supported the monarchy because they saw it as the system best suited to preserving their special identity. Opposed to them were Arabising forces pushing for a uniform modern state in which Berber cultural identity would be suppressed. The monarchy in turn relied on the conservative Berbers as a counterbalance to the unstable and radical political forces of the cities who tried to abolish or at least limit the King's authority.

There were uprisings in Tafilalet (1957),and in the Rif(1958). Later, in 1971 there was an army coup attempt. Although some Riff officers were involved in the coup attempts, the King continued to use the Berbers as a counterbalance to the power of the Istiqlal party. Hassan II (who has a Berber wife, Latifa) gave Berbers a leading role in the armed forces and in the state bureaucracy. In the 1980s there was a marked awakening of Berber language and culture, and the central government started to invest more resources in developing the Berber areas. The King has succeeded in maintaining a balance between the various sectors of Moroccon society, thus ensuring a period of political stability.

The monarchy and Islam are the two forces uniting the diverse groups of Morocco. Should the monarchy fall, it would be difficult to foresee who would emerge at the centre of power.





The Berbers played a major role in the rebellion against France. Following independence in 1962 they found themselves marginalised by the one party FLN bureaucracy who tried to impose unity on the new state by pushing for more Arabisation. The Kabylia and Aures regions were neglected, leading to impoverishment and massive emigration to the large cities and to Europe. As a result, there were sporadic Kabyle disturbances, the most serious in 1980 in Tizi Ouzou.

The government responded by giving in to some demands, and investing in the development of the Berber regions. The new policy aimed at avoiding anything that would alienate the Berbers and ensured that they were well represented at all levels of the government and state bureaucracy. The growth of fundamentalist Islam in response to the deteriorating economy, has however fuelled increased pressures at Arabisation, and the Kabyles and other Berber groups remain suspicious of the status of their language and culture in face of continued efforts at what is termed linguistic homogenisation - meaning the imposition of the hegemony of the Arabic language.

With Algeria now torn between secular socialism and fundamental Islam, the problem of the distinct Berber identity and how it is best expressed remains basically unresolved.





In remote times the Berbers were animists worshipping rocks, springs, rivers and mountains and venerating the sun, moon and stars. Their legends, beliefs, and ceremonies still reflect some of this ancient religion. Later they borrowed the Gods of their Phoenician and Roman colonisers.

Judaism gained proselytes in North Africa from early times, preparing the way for Christianity which flourished in the first centuries AD in spite of initial persecutions. One way the Berbers could express their resentment against Roman domination was by enthusiastically embracing the doctrines of any group opposed to the official Church of Rome - Montanism, Donatism, Arianism, etc.- resulting in many religious quarrels and persecutions.

Following the Muslim conquest many Berbers converted to the orthodox Sunni Islam of their Umayyad Arab invaders. Their independent spirit however soon expressed itself in their conversion to rebellious Khariji doctrines. Later they turned to the Shi'a branch of Islam, including Fatimid Isma'ilism.

The Almoravid and Almohad Empires succeeded in re-establishing Sunnism throughout the Maghreb whilst destroying all the "heretics": Christian, Shi'a and Khariji. That was when the last indigenous Christians finally disappeared from North Africa in the 12th century. The Jews, though restricted, were tolerated, and were later strengthened by the many Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The Jewish community survived into the twentieth century when most of them emigrated to the newly established state of Israel.

A few Khariji (Ibadi) communities survived by fleeing to the remote mountains and desert areas.

In the 15th and 16th centuries small Marabout (Sufi) states arose in Morocco. They were instrumental in re-Islamising many of the Berber tribes after the Beduin invasions. Many Sufi brotherhoods were founded, and their chiefs and saints were regarded as intercessors between man and God who possessed supernatural powers and could protect their followers from evil forces. The tombs of the dead saints became places of pilgrimage where their power (Baraka, Blessing) was available to the believers.

Though fanatically loyal to Islam, the Berbers retain many pre-Islamic, pagan practices, especially in their agricultural rites. Much of this can be classed as Folk-Islam, and it includes ceremonies for obtaining rain, harvest rites, bonfires, the concept of Baraka and the cult of saints.

For Berbers the existence of hostile spirits and the need for protection is an accepted fact of life. They turn to amulets, talismans, Fatima's hand, pilgrimages to the tombs of holy men and similar practices believed to be effective in protecting them.

Berbers also offer animal sacrifices much more than other Muslim communities. There are the customary sacrifices for 'Id al-Adha, but animals are also sacrificed on the seventh day after a child is born ('Usbu', the day it is named). It is believed that by merit of the sacrifice the child passes from a state of impurity (haram) to a state of purity (hallal). Sacrifices are also offered on the pilgrimages to a saint's tomb, before ploughing the fields, and for curing illnesses or overcome sterility. For Berbers sacrifices renew the alliance between the living and the dead, and the shed blood binds their ancestors to protect to the family against all evil forces.

In their farming rites Berbers stress the cult of the dead. The fertility of their fields depends on the favour of the spirits of the Earth. Ploughing and sowing are seen as symbols of marriage and are seasons of rejoicing, whilst the harvest at the end of the farming year symbolises death and burial, and is accompanied by mourning and by funeral rites.

Berber festivals follow the lunar calendar for the Muslim feasts and the solar calendar of the seasons for the agricultural feasts.






Berber society is tribal and is based on Islam and the clan. Islam strengthened the ancient patriarchal system by emphsising that submission to your parents is synonymous with obedience to God and it also sublimated many old customs and incorporated them into its religious ritual. It is an all-encompassing system and prescribes the code of conduct that governs all private and public life, whether religious or secular.

The code of good manners is called "Hashumah" and it combines the concepts of honour, respect, modesty and shame. Every one knows his place in society and what is "proper" for them to say or do.

The Berbers are still mainly settled farmers, with significant minorities of nomads and city dwellers. The old common law ('Ada, Kanoun) is transmitted orally from generation to generation and is still widely used.

The tribe is based on blood ties to a common ancestor who is seen as a supernatural protector and mediator and whose tomb serves as a pilgrimage centre. All members of a tribe call themselves "Bani 'Amm" (cousins). The smallest unit in the tribe is the "hearth" (household - the extended family living under the authority of the eldest male). A number of hearths form a clan (Firqah), which is fairly autonomous in running its own affairs. The tribe is composed of several clans.

Blood relationship is the basis of all social life. It involves people in its widening circles of family, extended family, clan and tribe, each circle having definite obligations. This attitude is best summed up by the Middle Eastern proverb: "Myself against my brothers, my brothers and myself against my cousins, my cousins and my brothers and myself against the world". Each person is expected to have a deep loyalty to his community and its moral code.

Marriages to cousins on the father's side are preferred. The married son continues to live with his father, the daughter when married moves in with her husband's family. If divorced or widowed the woman returns to her father's home. Three to four generations may live together in an extended family that can number as many as fifty people.

Berber women enjoy more freedom than that common among Arab women. They are not veiled, they can chose to divorce and they retain their dowry.

Communal duties include building and owning granaries. The community is also obliged to protect each individual's guests.

Settled farmers build one storey stone houses in their villages. The semi-nomads construct their houses and granaries of pounded earth and live in tents made of goats hair when at pasture. Home industries such as pottery, basket making and weaving are performed by the women.

In Berber villages the meeting of all adult males (Jama'ah) in the village square is the ultimate political power centre. The Jama'a elects a village head for a limited term, though in practice some wealthy heads of family wield much of the power. The nomads elect a permanent chief and council, the semi-nomadic tribes a seasonal chief who oversees the migrations.

The Sharifs, who claim descent from Muhammad, still form the highest caste in the villages. The Marabouts, heads of the Sufi brotherhoods, are also much respected and some are venerated as saints.

In conservative families, female influence is thought to be detrimental to a boy, and he is removed from his mother's sphere at the age of six or seven, when he is placed under the supervision of a male relative who takes over his education. He is taught to obey and respect his parents and the many customs and traditions that are still absolutely binding.

Berber architecture and crafts show the combined influence of the Middle East and of Muslim Spain. For decoration Berbers use a simple composition with alternating decorated and coloured stripes.

Festivals (Moussems) are an important feature of Berber life usually held towards the end of summer. They are an occasion for a great gathering of the tribes and clans, usually held at the tomb of a well known saint. Trade, fairs, sacrifices, ceremonies and marriage arrangements are all part of the fun.

Despite the emergence of new classes in the cities and the effects of modernisation the old values continue to have a strong hold on society. Solidarity among male relatives is a must, even when they no longer live near each other. It is an obligation to help all relatives in need. Girls are married off as soon as possible as celibacy is considered a shame. Large families are still favoured and marriages are commonly arranged by parents who prefer relatives to strangers.

In both government and economy, a parallel chain of command comprising informal family and tribal ties is often the real power broker.





The Berber dialects belong to the Hamitic subfamily of the Hamito-Semitic language group. They include: in Morocco, Shilha (Tashilhait) spoken by the Shluh, Tamazight by the Berrabers and Tarifit (Zenatiyeh) spoken by the Rif. In Algeria, Kabyle (Tamazirt, Zwawah) spoken by the Kabyles, Shawia spoken by the Shawias and Tamashek spoken by the Tuaregs in central Sahara and north of the Niger river. The sound systems of the various dialects are quite different from one another, but vocabulary and grammar are quite similar.

The Arabic script is used for writing all dialects, except for the Tuareg dialect which still uses an ancient Libyan writing system (Tifinagh). Berber dialects borrowed many words from Arabic and contain some words borrowed from Phoenician and Latin.

They are spoken languages transmitted orally from generation to generation, as Berber writers wrote in the languages of their conquerors: Punic, Latin, Arabic and French. There are some inscriptions in ancient Libyan, no Berber documents from the early Islamic period, and only a few from the 12th century onward, mainly religious works in Arabic script intended for teaching Islam and for religious edification. Most writing in the Maghreb was done in Arabic. In the 19th century Europeans started collecting texts orally from Berbers and writing them down. Later, translations of the Old and New Testaments were made by Catholic and Protestant missionaries.

Secular works are rare. There are Arabic-Berber dictionaries and books on popular medicine. There are a few compilations of customary Berber law and some adaptations in Berber of Arabic stories.

Since the eighties, new Berber publications are appearing especially in France, designed to preserve and strengthen the specific Berber heritage.

Similar to Semitic languages, Berber words are made up of roots inflected according to a schema, the root containing two or three consonants. There are two genders, masculine and feminine, and two numbers, single and plural.

The vocabulary is quite large and includes many Arabic loan words for religious and intellectual terms.

Berber folklore is rich and has been transmitted mainly orally. There are many proverbs, fables, humorous tales, animal stories, religious and historical legends. Berbers are also fond of riddles and of songs and poems about love and war that are recited at festivals and gatherings.





In Roman times the Maghreb was a main centre of Christianity with over 500 Bishoprics and great Church leaders. It is the only region in addition to the Arabian Peninsula in which Islam succeeded in completely wiping out established Christianity - this was done gradually over a long period of time and was completed by the Berber Empires of the 12th century.

In 1307 Raymond Lull, a Franciscan monk, brought the Christian message back to the Maghreb. He worked first in Tunisia for 23 years and later in Algeria. A few Muslims were converted by his efforts, but he was stoned to death at Bougie in 1314.

French Catholic missionaries had a limited work from 1646 onwards. In the 19th century Archbishop Lavigerie started a society of White Fathers and White Sisters (1867). They adapted to Arab and Berber dress and culture and opened schools and orphanages.

Protestant work in the Maghreb started in the 1830s by the Basle mission, the French Reformed, and the Lutherans, but it was centred on the expatriates.

Christian Brethren started work in 1880 and the North Africa Mission in 1881. They did medical work amongst the Berbers and translated the Bible into Kabyle. Lilias Trotter and her co-workers were active around the turn of the century in Algiers and also did some visitation in Berber villages.

Charles and Pearl Marsh were Brethren missionaries active for several decades amongst the Kabyles (up to 1962). They established a clinic and visited remote Kabyle villages on a regular basis. Knowing the local language they won the respect and confidence of the people. Many heard the Gospel through their efforts and some were converted. The struggle for independence impeded their work from 1954 onwards and they left for the Chad in 1962.

Early believers faced severe persecution and many were ostracised, some poisoned and others killed.

Following independence, open evangelistic work was restricted and eventually became almost impossible in all Maghreb countries. Opposition to the Gospel is very strong amongst the fanatical Muslim leadership and influences government agencies and legistlation. It is illegal to proselytise Muslims and police harassment and constant supervision make life difficult for Christian workers. Missionary visas are difficult to obtain, and workers are deported on any pretext. Tentmaking and tourism are the best ways of getting into the Maghreb states and offer many opportunities for friendship evangelism.

Bible correspondence courses are run by various agencies from outside the area. Radio broadcasts in Kabyle are being beamed from Monte Carlo. Some missions continue with medical and social work. Cassettes and videos in various Berber dialects are being increasingly produced and distributed to good effect.

Many Berbers hear the Gospel in France and other European countries, where small groups of Berber believers are now established. They will play an increasingly important role in the evangelisation of the Maghreb.

For the discerning worker there are open doors. There is a growing turning to Christ amongst Berbers with individual believers scattered here and there in the vast region and small fellowships developing. This is evident especially amongst the Kabyles of Algeria. Certainly this is the time to intensify the preparation of the soil and the extent of the seed sowing whilst reaping a small harvest that in God's time will swell into a great tide of souls.

For the foreign worker called to the Maghreb, adaptation to local culture and language, the ability to make friends and respect for the people of the land are key factors. Prayer for the shaking of the principalities binding the population of the Maghreb must be coupled with a growing number of personal encounters with true believers and the liberating power of Christ. Hidden key concepts, inherent in Berber customs and Sufi lore must be more powerfully used to show forth the excellency of Jesus, the Messiah, as the only effective sacrifice, saviour, mediator, healer, protector from evil powers, bestower of real grace, etc. The targeting of specific communities may reveal powerful keys inherent in their particular tradition.