History of the Berbers

The Sahara, with 3.5 million square miles, is the largest "hot" desert in the world. The Berbers appeared on the scene at the dawn of the Sahara's history. They are the original inhabitants of North Africa and occupied the region long before the arrival of the Arabs who brought with them their language, Arabic, and their religion, Islam,

The Berbers, or Amazigh, (amazee), which they prefer to be called, have lived all across North Africa for thousands of years and are considered to be the original indigenous inhabitants of the region. Historical records trace them back to the time of the ancient Egyptian empires and even earlier to the fifth century B.C. Berbers, once a fierce fighting force, have survived various Christian, Muslim and French conquests of the region and continue to maintain large communities throughout Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Today, although found all across the Sahara, they are especially concentrated in Sahara's western countries.

Until their conquest in the seventh century by Muslim Arabs, most of the Berbers were Christian. Under the Arabs, the Berbers became Islamized and soon formed the backbone of the Arab armies that conquered Spain. After many years of war among Berber tribes and the disintegration of Berber dynasties, the Berbers of the desert plains were gradually absorbed by the Arabs, while those who lived in inaccessible mountain regions, such as the Atlas, Rif, Aurès, and the Kabylia retained their culture and warlike traditions.

When Morocco became a protectorate of France and Spain in 1912, it was among the mountain Berber tribes that resistance to colonization was the strongest. Berber resistance to the French began in 1913 and lasted until 1933. Fighting spread from the Rif Mountains as far south as the Anti-Atlas. Berber tribes fought furiously against the invasion of their land by a foreign European power that had no link or commonality on any cultural or religious level. Even though the Berbers fought against France's superior forces and more sophisticated equipment they were motivated to defend their sacred land and the preservation of their autonomy. The widespread attitude amongst the Berbers was that resistance to French colonization was better than living under French control. The Berbers were defending life as they knew it. They were fighting in defense of the land of their forefathers and in defense of their identity as a Berber culture. This independence was founded on their semi-nomadic lifestyle and self rule that most Berbers had maintained since at least the 8th century. In 1933 the defeat of the Ait Atta, Ait Murghad and Ait Hadiddu Berber tribes ended any significant Berber resistance and forced them into French and Spanish colonization.

In the days of large camel trains consisting of hundreds of camels, Berber nomads took their caravans of camels across the Sahara, trading in goods such as dates, cloth, desert salt, gold and slaves. However, these days there are very few camel trains left; mostly they carry salt from the desert salt mines, but convoys of trucks are replacing them.

Until recent years the Moroccan and Libyan governments banned Berbers from giving their children Berber names. Many North African countries banned the use of the Berber language and required Berbers to speak Arabic, the official language. In Libya the contribution by Berbers to Libyan culture was written out of history books.

Recently, as a result of Berber protests and uprisings, countries such as Morocco and Algeria have recognized the Berber language and it is now taught in a few schools. An increasing number of Berbers speak one of their ancient dialects as a first language. Many speak three languages, Berber, Arabic and French.

Berbers of the mountains
Large populations of Berbers live in the mountains to where they retreated to avoid advancing Arab conquerors. They generally dwell in small villages. Some villages are located in valleys, but many literally cling to the sides of steep mountainsides. Houses are terraced one above the other, crowded wall to wall and are usually constructed of adobe or rough cement. Small in size, villages are composed of family dwellings, a mosque, a grain-threshing floor, and a place for the assembly of the elders who govern the affairs of each community.

Winters are brutal with snowstorms and snow and rock avalanches being the norm. Travel is on foot or by sure-footed donkeys. The trails are often so steep, narrow and precarious that many people and their animals are killed in falls. The mountain slopes in the vicinity of the villages are divided for pasturage and cultivation. In some fields non-irrigated farming is practiced for growing cereals. Land that is irrigated by diverting water from streams yields two crops a year—cereals in winter and vegetables in summer. Donkeys, cattle and goats are penned together on the ground floor of dwellings or in a central pen at night and graze on stubble and on fallow lands around the villages during the day. Sheep and goat herders follow a pattern of seasonal migration, grazing their sheep on low-lying land in winter and on the highlands in summer. Sheep and goats are more suitable to the mountain environment. The cattle appear thin and lack good health. It is not a friendly environment for cattle raising.

Berbers of the Sahara
The lowland desert Berbers are generally nomadic. Small groups consisting of medium or large extended families are found all across the Sahara. Desert Berbers live a very different lifestyle compared to their mountain brethren. Being nomadic, they move constantly across national borders. International boundary laws mean little to them as they follow the natural seasonal cycle of forage grazing, water and shelter. These people are born to move under the open sky and across unlimited horizons with their flocks of sheep, goats, and camels. Their wandering nomadic lifestyle is central to their way of life. Families subsist on goat milk, bread, dates, barley, couscous, mint tea, and butchered sheep, goats and sometimes camels. Their timetable is according to the sun, moon and the rare occurrence of rain.

Today's Sahara Berber nomads live in the most inhospitable regions of Africa and often endure hardships including lack of water. With the increasing problem of global warming, their habitat is becoming more harsh and extreme. As water sources dry up and water tables drop, finding sufficient water for their herds is an increasing problem.

Over the past 40 years, persistent drought has forced many Berbers to give up their wandering way of life. To survive, some have settled in villages where they cultivate land to ensure a steady food supply that is less vulnerable to a dry climate. These people have had to make many adjustments to their lifestyle including their homes. Their houses used to be tents, but are now built with mud bricks. Their diet has changed from one of meat, milk and cheese to one with more grains and vegetables. One advantage of the new lifestyle is that many children, including girls, are sent to school. This in turn opens new avenues of opportunity for educated Berbers.

The mobility of those who choose to continue a traditional nomadic lifestyle has been greatly reduced by the development of National Parks where nomad families and their herds are often forbidden to live or graze their animals. The creation of national borders and governments that forbid border crossings and access to traditional grazing lands threatens the welfare of the animals that these people depend upon. The animals die due to lack of water and pasture which in turn destroys the nomadic way of life. In light of new restrictions, nomads have little choice but to overexploit what land is left available to them in order for the families and their herds to survive.

The deterioration of the environment is often attributed to the nomadic populations. Some cast blame on the Berber shepherds for increased desertification due to over grazing by their herds. However the ancient, traditional management of Berber lands is based on very strict codes of usage and knowledge of the earth, including fauna and flora, which preserves the environment. Families raised their herds, moving with them, in patterns that normally avoid depleting pastures beyond their ability to recover. Land has been the tool that enabled tribal survival, as it provided grazing lands for their livestock, and produced the crops that the Berbers cultivated. Many Berbers are semi or fully nomadic. These tribes follow the same migratory patterns every year, and have been doing so for centuries. Land is also important because it is attached to traditions and culture. For these reasons, to the Berbers, the loss of land equals the loss of autonomy, identity, and traditions. It is only when tribes are allowed to resume uninhibited travel to traditional water and food sources regardless of national borders or Parks can the ancient way of life continue for the nomadic Berbers.

An additional ongoing problem is that Berbers who live on the fringe of populated areas often have little say in new laws and conditions that governments impose on them. Berbers are gradually gaining a stronger political voice in the administration of their future, but there is still a long way to go. Governments encourage nomads to send their children to school. When parents agree to this new important opportunity the downside is that it limits the amount of family help available for chores and herding