Berber identification can be regional, cultural, linguistic or political, although in contemporary sociopolitics, it is more often linguistic. Self-identification tends to be more regional than the general term “Berber,” for example Shawi from the Aures Mountains or Setif province, Tuareg from Niger or Tuareg from Algeria, or Riffian from the Riff mountains in Morocco.
There are blond haired Berbers with blue or green eyes, black Berbers and everything in between Berbers. Berbers who look like other Mediterranean or West African peoples. Berbers were the first peoples to be called Africans (Ifriqiya).
There is a significant concentration of dolmens—megalithic burial monuments for the prominent dead—in northeast Algeria and the north of Tunisia; some date back to late Neolithic times This area is where Libyco-Berber writing originated, and it eventually became the nucleus of the Berber kingdom of Numidia. The Ancient Egyptians made several references to early battles with Libyan tribes (Berbers).
Further south in the Sahara, for thousands of years abundant rainfall replenished lakes and rivers. Human settlements with domesticated livestock clustered around water sources and lush green valleys. A dramatic climate change occurred during the fourth and early third millennium BC: global shifts in rainfall patterns initiated a gradual drying of the Sahara. Desertification was complete by 3000–2500 BC.
North Africa continued to be a part of Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange. In 1100 BC, seafaring people from Phoenicia (on the coast of modern-day Lebanon) began colonizing Berber settlements along coastal trade routes. The Phoenicians founded Carthage in the ninth century BC in what is now Tunisia. Berbers wrested control of Carthage from the Phoenicians in the sixth century BC. They established trading posts in Sicily, Spain, and on the southern coast of what is present-day France.
In 264 BC, Carthaginians intervened in a local dispute between Messena and Syracuse in Sicily. Rome, intent on empire expansion, objected to their presence in Sicily. The first Punic war was fought to establish strategic control of Corsica and Sicily, and then escalated into a clash of empires, which finally ended with the Third Punic War. Carthage was surrendered to Rome in 146 BC.
The same year, Romans established the province of Africa Proconsularis in Tunisia, northeastern Algeria, and the western coast of Libya. By middle of the first century AD, Roman hegemony of North Africa was firmly rooted. North Africa would become the breadbasket for Rome.
The kingdom of Numidia (west of Carthage, in present-day Algeria) and the kingdom of Mauritania in present-day Algeria and Morocco become Roman client states. The Romans called Numidians “Berbers” from barbara (or barbarians), a broad term for non-Latin-speaking peoples. The people of Mauritania were called “Maures,” from which the term Moors is derived.
Septimius Severus, the Roman Empire's first African and non-Roman emperor, was Berber.
Romanized Berbers from the era include the author Apuleius from Madaurus (now M’Daourouch, Algeria), who described himself as “half-Numidian and half-Gaetulian” (both Berber regions). Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (Tertullian),often called “the father of Latin theology”, was a Carthaginian Berber. Roman emperor Septimius Severus’s Libyco-Punic heritage was actually Berber. The idea that his African heritage was largely Phoenician, hence not actually African, is absurd-- he was born more than seven hundred years after Berbers gained control of Carthage from the Phoenicians. Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria), was born in the city of Thagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria).
Saint Augustine was Berber. His mother was named Monica, a Berber name which later also became a Catholic name.
The Byzantine-Sassanid wars, a continuation of Roman-Persian wars during the sixth and seventh centuries, left both sides vulnerable to the emergence of a new power in the region: the Arabs, newly united by Islam and wealthy from monopolizing the spice trade.
The Umayyad caliphate, based in Damascus, launched the first Islamic incursion into northern Africa in 647. In 711, Arab and North African Muslims (Moors) led by Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Berber Muslim general, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. The rock on which they landed was named after the Berber general; Rock of Gibraltar is derived from Jabal al Tariq (“Rock of Tariq”). Visigothic Christian Hispania was weak from internal problems. By 714 most of the Iberian Peninsula was conquered. Muslim rule of al-Andalus would last for almost 800 years.
The Arabs, already adept at navigating the deserts and mountainous terrains of the Arabian subcontinent, penetrated past North Africa’s coastal and northern mountain regions, deep into isolated mountain areas and the Sahara, something which previous conquerors had been unable to do. They succeeded in converting local Berbers leaders to Islam.
Although there is no doubt that the whole of North Africa once spoke Berber languages, there were no widely disseminated written texts in Berber, nor a universal set of Berber beliefs. Berber conversion to Christianity during Roman rule was relatively minor and limited in geographic scope compared to the wholesale conversion to Islam that occurred from the middle of the seventh century on. Judaism was scattered throughout North Africa, but always existed as a minority religion.
Berber-led Muslim dynasties emerged in the late medieval period. In the eleventh century, Berbers from the Sahara establish the Almoravid dynasty (1062–1150) and assumed control of al-Andalus. Their seat of power was in Marrakesh, from which they also ruled parts of Morocco, Algeria, and the Sahara, and controlled important ports as well as trans-Saharan trade. The Almohads (1150–1269), another Berber-led dynasty, usurped power from Almoravids to rule al-Andalus and the entire Maghrib.
Thousands of years ago, when the once-green and fertile Sahara was transformed into a formidable desert barrier between Mediterranean North Africa and sub-Saharan regions to the south, pastoral inhabitants moved north and south to avoid drought. Some stayed, surviving on water from oases. The Tuareg are a confederation of desert nomads and pastoralists.
The largest populations currently live in Algeria, Niger, and Mali. The Tuareg speak the Berber language Tamasheq or Tamachek; their alphabet, Tifinar, is related to Libyco-Berber; and their oral histories suggest that their Berber origins are in what became modern-day eastern Algeria and western Libya.
Berbers established trans-Saharan trade routes as early as 400 BC, the introduction of the camel, a few hundred years later, led to greater commercial expansion.
By the first millennium AD, the Ghana Empire controlled and organized the trade of gold and salt between West Africa and North Africa. North Africans referred to the Ghana Empire as “the land of gold”.
Islam was introduced into West Africa beginning in the eighth century. In the eleventh century, the Tuareg founded Timbuktu, in present day Mali, as a seasonal settlement and trading post. The city flourished between the early fourteenth to late sixteenth centuries as part of the West African Muslim empires of the Mali and Songhay (some Songhay are considered nominally Berber); it became a culturally complex center of scholarship. The universities and libraries of Timbuktu contain scholarly works on subjects such as law, medicine, and astronomy. Currently, the governments of Mali and South Africa are working together to preserve more than 200,000 manuscripts written in Arabic and African languages.
The fall of Granada in 1492 marked the end of Islamic rule in al-Andalus. The Moors of the Iberian Peninsula are expelled back to the Maghrib.
At about the same time period, a new power began to emerge in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1453, Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople from the Greek Byzantines. Sultan Selim I deposed the last Abbasid Caliph and was formally given the title of Islamic Caliph. The Ottomans continued Islamic rule of North Africa. Algiers was the primary regency for Ottoman presence in North Africa, which also included Tripoli and Tunis.
During the 1790s, grain was shipped from Algiers to Napoleon’s troops in southern France. Later, officials of Charles X, king of France from 1824 to 1830, had no intention of paying a pre-Revolutionary debt of seven to eight million francs.
On April 29, 1827, during a heated negotiation, Husayn Dey of Algiers struck the French consul six times on the arm with a fly swatter, an incident the French used as the impetus for invading Algeria.
It would take over eighty years for France to gain control of the country. The entire French colonial period was marked by ever changing strategies, ideologies, and moral justifications based on changing political leadership.
Prior to the first French invasion on May 16, 1830, Algiers had a highly heterogeneous population, including native Algerian Muslims and Jews, Andalusians, an Ottoman elite, Kouloughis (offspring of Turkish soldiers and North African women), merchants from various Mediterranean and European countries, laborers from poorer North African regions, and sub-Saharan Africans.
When the French first arrived they assumed everyone who wasn’t black, Turkish, or Jewish was Arab. Following invasion, peasants and unskilled laborers from France, Spain, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, the Balearics, and Greece moved to Algeria in droves.
Complex social realities aside, the French eventually took a dualistic approach to their divide-and-conquer strategies. The process of parsing les indigènes began by dividing Jews and Muslims. The cultural divide was not clear: Berber Jews and other Algerian Jews were barely distinguishable, if at all, in physical appearance, habits, style of dress, and manner of living from their Muslim neighbors; but the religious difference was obvious. The process of Europeanizing native Jews included attempts at conversion to Christianity, importing rabbis from France to replace native ones, granting French citizenship—which included the rights to a French education—and cultural assimilation into European Jewish colonial culture.
Prior to French rule, Algeria had complex and dynamic regional social structures. Concepts of landownership were based on a pyramid of rights under which even subsistence farmers benefited from their share of agricultural land. During times of drought, regional leaders distributed food from grain reserves to mitigate hunger and curb famine. Political colonization was synonymous with agricultural colonization. By 1919, colonials had taken 18.5 million acres of Muslim land. Native populations did not just lose land; they lost the social and political structures they relied on for survival and identity.
North Africa has always been a transcultural space. North African notions of race tend to be fluid, due to extensive intermarriage between various groups. Arab and Berber did not exist as ethnic categories in North Africa or as immutable language categories. At first, the French used a geographic scheme in northeastern Algeria to parse Arabs and Berbers: Berbers were mountain dwellers and Arabs were tent dwellers. Sedentary Berbers were thought to be more civilized than nomadic Arabs. Berbers were caricatured as bucolic peasants; Arabs were caricatured as purposeless heathens.
If the French had been in a different region of Algeria, they would have made an opposite observation. Indeed, French opinion about Arab-Berber differences were mixed. Some critics acknowledged that the differences were imagined; both groups were too mixed and had similar social structures. Some argued further that the divide-and-conquer strategy should be abandoned, because it was doomed for failure. It wasn’t until 1912 that the French had a more coherent Berber policy.
Colonial ideology looked to ancient Romanized Berbers for signs of latent secularism and a shared Gallic ancestry. French schools were opened in hopes of inculcating Kabyles with French ideals and culture. French Berberophiles compared Algerian Berbers with quaint French peasants. For the French, “simple” Berbers assimilating into a “superior” French society seemed inevitable. It was a strategic and ideological failure. French-educated Kabyles formed Algerian independence organizations after moving to France, and the Kabylia was a major nexus for continued uprisings.
Eventually, French President Charles DeGaulle accepted that France, for all its military power, could not win the war politically. The Évian Accords were a negotiated treaty signed on March 18, 1962; the formal cease-fire happened the following day. The matter of independence was put to a popular vote and the results were nearly unanimous in favor of independence. Algeria became a sovereign state on July 3, 1962.
The nationalist movement’s primary focus had been on creating allegiance to a nation-state, to shift away from traditional modes of regional alliance, which may or may not have to do anything to do with ethnicity in the first place.
Ben Bella’s government included four Kabylies and one Mozabite out of nineteen ministers. Mohamedi Said, a Kabylie, was fervently pro-Arabization and given the job of promoting Arabic in education and administration.
Nationalist Algerians, whether they are Arab or Berber (or more likely both Arab-Berber) tend to view expressions of Berber particularism, a difference born of colonialism, as a form of neo-colonialism. Berberists tend to view imposition of a national identity that excludes recognition of their language and heritage as a form neo-colonialism.
The Berber movement in Algeria and North Africa has its origins in the Kabylia. Some Kabyles argued that the liberation movement should be for all Muslims, whether they were Arab, Berber, or Turkish; they proposed an “Algeria for Algerians” since the country was a composite of many groups, not just Arabs.
Many nationalists feared “Algeria for Algerians” would be divisive, especially at such a tenuous time, and opted to utilize an Arab nationalism.
The Moroccan constitution of 1962 and the Algerian constitution of 1963 both named Arabic as the official language. The simple practical reason was that Arabic has a rich body of written materials, which Berber does not.
In 1966, Algerian Berbers in Paris founded the Académie Berbère; the following year Moroccan Berbers founded L’Association marocaine de recherche et d’échange culturel. Both organizations have similar goals of promoting Berber language and culture.
For the most part, Berberists use conventional political tools of organization such as cultural associations and educational outreach. Mainstream Berberism is neither a political separatist movement nor a denial of Islamic culture and values or the Arab influences that come with the package.
In 1980, local authorities cancelled a lecture on Berber poetry in Kabylia, Questions of Berbers’ language rights that had been festering came to head in a series of demonstrations and riots. These events became known as the “Berber Spring” in Algeria and marked the beginning of a Berber cultural movement that still resonates throughout Berber communities in North Africa and France. The anniversary is marked in Berber communities throughout North Africa and the diaspora.
In 1990, a department for the study of Berber culture and language was established at the University of Tizi Ouzou and the following year another was opened at the University of Bejai; both schools are in the Kabylia. Liamine Zéroual, president of Algeria from 1994 to 1999 and a Berber from Batna, created the Haut Commissariat à l’Amazighité to help initiate policy and procedure for teaching Berber in schools and for its use in public spheres.
In 1995,the Congrès Mondial Amazigh was established as an international Berber association based in Paris; in 1998 CMA adopted the Berber flag created by Académie Berbère as the flag of the Berber people. In 2002, Tamazight was finally recognized as a national language in Algeria by constitutional amendment. Berber began being in taught in schools the same year. Morocco, which has had similar issues with Berber language rights, also began formally teaching Berber in 2003.
Algerian Berberists coined the neologism Tamazgha as an alternative to Maghrib or North Africa to represent a virtual Berber nation. Kabyles had begun using the terms Tamazight and Imazighen during the 1940s to refer to Berber dialects and Berbers in general.
Previously, these self-identification terms were used primarily by the namesake Tamazight Berbers in Morocco and only had limited usage with other Berber groups. Currently, Tamazight is used to refer to Berber dialects as a whole. Imazighen (singular, Amazigh), the broad term for Berber, means “free” or “noble” or a binomial “free/noble.”
Tamazight is an Afro-Asiatic language with its own branch; Ancient Egyptian, Arabic, and Hebrew belong to different branches of the same family. Berber is also written using Arabic and Latin alphabets.
International Tamazight language conferences include topics such as adapting Berber writing systems for contemporary use and how to formalize Berber language studies. Currently, Berber-speaking regions exist north-south from the Mediterranean coastal regions to the Niger River and Burkina Faso and west-east from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the southern coast of Morocco. There are an estimated sixteen to twenty-five million Berber speakers total.
The largest concentrations of Berber speakers live in Algeria and Morocco. Estimates vary, but they make up approximately 20 to 30 percent of the population in Algeria and 40 percent of the population in Morocco. There are no official census reports on Berbers in North Africa. The actual number of Berbers is most likely much higher than any estimate. Many Berbers have accepted Arabization and simply refer to themselves as "Arabs". DNA samples also suggest that Arabization was a cultural process rather than a demographic replacement.
Tunisia and Libya are predominantly Arab or Arabized, with small concentrated Berber populations on the island of Djerba in Tunisia and Jebel Nefousa in Libya.
Tuaregs live primarily in Niger, Algeria, and Mali, with small numbers in Burkina Faso. Tuaregs of Mali and Niger sometimes seek Algerian diplomatic assistance in African regional matters. The largest population of Berbers outside of Africa lives in France; most are of Algerian or Moroccan heritage, and many are French born. Algerians from Setif and the Kabylia are often second-generation French citizens.