Module Sixteen, Activity Two

The People of North Africa

Historic Migrations
You have already learned about the difficulties geographers have in creating regions. For thousands of years migrations of people into and within the region have drastically affected North Africa. The earliest humans moved into the area from eastern Africa more than 30,000 years ago. During the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago, the climate of Northern Africa was much like today: desert, arid plains, lush mountains and fertile valleys, and Mediterranean coastal lands. These regions are constantly in flux, and by 9000 BCE (Before Common Era), precipitation was increasing—desert became arid steppes suitable for animals and the Mediterranean climate expanded southward so that it encompassed much of what today is considered North Africa. Between 9000 and 6700 BCE, the Afrasans of northeastern Africa (and other African peoples) developed cultivation practices and eventually these spread to related peoples all the way to the Atlantic. Additionally these people began to domesticate animals, cattle in wetter areas of the east (southern Egypt) and sheep and goats from the Middle East throughout the rest of North Africa. This created diverse societies of humans who subsisted by both raising some grain crops (like wheat and barley, imports from the Middle East as most African crops, like kola nuts, yams, etc., were unsuitable to the region) and raising animals, many of whom would likely have lived semi-nomadic lifestyles (some members taking the animals to summer pastures while other tend to their permanent homes with crops and earlier hunter-gathering techniques). The hospitable climate of what would later become the Sahara allowed these people to mix with other more southerly groups and various agricultural and social traditions spread slowly throughout the region.

Egypt was geographically a crossroads for these movements of people and practices, from southern and central African peoples to early Egyptians (the Cushites) to the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. The importance of this flow developed due to more climatic changes in the sixth and fifth millennia BCE at which time the Sahara re-asserted itself. By 2000 BCE the Sahara had re-expanded across the continent, creating a 1,500 mile barrier across northern Africa. As more and more of North Africa became uninhabitable, “the [Nile] river became a line of cultural linkage between far-flung areas” (Ehret 2002, 93). The shrinking arable land consolidated people in the lush Nile valley —creating sizable populations that eventually developed the complex societies of Ancient Egypt (we will discuss this in more detail in the Module Twenty-One: Egypt).

For the other North Africans, life consisted of pastoral activities, and these people developed wool weaving. Somewhere around 2500 BCE, the ancestors of the Berber peoples, for reasons we don’t yet know, migrated from the western Sahara across the entire regions and “Berber-speaking societies came to predominate” (Ehret 2002, 154-155). These Berbers raided Egyptian settlements around the Nile during 2100 and 2000 BCE.

The most significant animals in northern Africa didn’t even get to the continent until roughly 1000 BCE. Though the Arabian peoples had raised and used camels for millennia, increasing travel and trade relations finally brought the animal into North Africa. This dramatically changed the Berber cultures. Though farmers well-ensconced in Mediterranean areas had little need of the camel, the rest of the Berbers residing on the fringes of the desert adopted it very quickly. “For the first time, they possessed a large animal, a source of much meat and much milk, truly adapted to their arid climates—an animal, in fact, able to be taken deep into the desert, into areas where even goats could not well survive” (Ehret 2002, 226). No longer were these tribes dependent on their home bases and agriculture fields. Rather they became pastoral nomads, living in temporary dwellings, moving whenever new pastures were needed. This mobility combined with the ability to traverse the Sahara transformed these peoples and the rest of the continent.

Camels Find Water
Camels Find Rare Water in Morocco © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.

The major impact of the camel and the pastoral nomads was the resurrection of trans-Sahara trading. Berber tribes across North Africa formed complex trading networks with the peoples of western and sub-Saharan Africa —relations which brought great wealth to both sides; the civilizations in West Africa had cheaper access to Asian and European goods, while the gold of that area spread across three continents. Of course this took hundreds of years to develop, and a lot was going on in the rest of the world and region.

Spread of World Religions

Map 3: The Spread of World Religions in North Africa

Spread of World Religions North Africa

Spread of Religions Map Key

One of the most important social trends as this time was the spread of two world religions, Christianity and Islam. Christianity spread from the Middle East through Egypt west into North Africa and south into Somalia and East Central Africa —following the trade routes as merchants spread the word of the new religion. “Without the far-reaching economic links created by the growth of commerce in the first millennium BCE and early first millennium CE (Common Era), human beings of those centuries would not have traveled great distances, carrying their ideas as well as their goods to people far away” (Ehret 2002, 169). In the eastern part of the region, Christianity was adopted by most urban and rural peoples, however, in the western part of North Africa, it tended to be adopted mostly by settled peoples, while the nomadic Berbers maintained their traditional beliefs (albeit with some overlap).

Islam followed Christianity in a similar pattern, but in a very different manner. The Arab Muslims were intent on building an Islamic empire so theirs was a military conquest, bringing not just soldiers but also settlers to North Africa. Starting in Egypt around 640 CE, they moved across the region, bringing much of the urban areas under a unified political-religious rule by around 700 CE—because of the military spread and the intent to convert, even Berbers were included in this movement, and most converted voluntarily and as a condition of peace. However, the diversity of the region meant that no specific ruling class lasted long—Umayyad rulers were replaced by Abbasids, who were replaced by Tulunids, who were replaced by Fatimids, etc. Interestingly, many of the rebellions and revolutions were instigated by out-lying Berbers intent on cleaning up religious practice. These early fundamentalists instigated jihad for a variety of leaders, usually for the purpose not only of purifying Islamic ruling states, but also, of course, to grab power of their own. This politico-religious fervor also sent Arab/Berber militias across the Mediterranean from Morocco to Gibraltar (named Jebel Tariq or “Tariq’s Mountain” after the general who led his troops to capture Spain from the Visigoths—legend has it that he burned his ships upon reaching Gibraltar so that his army could not retreat) in 711 CE. These moors (the mixed Arab/Berber invaders) ruled much of southern Spain (a region called Andalus) until the mid-1400s. For more information on this movement, see Brett & Forman, 1980. Also, review our Religion module (Learning Module 14) and especially Activity Three on Islam.

Major Religions of North Africa

Religions of North Africa Map

Religions Map Key

As the Arab/Berber civilizations declined, first the non-Arabic (but Islamic) Ottoman Empire filled in the gap, spreading from Turkey and the Middle East, across North Africa from Egypt to as far west as Algeria. Most of North Africa was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century CE until the early 20th century CE. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as European nations gained both wealth and political power, they were able to defeat the Ottomans in some areas, especially in gaining naval dominance in the Mediterranean. With superior sea power, Europe gained access to and control over international trade routes, including Mediterranean and Asian routes as well as Atlantic routes on the western edge of North Africa. We will not discuss here the implications of the Slave Trade on the region, as we’ve discussed it in detail in Module 7B. The end of European colonialism in North Africa in the 1950s initiated the most recent migrations of people into and out of the region. Due to its location close to Europe and its economic trade with that region, northwestern Africa, and especially Morocco, has become a gateway to economic opportunity. Not only does tourism bring money to the economies of North Africa, but also both illegal and legal migration to Europe is common. Saharan trade routes still function, although with bus, truck and air travel rather than camels. In past two decades, increasing numbers of people from western and central Africa are traveling across the Sahara to Morocco and Tunisia in the hopes of gaining education and opportunity to continue migrating to Europe. This has lead to increasing diversity in urban areas as well as social pressures in the affected cities of the Maghrib.


North African Languages

North African languages Map


North African Languages Map Key

North African Colonial Languages

North African Colonial Languages Map


Though much of the region speaks and works in Arabic, for rural populations, Berber remains an important cultural identifier. Berbers are often identified by which dialect they speak with even villages having specific accents, vocabularies, and usages. We can separate language by its two most common uses: informal communication (speaking) and formal communication (writing).

Spoken languages in North Africa are usually based in the ethnic identities of inhabitants. People of Arab descent or living in Arab regions tend to speak the local Arabic dialect. People living in Berber regions, usually somewhat rural and isolated, often speak their dialect of Berber. According to the Encyclopedia of the Orient, there are around 300 local Berber dialects in North Africa. Arabic is at least as diverse, with many dialects so different from each other that they could be considered different languages all together. It is also common for Berbers who travel outside their home areas to speak Arabic.

Written languages are more limited in North Africa. The most common written language is Modern Arabic, and this is what is used in school instruction in most of the region. The governments of each country also use other official languages; in Morocco French is the second official language (due to the French historical legacy) while in Egypt it is English (again, colonial legacy). Berber doesn’t have a recognized written language, though Berber cultural activists are attempting to create or revive various writing systems. Language is very important in education in North Africa and children begin learning second languages early in school (in Morocco, French instruction begins in 6th grade—within two years, some subjects are taught entirely in French). It is not uncommon for an educated North African to speak three, four, or even five languages.

For more on these languages, see the Encyclopedia of the Orient’s entries on Berber, Berbers, Arabic, and Arabs.

Contemporary Life


Urban life in North Africa is not unlike urban life throughout the continent. There is great diversity on the street, as a mix of traditional and western clothing is seen on both men and women. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, younger people tend to dress more “modernly,” but with age comes more traditional forms of dress and behavior. Wealth is also diverse, with beautiful mansions interspersed with middle class apartments and poorer homes. Often, new migrants and other very poor people tend to live in very impoverished and over-crowed housing on the outer edges of cities, moving into nicer homes either when they have found jobs or other sources of support, or when the government housing projects admit them.

Rabat Street in Morocco
Rabat Street in Morocco © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.
Egyptians in Cairo
Egyptians in Cairo © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.
Libyan Men at Cafe
Libyan Men Talk at a Cafe © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.
Moroccan Woman Visits the Market
Moroccan Woman Visits the Market in Fez © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.
Libyan Woman in Jerba Dress
Libyan Woman in Jerba Dress © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.

In many North African countries, there is great diversity in religious communities in cities. Even in countries with Islamic governments, Christian churches are allowed to function, so long as they don’t try to convert, and people born into Christian or Jewish families are allowed freedom of practice. The picture below shows a mosque and a church across the street from one another in Marrakech, Morocco.

Neighboring Holy Places
Neighboring Holy Places in Marrakech, Morocco. Photo by Lexine Hansen.
Moroccan Families Visit Mosque
Moroccan Families Visit the Mosque of Hassan II in Casablanca © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.

Religions of North Africa
Second column: All figures in 1000's.
Last column: % of the population

Baha'i 37' >0,1%
Christianity 8,790' 5,2%
Islam 153,000' 90,5%
Judaism 10' >0,1%
Traditional Religions 7,000' 4,1%
Total 169,000'

From The Encyclopedia of the Orient’s North Africa entry.


Like most rural peoples around the world, rural North Africans tend to live more traditional lifestyles. However, no society is static, as every group of humans is constantly adapting to changing social, economic, political, and environmental conditions. For rural North Africans, this means changing agricultural practices and crops, like moving from subsistence farming to producing agricultural products for sale, usually to local markets. There is also increasing access to schools and other public services (like health care, transportation, etc.) which is changing how families are organized and how they make a living. As rural agricultural lands are denigrated by overuse, families send their children to be educated and hopefully get jobs in urban areas (and even overseas). These children regularly send money home to support their family.

For nomadic peoples, a number of factors, including colonialism, population pressure, and environmental change, has lead to a settlement process. Very few groups still move freely around the desert, most have created permanent homes with only some members moving with the herds for seasonal grazing. Permanent settlements have more access to health care and education. Interestingly, the Tuaregs of southern Morocco and western Saharan regions have parlayed their nomadic heritage into a major tourist draw. Tourists pay to visit “traditional” nomadic communities and some even stay for camel rides and other traditional experiences. This provides resources for Tuareg communities to determine which cultural traditions they try to maintain, and how to retain their social and, in some ways, economic independence from their governing areas.

Berber Man and Daughter
Berber Man and Daughter in Morocco © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.
Egyptian Bedouin
Egyptian Bedouin (Nomadic Arabs) in Traditional Dress © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.
Tuaregs Pose at Tourist Shop
Tuaregs Pose at Tourist Shop in Libya © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.
Traditional Berber Weddding Dress
Traditional Berber Wedding Dress in Middle Atlas Region of Morocco © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.

Gender issues

Contrary to what we hear in the news about women’s rights around the world, Islam at its foundation was a liberator of women. For the first time in recorded Arab (and western for that matter) history, women gained part of their father’s inheritance, and were given rights in both marriage and divorce —it took centuries for European Christian societies to grant women rights to property, especially in marriage, where a woman was considered to be owned by her husband.

Moroccan Berber Women
Moroccan Berber Women Celebrate in Eastern Atlas Region © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.

Today, North African women’s lives are changing and dynamic. In urban areas, women are quite similar to western women in their political rights and economic behaviors. They have more access to education and so they tend to have fewer children than rural women and to work in more formal economic sectors. In rural areas, labor is often divided, with women responsible for childcare, food production, and domestic tasks, while men are involved in herding and agricultural production. However, as men migrate to urban areas to look for jobs, more women have to take responsibility for what were traditionally men’s tasks, as well as their own. This has many implications as women gain access and experience in public affairs while daughters become more crucial to fulfilling domestic responsibilities. Whether urban or rural, women and girls are usually responsible for bringing water to the house for bathing, cooking, and cleaning.

Berber Woman in Moroccan Village
Berber Woman in Moroccan Village Carrying Water © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin
Algerian Woman Brings Water
Algerian Woman Brings Water to Her Village © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.
Moroccan Urban Woman
Moroccan Urban Women Gather Water in Fez © Africa Focus: University of Wisconsin.

If you are interested in women’s and gender issues in North Africa, look at this site, which compiles a lot of information about women’s issues in the region.

Your Turn

1) Ibn Kaldoun is famous in Arab literature because of his writings about his travels all around North Africa and Andalus in the 1300s. Research Ibn Khaldoun (a good starting place is, his entry in The Encyclopedia of the Orient). Imagine if you were Ibn Khaldoun and you traveled to a Berber village somewhere in North Africa. Using internet and library resources to learn more about Berbers, describe what you see (as Ibn Khaldoun) in a letter to your patron, a ruler in Spain.

2) Women and girls in North Africa have a number of challenges and opportunities. Choose a country, ethnicity and region (for instance a rural Berber village in southern Morocco). Research what life is like for women and girls in that area. Think about what your dreams and goals might be if you were a girl your age growing up in that area. Write a short journal entry from that point of view and then perform it with a group of four or five classmates in which you compare your hopes and dreams for your futures. As a class, discuss the similarities and differences between your interpretations as well as how these girl’s dreams might be different from those of the girls in your class.

General North African People and History

The Encyclopedia of the Orient
An exhaustive site on Arab and North African history, geography, and contemporary life. It has excellent information in entries like Mamluks, Berbers, Arabs, etc. and of North African countries.

The CIA World Fact Book
Excellent information on the countries and peoples of North Africa.

CBEP-Community Based Environmental Protection
This government web site integrates environmental management with human needs, considers long-term ecosystem health, and highlights the positive correlations between economic prosperity and environmental well-being.

Women and Gender Issues

Gender Equality in the Middle East,,contentMDK:22865509~menuPK:3949143~pagePK:146736~piPK:226340~theSitePK:256299,00.html
Compiles a lot of information about women’s issues in the region.

Go on to Activity Three or select from the other activities in this module: