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Berbers,aboriginal Caucasoid peoples of N Africa, called Imazighen in the Tamazight language. They inhabit the lands lying between the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea and between Egypt and the Atlantic Ocean. The Berbers form a substantial part of the populations of Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia; many persons of Berber descent have been thoroughly Arabized and their Berber heritage has often been lost or is not acknowledged, especially in Tunisia. Except for the nomadic TuaregTuareg
, Berbers of the Sahara, numbering c.2 million. They have preserved their ancient alphabet, which is related to that used by ancient Libyans.
..... Click the link for more information. , the Berbers traditionally were small farmers, living under a loose tribal organization in independent villages with local industries (iron, copper, lead, pottery, weaving, and embroidery). The Berbers are Sunni Muslims, and their native languages are Afroasiatic languagesAfroasiatic languages
, formerly Hamito-Semitic languages
, family of languages spoken by more than 250 million people in N Africa; much of the Sahara; parts of E, central, and W Africa; and W Asia (especially the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and
..... Click the link for more information. , but most literate Berbers also speak Arabic, the language of their religion. Berber languages are spoken by about 12 million people, not all of whom are considered ethnic Berbers.
Despite a history of conquests, the Berbers retained a remarkably homogeneous culture, which, on the evidence of Egyptian tomb paintings, derives from earlier than 2400 B.C. The alphabet of the only partly deciphered ancient Libyan inscriptions is close to the script still used by the Tuareg. The origins of the Berbers are uncertain, although many theories have been advanced relating them to the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Celts, the Basques, and the Caucasians. In classical times the Berbers formed such states as MauretaniaMauretania
, ancient district of Africa in Roman times. In a vague sense it meant only "the land of the Moors" and lay W of Numidia, but more specifically it usually included most of present-day N Morocco and W Algeria. The district was not the same as modern Mauritania.
..... Click the link for more information. and NumidiaNumidia
, ancient country of NW Africa, very roughly the modern Algeria. It was part of the Carthaginian empire until Masinissa, ruler of E Numidia, allied himself (c.206 B.C.) with Rome in the Punic Wars. After the Roman victory over Carthage led to peace in 201 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. .
Until their conquest in the 7th cent. by Muslim Arabs, most of the Berbers were Christian (also, a sizable minority had accepted Judaism), and many heresies of the early African church, particularly DonatismDonatism
, schismatic movement among Christians of N Africa (fl. 4th cent.), led by Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigrae (fl. 313), and the theologian Donatus the Great or Donatus Magnus (d. 355).
..... Click the link for more information. , were essentially Berber protests against the rule of Rome. Under the Arabs, the Berbers became Islamized and soon formed the backbone of the Arab armies that conquered Spain. However, the Berbers repeatedly rose against the Arabs, and in the 9th cent. they supported the FatimidFatimid
, dynasty claiming to hold the caliphate on the basis of descent from Fatima, a daughter of Muhammad the Prophet. In doctrine the Fatimids were related to other Shiite sects.
..... Click the link for more information. dynasty in its conquest of N Africa.
After the Fatimids withdrew to Egypt, N Africa was plunged into an anarchy of warring Berber tribes that ended only when the Berber dynasties, the AlmoravidsAlmoravids
, Berber Muslim dynasty that ruled Morocco and Muslim Spain in the 11th and 12th cent. The Almoravids may have originated in what is now Mauritania. The real founder was Abd Allah ibn Yasin, who by military force converted a number of Saharan tribes to his own
..... Click the link for more information. and the AlmohadsAlmohads
, Berber Muslim dynasty that ruled Morocco and Spain in the 12th and 13th cent. It had its origins in the puritanical sect founded by Ibn Tumart, who stirred up (c.1120) the tribes of the Atlas Mts. area to purify Islam and oust the Almoravids.
..... Click the link for more information. , were born. Each of these dynasties succeeded in pushing back Christian kingdoms which had pushed south against the fragmented Moors. With the disintegration of these dynasties, the Berbers of the plains were gradually absorbed by the Arabs, while those who lived in inaccessible mountain regions, such as the Aurès, the Kabylia, the Rif, and the Atlas, retained their culture and warlike traditions. When the French and the Spanish occupied much of N Africa, it was the Berbers of these mountainous regions who offered the fiercest resistance. In more recent times the Berbers, especially those of the Kabylia, assisted in driving the French from Algeria. Contemporary relations between Berbers and Arabs are sometimes tense, particularly in Algeria, where Berbers rebelled (1963–65) against Arab ruled and have demonstrated and rioted against Arab discrimination.
See E. Gellner, Saints of the Atlas (1969); E. Gellner and C. Micaud, ed., Arabs and Berbers (1972); J. Waterbury, North for the Trade (1972).
a group of peoples settled mainly in the countries of North Africa (Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Arab Republic of Egypt) and in central and western Sudan (Niger, Mali, Upper Volta, and others). They number over 6 million (1967 estimate). They speak dialects of the Berber language; the majority also speaks Arabic. The Berbers’ basic tribal groups are Tamazight, Riff, Shluh, Tuareg, and Kabyll. The Berbers are the most ancient population of North Africa; their ancestors lived west of Egypt and are first recorded in Egyptian inscriptions of the late fourth millennium B.C. by the name Tehenu. Later, the ancient Egyptians used the terms Lebu or Libu to designate these tribes (hence the name Libyans). The ethnic name “Berber,” appearing shortly after the Arab conquest of North Africa (seventh-eighth centuries), probably derives from the Greek barbaros, and the Arabs originally used the terms to signify “non-Arab” or “unbelievers.” After the Arab conquest of the Maghreb, the process of Arabization of the Berbers began with their acceptance of Islam, which was comparatively easy owing to the closeness of their languages and culture. The Berbers’ basic occupations are agriculture, gardening, and semi-nomadic cattle raising. Some Berbers, particularly those living in Morocco and Algeria, work in industry.
REFERENCESNarody Afriki. Moscow, 1954.
Bousquet, G. H. Les Berbè res (Histoire et institutions). Paris, 1957. (Bibliography.)
G. A. NERSESOV