High Atlas Mountains


High Lands Berbere People

(Morocco 2009-2014)

Lands of Allah - High Atlas

The High Atlas Mountains are home to the Berber people who have successfully resisted invading forces and cultures for thousands of years. Berber villages, consisting of a mishmash of simple square earth buildings set picturesquely amongst the valleys of the Atlas range, offer a fascinating insight into a more traditional way of life in Morocco. Whilst electricity, mobile coverage and sky dishes are slowly penetrating, the values and way of life still take us to ancient times. Villagers collect their water from the central well, keep livestock in their yards and hang rugs to dry from their homes.

Berber, self-name Amazigh, plural Imazighen, any of the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. The Berbers live in scattered communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. They speak various Amazigh languages belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family related to Ancient Egyptian. At the turn of the 21st century, there were perhaps 14 million in Morocco, 9 million in Algeria, and much smaller numbers in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Mauretania; in the Sahara of southern Algeria and of Libya, Mali and Niger, the Berber Tuareg number about 1 million.

From about 2000 bce, Berber (Amazigh) languages spread westward from the Nile valley across the northern Sahara into the Maghrib. By the 1st millennium bce, their speakers were the native inhabitants of the vast region encountered by the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans. A series of Berber peoples—Mauri, Masaesyli, Massyli, Musulami, Gaetuli, Garamantes—then gave rise to Berber kingdoms under Carthaginian and Roman influence. Of those kingdoms, Numidia and Mauretania were formally incorporated into the Roman Empire in the late 2nd century bce, but others appeared in late antiquity following the Vandal invasion in 429 ce and the Byzantine reconquest (533 ce) only to be suppressed by the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries ce.

It was the Arabs, who had enlisted Berber warriors for the conquest of Spain, who nevertheless gave those peoples a single name, turning barbarian (speakers of a language other than Greek and Latin) into Barbar, the name of a race descended from Noah. While unifying the indigenous groups under one rubric, the Arabs began their Islamization.

From the very beginning, Islam provided the ideological stimulus for the rise of fresh Berber dynasties. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the greatest of those—the Almoravids and the Almohads, nomads of the Sahara and villagers of the High Atlas, respectively—conquered Muslim Spain and North Africa as far east as Tripoli (now in Libya). Their Berber successors—the Marinids at Fès (now in Morocco), the Ziyanids at Tlemcen (now in Algeria), and the Ḥafṣids at Tunis (now in Tunisia) and Bijaya (now Bejaïa, Algeria)—continued to rule until the 16th century.

When the French conquered Algeria in the 19th century and Morocco in the 20th, they seized on the distinction between the Arab majority and the Berbers of the mountains. On the strength of Ibn Khaldūn’s history, the latter were once again classified as a people under their modern name of Berbers. The identification and description of their language, the anthropological study of their society, and their geographical isolation all gave grounds for their separate administration as a people going back before the time of Islam to a pagan and Christian past.

Those colonial studies and policies have determined much of the history of the Berbers down to the present but meanwhile have left a record of their manners and customs before the advent of modernity. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Berber world had been reduced to enclaves of varying size. In Tripolitania and southern Tunisia those were chiefly formed by the hills of the Nafūsah Plateau and the island of Jerba, in eastern Algeria by the mountains of the Aurès and Kabylie, and in Morocco by the ranges of the Rif, the Middle and High Atlas, the Anti-Atlas, and the Saharan Atlas.

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