Berbers: Ancient Origins of North African Civilization - The Comprehensive Minds

Berbers: Ancient Origins of North African Civilization

Berbers: Ancient Origins of North African Civilization

Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco boastsome of the richest and unique histories in the world. Here is the home of an enigmatic tribal people who inhabited the region for thousands of years, deeply influenced the fates of ancient empires, and centuries later would embrace the Islamic faith on their terms to become some of the most powerful peoples of the Medieval Mediterranean.  

Broadly speaking, the Berbers are a people indigenous to a huge swath of land known as Tamazgha, which stretches from western Egypt to the Atlantic coast, and penetrates deep past the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara desert. Most of this region is incredibly inhospitable, save for the most densely populated portion along the fertile Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines known as the Maghreb. 

Never a single people the Berbers were divided into many diverse tribes, whose cultures, dialects, and social structures, although closely related to one another, differ from region to region. The title ‘Berber’ is an exonym coming from the ancient Greek ‘Barbaroi’, sharing the same root from which the word “Barbarian” is derived. 

While ‘Berber’ is still the most common nomenclature in the West, the Berbers refer to themselves with a variety of names in their native Afro-Asiatic languages, chief among them “Amazigh” [A-mah-zeer], a title which typically translates to “the free people”. We will use both names throughout this article. 

Over thousands of years, Amazigh society has been molded to thrive in the harsh desert environment. Traditionally, the majority of their tribes lived by driving flocks of livestock between pockets of oases in a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Many tribes took advantage of the fertile Mediterranean coastline to establish themselves as sophisticated agriculturalists, while others took to commerce, becoming intrepid camel-back merchants who braved the trade routes of the Sahara for the gold of West and Central Africa. 

The ancestors of the Amazigh have been living throughout Tamazgha for at least 12,000 years. However, save for the enigmatic Tifinagh script used by some tribes, the majority of ancient Berbers were non-literate. As a result, their pre-Islamic history is parsed together through the external accounts of foreign empires. 

The Amazigh first appear in the historical record more than 3,000 years ago in the ledgers of the New Kingdom of Egypt, who frequently interacted with the ancient Libyans, a Berber people. Ancient Egyptian depicted their western neighbors very differently to themselves, usually as tattooed, bearded, and pale-skinned men, and tended to look down upon them as little more than primitive, oasis-hopping goat herders. 

Despite that, we know that they served in the armies of Ramses as horsemen, and their largest tribe, the Meshwesh, even managed to conquer parts of Egypt in 945BC, establishing themselves as Pharaohs of Egypt's 22nd and23rd Dynasties, until they were pushed out 200 years later In 814BC, Phoenicians from Tyre established the city of Carthage on the coast of modern-day Tunisia. 

In time, this oligarchic merchant state would expand its control over much of the Berber-dominated African coast. Some Berbers resisted Carthaginian rule, while many others did the opposite, enrolling in Carthages’ mercenary army. Whatever their allegiance, the lightly armouredAmazigh mounted javelin throwers became famous throughout the Mediterranean for their mobility, speed, and deadlines. 

Another classic civilization to come into contact with the Berbers was the Ancient Greeks, who in the 7th century BC colonized Cyrenaica. The name of the region derives from a legendary lion-hunting Berber warrior known as Cyre, who according to tradition, became a protector of the Greek colonists. 

The Greeks in their walled, coastal cities intermingle with the Berber around them, sharing many aspects of their cultures with one another. The Berbers were traditionally polytheist people, with a pantheon deeply influenced by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Greeks. 

However, the native Amazigh religion also influenced those civilizations as Herodotus, claimed that quintessential characters from Greek myth, like Medusa, the Gorgons, and even Poseidon himself, had roots among the folklore of the Berbers, while early 20th-century scholar Dr. Wallis Budge asserted that the Egyptian god Osiris has his origins among the native tribes of Libya. 

Another prominent aspect of the Berber faith was ancestor worship. A later Roman author, Pomponius Mela, claimed that the Berbers considered the spirits of the dead to hold great power. Today, the remnants of great mausoleums throughout the Maghreb coast are a memory of a time when the Amazigh people looked to their forefathers for spiritual guidance. 

Let us now step back into the march of history, by jumping into the 3rd century BC, when the iconic Punic wars erupted between Carthage and Rome. Various Berber tribes fought alongside both Mediterranean superpowers. Despite the best alps-crossing efforts of Hannibal, the Carthaginians were decisively defeated in the 2nd Punic war, losing all their territory outside of their Tunisian heartland. 

The victorious Romans bequeathed much of the north African coast to the Amazigh tribes that had been allied to them. These tribes subsequently went on to form the United Kingdom of Numidia. This Kingdom, alongside the neighboring Kingdom of Mauretania, became the first true states in the Berber homeland to be ruled by the Berbers, as opposed to being ruled by foreign empires or divided into smaller tribal units, as the Amazighso often were. 

Harmony between Rome and the desert-dwellers did not last long, and in 112BC war broke out between the expanding Republic and the charismatic King Jugurtha of Numidia. Although the Amazigh Monarch used clever diplomacy and his warriors fought bravely employing guerilla tactics, they were ultimately defeated by the Romans under Marius and Sulla. 


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This kickstarted the Roman conquest of the Berber coast, a protracted effort that was completed only when Mauretania, already a Roman client-state, was fully subsumed into the Empire in 44AD. During the Roman rule, many Amazigh integrated themselves into their culture, and from the 3rd century AD, many Berbers converted to Christianity. Among these was Augustine, Bishop of the African city of Hippo, who was one of the most influential Christian Church Fathers of all time, and laid the foundations of western Christian philosophy that deeply impact the Catholic world to this day. 

In the 5th century AD, the western half of the Roman Empire began to crumble, allowing the Germanic Vandals to conquer parts of NorthAfrica. During this turmoil, the Amazigh were able to establish several small indigenous Kingdoms in former Roman territory, worshipping a mixture of Christianity, Judaism, and traditional Berber polytheism. 

Many of these Kingdoms persisted even after the Eastern Roman Empire reconquered the African coast in 534. However, this independence would be short-lived, as, in the faraway deserts of Arabia, a new power was rising. By the time of the Prophet Muhammed’s death in 632, his followers had conquered all of Arabia. Nearly immediately afterward, the Muslims would storm out of their homeland as some of the most efficient conquerors in world history. 

In 641, the armies of the Caliph Umar had conquered Byzantine Egypt, and quickly turned their gaze westward, to the fertile coasts of the Maghreb. The Muslim conquest of North Africa was a long and grueling process that began in 647 and was only completed a full 62 years later. Throughout it all, the Amazigh put up a brutally stubborn resistance. 

Unlike the Eastern Romans, the native tribesmen were well accustomed to the fast-paced desert warfare of their Arab foes and were able to match them toe to toe. Perhaps the greatest symbol of Berber resistance was the warrior queen Dehiya, who crushed an army of the nascent Umayyad Caliphate near the town of Meskiana in 698. 

Nevertheless, she was defeated at the battle of Tabarka, and with her death, the lands of the Berbers were quickly conquered, becoming the Umayyad province Ifriqiya, from the word Africa, that the Romans used for the same region. 

Ironically, the tribal warrior lifestyle that made the Amazigh such fierce foes, also allowed them to integrate seamlessly into the new Muslim world. Berbers converted to Islam en masse, but for the most part, this conversion was nominal at best, and despite professing a new faith, the Amazigh retained many attributes of their languages, social structure, and many traditional practices. 

The Muslim force that crossed the narrow sea and famously conquered Visigothic Iberia in 711 was predominantly Amazigh in origin, in fact, one of its principal commanders, Tariq ibn Ziyad, was of Berber extraction. His name lives on in the modern-day city of Gibraltar, whose name is a corruption of the Arabic word ‘Jabal ṭāriq’, meaning“mountain of Tariq.”. 

It was also during this century that the trans-Saharan trade network began expanding, linking the Arabic world to Subsaharan Africa, which subsequently introduced the Muslim faith to many communities in the west and central Africa, such as the powerful Empire of Ghana. Despite all this, the Amazigh were undoubtedly a subject of people. 

While in theory, the Qur’an holds all Muslimsequal under God, the Berbers soon found that in practice, they were still second-class citizens compared to the Arabic elites. For example, during the conquest of Iberia, Berber soldiers had been put in the more dangerous theatres of battle while the Arabs were often kept in reserve. Despite this, the Berbers often received less pay and war loot than their Arab comrades. Heavy taxation was another budding issue. 

Under the pact of Umar, Jewish and Christian communities under Muslim rule were guaranteed safety, but in return had to pay a regular tribute known as the Jizya or poll tax. The Amazigh were originally payers of the jizya, but as they converted to Islam, the amount of tax revenue coming from the western half of the Caliphate began to dry up. 

To counteract this, Arab governors of the Umayyad province of Ifriqiya began imposing the poll tax on Muslim Berber converts, in direct violation of Islamic law. One such Arab governor was a man known as Yazid ibn Abi Muslim, who assumed control of the province of Ifriqiya in 720. Historians condemn Yazid as a pointlessly cruel man who treated his non-Arab subjects with contempt, even branding the hands of his Berber guardsmen. 

This was a step too far and the Amazigh in Yazid's employ had him assassinated. The seeds of rebellion were further spread among the Berbers with the introduction of a sect of Islam known as Kharijism to the Maghreb coast. The Kharijites were hardline egalitarians. They rejected the nepotistic succession of caliphs that was based on ancestral kinship with the prophet Muhammed, believing that any man, regardless of descent or social status, could rule the Muslim world so long as he was uncompromisingly pious and just. 

They even proclaimed that, should he be holy enough, they would even accept the rule of ‘an Abyssinian slave with a slit nose!’ However, the most committed belief of the Kharijites was that if a Muslim ruler should fall to corruption and sin, it was not only their right but their God-given duty, to rise up in rebellion against them. 

Ancient Origins of North African Civilization


As one can imagine, the passionate message of the Kharjirites captured the imagination of many a Berber firebrand, who saw embracing it as a means to spiritually justify a holy war against their Arab oppressors. The ball finally got rolling in 739, when the Ghomara, Berghwata, and Miknasa tribes of western Morocco rebelled against the Umayyad caliphate. 

They selected an Amazigh man named Maysaraal-Matghari to be their leader, a man who according to tradition, had previously been a lowly water carrier. They waited until the local Umayyad general Habib ibn Abi Obeida, sailed northwards to lead an expedition against Byzantine Sicily and upon his departure, shaved their heads in Kharijite fashion, bound Quranic scriptures to their spears, and marched out for battle. 

The great Amazigh revolt had begun. Soon it spread across the deserts of the western Maghreb. The city of Tangiers quickly fell to al-Matghari’s rebel army, who executed its Umayyad governor Omar al-Moradi, a detested man whose tribute policies had previously been bleeding the Amazigh dry. The rebels then carved a path of destruction from the strait of Gibraltar to the Sous valley, toppling Umayyad garrisons along the way, while, more and more Berber tribes joined the cause. 

However, a column of elite Arab cavalrymen, made up of the aristocratic elites of Ifriqiya, clashed with the rebels in the outskirts of Tangiers, halting their advance and forcing al-Matghari to pull his armies back to Tangiersproper. Condemned for his cowardice, al-Matghari was deposed and executed by the Berber chieftains and was replaced with Khalid ibn Hamid al-Zanati, the charismatic Chieftain of the Zenata tribe. Khalid was declared the Caliph in a direct challenge to the authority of the Umayyad Caliph and immediately went back on the offensive. 

In the winter of 740, his army met the Arabcavalry in the pitched battle at the Shalaf Valley, utterly crushing them and killing10,000 Umayyad soldiers. This was a massive victory for the Amazigh, as the flower of Arabic nobility in the western Maghreb had been utterly decimated, and the remaining Umayyad forces in the region were in complete panic. Finally having heard of this uprising, UmayyadGeneral Habib ibn Abi Obeida abandoned his Sicilian campaign in a hurry. 

He returned to the Maghreb, where he garrisonedTlemcen and sent a plea for reinforcements. When word reached Caliph Hisham of the disaster in the west, he is said to have exclaimed the following about the rebels: “By God, I will most certainly rage against them with an Arab rage, and I will send against them an army whose beginning is where they are and whose end is where I am!” The Caliph dispatched a relief force of 30,000Syrian Arabs to reinforce the Ifriqiyan Arab forces in Tlemcen, who had mustered some 40,000 men. 

Before long, an army of 70,000 was looking westward, ready to retake the land lost to the rebels. However, the joining of these two armies did not go swimmingly. The Syrian and Ifriqiyan Arabs were of northern and southern Arabian heritage respectively, and ancient pre-Islamic tribal rivalries permeated between them. 

Despite their internal enmity, the Umayyadarmy marched out in October of 741, meeting their foe at the town of Bagdoura on the Sebouriver. By now, the rebel Amazigh army had grown to a massive size, with some sources claiming that over 200,000 Berbers had joined the cause. It should also be noted that most of these were not professional soldiers, but laymen armed only with stones and knives, making the figure more plausible. 

The Ifriqiyan Arabs, having faced the Berbersin battle before, knew not to underestimate their foe, and warned the Syrians to avoid open battle. This warning was ignored by the Syrians, who believed the rebels to be little more than a disorganized rabble that would break upon the impact of a heavy cavalry charge. However, anticipating the oncoming horsemen, the Berber forces skirted around the enemy steeds, using slings and spears to bring down their riders. 

The rebels then tied bags of water to the tails of wild mares, driving them mad, before sending them stampeding into the mainline of Arab infantry, which prevented them from reinforcing their overextended cavalry. 

Caliphate’s cavalry was eventually encircled and massacred, while the infantry was overwhelmed by the sheer number of the Amazighs. Nearly 40,000 Umayyad troops were massacred at the battle of Bagdoura, making it one of the most disastrous defeats in the Caliphate’shistory. News of this victory at Bagdoura encouraged more and more Berbers across the Umayyad realm to rebel. 

In Islamic Iberia, Amazigh soldiers stationed on the northern frontier abandoned their garrisons to wage war on their Arab masters in Toledo, Córdoba, and Algeciras. This revolt was eventually crushed, but it did allow King Alfonso I of Asturias to take advantage of the unrest and double the size of his domain, kickstarting one of the earliest stages of the Christian Reconquista. 

Meanwhile, the gains of the Amazigh back in north Africa were put to a halt when they failed to take the provincial capital of Kairouan in 742, allowing the Umayyads to retain control over the Eastern Maghreb. Nevertheless, the Great Amazigh revolt had secured the freedom of Morocco and its environs. 

This would be the first time in history that the Caliphate suffered a major territorial loss and the first time that an independent Islamic entity existed outside of the Caliph’s authority. The Amazigh people had regained control of their own destiny, forging a patchwork of native Emirates in former Umayyad territory. 

This, however, was only the beginning. In the centuries that followed, the ancient and ambitious tribesmen of North Africa would expand and unite under their own unique brands of Islam, forging some of the most powerful Empires in African history. 

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