Atlas Mountains

views updated Jun 11 2018


Mountain system in northwest Africa.

The Atlas Mountains extend approximately 1,300 miles (2,090 km) through the Maghrib countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisiafrom the Atlantic Ocean, south of Agadir, to the Mediterranean Sea near Tunis. This system comprises a series of roughly parallel ranges. From west to east, these include the Anti-Atlas, High Atlas, and Middle Atlas in Morocco; the Saharan Atlas, maritime Tell Atlas (itself formed of a series of distinct massifs such as the Ouarsenis, Grande Kabylie, and Petite Kabylie), and Aurès in Algeria; and the Kroumirie, Medjerda, and Tébessa Mountains in Tunisia, which are extensions of the Algerian ranges. Some authorities also include the Rif range (al-Rif), along Morocco's Mediterranean coast in the Atlas system.

The Atlas ranges dominate the landscapes of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, differentiating them from the other North African countries, where desert lowlands prevail. These ranges serve as a barrier to the Sahara, sheltering the coastal lowlands of the three countries from the desert conditions to the south. They also function as orographic barriers to moisture-laden winter storms off the Atlantic and Mediterranean, causing rainfall in the coastal lowlands. Finally, they serve as vast water towers, capturing rain and snow and giving rise to numerous permanent rivers and streams. As a result, the northern portions of the three Maghrib countries are relatively well watered and have major agricultural potential. This potential has long fostered relatively dense settlement by the Berbersindigenous Caucasoid tribal peoplesparticularly in the mountains. The region's agricultural potential has attracted colonizers, beginning with the Phoenicians and Romans, then later the Arabs and French. Europeans have referred to the Maghrib highlands as the Atlas Mountains since classical times, because of the Greek legend that they were the home of the god Atlas; the Arabs have referred to the entire highland area as Jazirat al-Maghrib, the "Island of the

West," because it represented a relatively lush mountainous island jutting out of the deserts.

The most impressive range within the Atlas system is the High Atlas, which extends for some 350 miles (560 km) through the center of Morocco and has an average elevation of around 10,000 feet (3,050 m). Many High Atlas peaks are snow-clad for much of the year. Jabal Toukal, south of Marrakech, reaches 13,665 feet (4,165 m) and is the highest peak in the High Atlas as well as in North Africa. The Middle Atlas range possesses the most luxuriant vegetation in the Atlas system, with extensive stands of fir and cedar at higher elevations. Forests of various species of oak are common on the more humid slopes throughout the Atlas system, with open stands of pine and juniper typical on drier slopes. Generally, the mountains diminish in elevation from west to east and become more barren of vegetation from north to south.

Historically, the Atlas Mountains have functioned as a refuge area for the indigenous Berber peoples, helping them to preserve their distinctive languages and customs. Portions of the Moroccan Atlas and the Kabylie in Algeria remain strong bastions of Berber culture. Tribal areas in the Atlas had autonomy in the precolonial period; only occasionally did they fall under the control of rulers in the lowland capitals. This tradition of dissidence continued during the colonial period: The Atlas Mountains figured prominently in the resistance and independence movements, serving as effective strongholds for rebel groups.

see also berber.


Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Miller, James A. Imlil: A Moroccan Mountain Community in Change. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984.

Will D. Swearingen


views updated May 23 2018

Atlas Mountain system in nw Africa, comprising several folded and roughly parallel chains extending 2400km (1500mi) from the coast of sw Morocco to the coast of n Tunisia. North Africa's highest peak, Djebel Toubkal, 4170m (13,671ft), is found in the Grand Atlas range in w Morocco.