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ALTERNATE NAMES: Imazighen (plural; singular, Amazigh)
LOCATION: North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania)
POPULATION: 25–36 million (exact statistics are unavailable)
LANGUAGE: Berber (also called Tamazight)
RELIGION: Sunni Muslim, Ibadite


The name Berber may have originated with the Romans. The details of the origins of the Berber people are not known for certain, but the Berbers are generally considered the original population of North Africa. It is likely that the Berbers descended, perhaps thousands of years ago, from people who expanded west from an eastern origin along the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Berbers, who inhabit regions across North Africa, have witnessed numerous invasions and occupations. Invaders have included Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Spanish, Turks, and the French. Despite many attempts by colonizing people to eradicate or absorb the Berbers, their culture survived.

The Berber population is distributed across the countries of North Africa. Generally speaking, it is likely that most northwest African Arabs are of Berber origin. While precise statistics are not available, experts estimate that 35–80% of the all Berbers live in Morocco, with the remainder distributed throughout Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia. In Tunisia, Berbers comprise about 15–33% of the population.

Berber groups inhabiting coastal North Africa identify themselves by the terms Kabyles and Rifs. Others living further inland identify themselves as Chaouis, Siwis, Chleuhs, Mozabites, and Tuaregs.

The Berbers of northern Algeria number approximately 4 million. They have kept their original language and culture. The Berbers of northern Morocco are sometimes called the Rifs or Riffis. In southern Morocco, the Berbers, with a population of about 8 million, are sometimes known as the Chleuhs. Other groups include the Tuareg of the Sahara and the Chaouis of Algeria. There are also about 4 million Berbers living in Europe. Some inhabitants of the Canary Islands are also considered Berber.

Between 642 and 669, the Arabs sent their first military expeditions into the Maghrib region of North Africa, which resulted in the spread of Islam. In 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber governor of Tangier, Morocco, crossed into Spain. Later Islamic Spain (Al Andalus) was under the leadership of the caliph of Damascus, Syria. Nevertheless, the largest group of Moors (a general term used to describe Muslim people in Spain and Portugal) was made up of North African Berbers.

The countries of North Africa gained their independence in the 20th century. Tunisia and Morocco became independent in 1956 and Algeria in 1962. The countries then established Arabic as their official language, replacing French and/or Spanish. As a result, most Berbers had to study and know Arabic, with no opportunity to use their own language at schools.

North African states identified themselves as Arab nations, ignoring the existence and the culture of the Berbers. Political tensions arose between Berber groups and governments in North Africa over linguistic and cultural issues in the decades following independence. Berber culture was discriminated against in some cases. For example, giving children Berber names was once prohibited in Morocco.

In response to the demands of the Berbers, Morocco and Algeria modified their policies. Algeria defined itself in the constitution as an Arab, Berber, and Muslim nation. As of 2008, Berber is a national language in Algeria and is taught as a non-compulsory language in the Berber-speaking areas. In Morocco, Berber is now taught as a compulsory language regardless the ethnicity.

The Berbers are ethnically—but far from politically—the dominant part of the populations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mauritania. Isolated Berber-speaking groups are found all over North Africa, from along the Atlantic in the west to Egypt in the east. A colorful nomadic Berber tribe, the Tuaregs, whose male warriors wear blue dresses and indigo-colored veils, still roam the Sahara desert.

Berber authors, from ancient times until today, have gained world recognition. An Oregon State University web site dedicated to Berber studies lists Berber authors Saint Augustine, Tertullian, Apuleius, Arnobius, Franto, Saint Cyprian, Lactantius, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, Jean Amrouche, Kateb Yacine, and Mouloud Mammeri. The site notes that, through history, these authors have been identified as Roman, Arab, or French. Many of the authors wrote in a language other than Berber. The Berber language is only recently winning recognition as an official language.


Berber culture is centered in North Africa and the Mediterranean region, although Berber influence is felt as far east as Egypt and even stretches to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The sphere of Berber influence includes the countries of Algeria, Libya, Mali, and Niger, with large pockets in Morocco and smaller ones in Tunisia along the Mediterranean shores of North Africa. Berbers tend to live in desert regions like the Sahara and in the Atlas Mountains. Berbers comprise a clear majority of the population of North Africa in terms of race, but many Berbers deny their identity, choosing to describe themselves as Arab.

The Berbers, whose total population is estimated at 36 million, are principally concentrated in Morocco and Algeria, with significant communities also living in Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. In addition there are about 4 million Berbers living in Europe, primarily in France. An estimated half of the ethnic Berbers living in Europe describe themselves as Berbers. In terms of race, Berbers represent the majority of the population in Morocco and Algeria and more than half the population in Tunisia and Libya. As Arabization has swept away the indigenous language and the Berber identity from many regions, many people with Berber ancestry are now claiming to be Arabs. In terms of identity, Berbers represent 40% of all Moroccans, 30% of all Algerians, 15–33% of all Tunisians, 10% of all Libyans, and 0.5% of all Egyptians, making up more than 20 million people. Genetic evidence appears to indicate that most North Africans (whether they consider themselves Berber or Arab) are predominantly of Berber origin and that populations ancestral to the Berbers have been in the area since the Upper Paleolithic era.

Although stereotyped in the West as nomads, most Berbers were traditional farmers, living in the mountains relatively close to the Mediterranean coast or dwelling in the oases found in the desert. The Tuareg of the southern Sahara, however, were nomadic. Some groups, such as the Chaouis, were herders who moved with their herds seasonally. Their various dwelling places included deserts, areas near rivers, plains, and mountain ranges.

Most rivers are not navigable, but they have been a major source of water for irrigation. The plains are cultivated with a variety of crops, such as oranges, figs, olives, almonds, barley, and wheat. The homelands of the Berbers experience a wide variety of weather conditions. The desert is hot and dry, while the coastal plains have mild temperatures. In the summer the mountains are hot and dry, but in the winter they are cold, rainy, and often snowy.


Berber is primarily a spoken language. The Berber languages are mainly spoken in Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia, and Libya. The primary Berber language is known as Berber to Europeans and as Shilha to Arabs. The Berbers themselves call the primary language Amazigh or Tamazight. The language forms a branch of the Afro-Asiatic linguistic family. The wide dispersion geographically of the Berber people has led to the development of as many as 300 different dialects. A number of tribes, including the largest ones (the Rif, Kabyle, and Tuareg) have their own dialects.

Modern Berbers are engaged in ongoing efforts to develop and gain acceptance of a written form of their language. A Berber alphabet has existed several thousand years, but has not enjoyed widespread use.

Berber languages and dialects include Central Atlas Amazigh (Tamazight) and Riffi(in northern Morocco), Kabyle (Algeria), and Tachelhit (or Tashelhiyt, central Morocco). There is a strong movement among speakers of the closely related northern Berber languages to unite them into a single standard language.

Although an alphabet for the Berber language has existed for a few thousand years, the written language has been disrupted through history by invaders and conquests in North Africa. The language was first written in an alphabet still used by the Tuareg; the oldest dated inscription is from about 200 BC. Later, between about AD 1000 and 1500, Berbers, especially those living in Morocco, wrote their language using the Arabic alphabet. Since the 20th century, Berbers, especially the Kabyle, have begun using the Latin alphabet.

In Morocco, approximately 3–4 million speak Tachelhit, a form of Berber; another 3 million speak another Berber dialect known as Central Atlas Amazigh (Tamazight).

After independence, all the North African Maghrib countries pursued a policy of Arabization and tried to eliminate French as the language of education, literacy, and power. A side-effect of these policies was to suppress the use of Berber languages.

In the early 2000s, Berbers were becoming more vocal in their protests over the loss of their language and culture. In Morocco and Algeria—especially Kabyle—the issues was being addressed by the government. Both Morocco and Algeriaare introducing Berber language instruction in some schools. In its 2007 report on Algeria, the US State Department noted that “Access to print and broadcast media for Tamazight and Amazigh culture continued to grow. Tamazight programming also increased on the non-Berber language channels, as did advertisements in Tamazight on all television and radio channels. Beginning in the 2006–2007 scholastic year, the Tamazight language was officially taught in primary schools, starting in the fourth grade in 17 predominantly Berber provinces.”


The folklore traditions of northern Africa have been deeply influenced by Islamic cultural traditions. Most folklore in Muslim countries concerns important figures in religious history, such as the prophet Muhammad. According to the tale, al-Isra wa al-Mi'raj, on the 26th day of the Islamic month of Rajab, the Muhammad traveled at night from Mecca (a city in what is now Saudi Arabia, then known as Hijaz) to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, he rode his wondrous horse, al-Burak, on a nighttime visit to heaven. This legend is celebrated every year throughout the Islamic world.

Berbers have many legends based on the exploits of Muslim leaders known as marabouts. The marabouts resisted the religious Crusaders and the French colonizers of North Africa. They are believed to have had baraka, a blessing or divine grace, that allowed them to perform miracles. The burial sites of marabouts are destinations of pilgrimages, and many Berbers regard marabouts as saints.

Other Berbers believe in spiritual beings called jinn. Jinn are said to take on the forms of animals. To ward off these spirits, Berber Muslims wear a charm, known as an amulet, with verses from the Quran printed on it, as protection. They also wear the “hand of Fatima,” a charm in the shape of the right hand, to protect against the evil eye.

Often, women in the countryside believe in (and might practice) sihr, a type of witchcraft primarily involving the use of potions. A potion might make someone fall in love or it might invoke a curse as revenge.


Prior to conversion to Islam in the 8th century the Berbers had polytheistic and animistic religious practices. The beliefs of the indigenous Berber people of North Africa were influenced primarily by the beliefs of their Egyptian neighbors, as well as by other people who lived in the area, such as the Phoenicians, Jews, Greeks, and Romans.

Berbers who adhere to a specific religion are outnumbered by those who profess no religion. However, many Berbers are Muslim (mostly of the Sunni sect), but there is also a Christian community (mainly Roman Catholic) and an even smaller Jewish community. Muslim Berbers' beliefs are exactly the same as those of Sunni Muslims elsewhere. However, Islam practiced in rural North Africa places a strong emphasis on baraka (“blessing”) and on a belief that descendants of Muhammad can perform miracles. Shrines to these important figures are scattered throughout the countryside. Living representatives are turned to for mediation of conflicts.

There is no Islamic intermediary between man and God. However, every rural community has a teacher, called a fqih who trains boys and young men to recite the Quran. The community hires the fqih to lead the prayers in the mosque and to deliver a sermon each Friday.

The fqih also prepares the charms that carry verses from the Quran, which many Berbers wear in the belief that the charm will cure disease and prevent bad luck. Elements of witchcraft and sorcery that require Arabic writing are the responsibility of men; any such activities that do not involve writing are believed to be the responsibility of women.


Berbers observe both secular holidays and the Muslim religious festivals of the lunar year. The two major Muslim holidays are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr is a three-day celebration that takes place after the month of fasting called Ramadan. Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham to obey God's command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. This Eid al-Adha feast, where every householder must sacrifice a sheep, occurs in the last month of the Islamic year and coincides with the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. People making a pilgrimage are expected to sacrifice a goat or sheep and offer the meat to the poor. Every Muslim must make this pilgrimage at least once during his or her lifetime.

Muslims celebrate their religious holidays by going to the mosque for group prayers. Afterward, they return home to large meals with family and visiting relatives. They also exchange gifts on religious holidays.

The secular holidays include New Year's Day (January 1) and Labor Day (May 1). Labor Day commemorates worker solidarity around the world. Berbers might also observe the holidays of their native countries.


Major Berber ceremonies are related to birth, marriage, and death. In addition, the first haircut and circumcision are rites of passage for boys. Circumcision is practiced by all Muslims. Most Berbers circumcise boys at around two years of age, but a sect that lives in south-central Morocco waits until boys are five or six to perform circumcision. There is no female circumcision.

Marriage ceremonies are the most important and elaborate Berber rituals. Marriage between first cousins is permitted. (This it typically a son marrying his father's brother's daughter.) Most marriages are between members of families within the same tribe section. Polygynous marriages are permitted with each co-wife having her separate dwelling or household.

Widows are often considered an inheritance by a male family member. It is not uncommon for two brothers to marry two sisters. Normally only a husband can initiate divorce (except in cases of impotence). A frequent cause for divorce is childlessness.

When death occurs, Berbers may attribute the cause as either natural or supernatural. If the deceased person is a man, his body is washed and enshrouded by a ranking Muslim man. If the deceased person is a woman, the body is attended to by another woman. Every community has a cemetery.

Burial takes place soon after death. A person who dies early in the day is buried later that day; a person who dies during the night is buried the next morning.

For burial, the body is laid with its face turned toward Mecca. An Islamic leader recites from the Quran as the body is placed in the grave. Attendance at funerals is restricted to men. The relatives of the deceased host a feast seven days after the death. Among the Rif group of Berbers, a widow hosts a feast forty days after her husband's death. Forty days theoretically marks the end of the mourning period for all Berbers, but most widows observe a three-month mourning period. This extended mourning period between widowhood and remarriage helps remove any question of paternity in case of pregnancy.


All close relatives, whether patrilineal or matrilineal, are typically addressed by the appropriate kin term. Alternative, they may be addressed by name. If the relative is especially close, he or she may be addressed by the kin term plus the name. The same form of address is also used for elders.

Berbers shake hands during greetings and farewells. It is common for close friends of the same sex to hug and exchange kisses on the cheeks. People of the opposite sex, if they are not religious, may shake hands; religious men and women avoid shaking hands with persons of the opposite sex. The most common greeting is the phrase Al-salamu alaykum, which means “May peace be upon you.” The response is Wa alaykum al-salam, or “May peace be upon you also.”

Most socializing revolves around the family. Guests are treated with warm hospitality and are served pastries and sweets. At most social gatherings, men socialize with each other and the women socialize with each other; the two groups remain separate. Boys and girls are kept apart through most of childhood. Dating is never permitted, and it is considered inappropriate and shameful for unmarried males and females to socialize; premarital sex is strictly forbidden. Premarital sex carries especially strong stigma for girls. A girl who loses her virginity outside of marriage brings great shame to her family's reputation. Marriages are arranged, either by the families or with the help of a matchmaker.


For centuries, Berbers have struggled for power with other Arab groups in North Africa. The Barbary Coast of North Africa was known as a place where Arab and Berber pirates would prey on ships on the Mediterranean Sea.

Many traditional Berbers raise sheep and cattle. However, some Berbers subsist by working at menial jobs, such as grinding flour at a mill, doing woodcarving, quarrying millstones, and making pottery or jewelry. Berber women generally carried out housework and handicrafts, such as weaving and making pottery.

Berbers live a rural lifestyle. Housing is typically a dwelling made of clay or a tent made of goatskin. In some larger Berber settlements, houses may be constructed of stone. Many modern Berbers perform migrant work in Spain or France.

For nomadic peoples, a number of factors, including colonialism, population pressure, and environmental change, has led them to develop permanent settlements. Very few Berber 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.


Everywhere in North Africa, except among some of the Tuareg groups of the Central Sahara, descent is patrilineal and residence is patrilocal. Over a century of French rule and the long wars for independence led to a breakdown of the traditional extended family unit. A mother and father would live in one home with their children, including grown sons and their wives. The grandparents would usually live with them. All members of the family would take their meals together.

If a daughter became divorced or widowed, she would return home to live with her family. In modern times, many Berber men have traveled to Europe to find work, so their wives are now filling the role of head of the household in rural areas.

In Berber households, it is common for older children to help care for their younger siblings while their mothers do household work. In most families, the grandparents also take an active role in childrearing. Thus grandparents and grandchildren develop a close bond. Segregation of boys and girls begins when children reach six or seven years of age and the boys begin to help manage the family's herd of goats. By the time they reach puberty, which traditionally is not long before the age to marry, the practice of socializing exclusively with others of the same gender is fully ingrained. Land is passed on from father to son.


The traditional attire is a one-piece, floor-length, hooded dress, known as a jellaba. It is worn by both men and women. Western attire is often worn under the jellaba. In cold weather, many men cover their jellabas with a hooded cloak called a burnus. Religious and/or conservative women cover their hair in public.

Berber women wear long, colorful dresses, often covering their heads with straw hats. Berber women historically had tattoos on their foreheads, cheeks, or necks. However, this custom is slowly fading away. Rural men often wear turbans, which they replace with a knitted skullcap when going to a mosque.


Berber cuisine differs from one area to another within North Africa. However, most Berber diets include corn, barley, sheep's milk, goat cheese, butter, honey, meat, and wild game.

The best known and most common food among all Berbers is couscous. In fact, some historians credit the Berbers with inventing couscous, which is made from semolina flour. Couscous has been known as a North African dish since the 11th or 12th century. Berbers have different names for couscous, including shekshu and sishtu.

In Algeria, couscous is called kisksu or ta'am, meaning “food” or “nourishment.” This gives an indication of the importance of couscous as a daily staple. In Tunisia, couscous may be called kiskisi or kusksi. Couscous grains may be large (and are then called muhammas or burkukis) or very fine. The fine-grained couscous is generally reserved for use in making sweet dishes, often involving almonds, raisins, or apricots.

Couscous and tagine (a type of stew) is the principal dish for special feasts and celebrations. Tagine is prepared in a single pot and requires few utensils for its preparation. The traditional tagine pot is ceramic, with a pointed dome-shaped lid. The tagine is typically simmered for hours, and is based on inexpensive cuts of meat, seasoned with spices. Thus, it is well-suited for preparation by both nomadic and rural cooks.

Preparing and serving couscous symbolizes happiness and abundance. Besides tagine, couscous may be served with meat, fish, vegetables, and spices. For a simple meal, couscous was cooked with sour milk and melted butter. This traditional food of the nomadic Berbers has found many variations among modern, more settled Berbers.


After the countries of North Africa gained independence in 1950s and 1960s, most were clear in their language policy: Arabic became the exclusive official language of the country and the role of the languages of previous colonization, namely French and Spanish, was minimized. There was no mention of Berber as a national language or minority language and no prospect for making any room for this language in the national official landscape.

Berber had no place in the educational system in Morocco, especially at the primary and secondary school levels. This forced a whole generation of children to enter school in a language they had never spoken before, contributing to a higher dropout rate among Berber children.

Challenges faced by those who spoke only Tamazight extended from the education system to other official spheres, such as the healthcare system and the legal system. Arabic and French dominated in hospitals and official government agencies.

Berber activists blame Arabization for the high illiteracy rate in Morocco—an estimated 48% of its citizens cannot read—because Berber children often drop out when confronted with teachers who speak only Arabic. In state schools, the first language taught is standard Arabic, followed by French. At the secondary school level, English, Spanish, or German is introduced. At the university level, a growing number of students are choosing to study the Berber language and culture.

By 1994, the Berber movement had grown strong enough to persuade King Hassan II of Morocco to encourage integration of the Berber language into the public education system. His son, Mohammed IV, succeeded him in July 1999, and continued to support the use and preservation of the Berber language.

Mohammed IV established the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) in 2001. (IRCAM is commonly called the Royal Institute of Berber Culture when referred to in English.) In September 2003 teaching Berber in public schools became a reality. However, this was not a simple undertaking. Teaching Berber involved learning the Tifinagh script, in addition to the Roman and the Arabic scripts already being taught.

In the past Berber children had been educated in the mosque, where they focused on religion and some rudimentary math. This was seen as important work and the fqih (religious instructor) is a highly respected member of the community.

However, religious education along was not adequately preparing Berber children for life in contemporary society. Berber ativists succeeded in convincing the government of Morocco to support the preservation of the Berber language and culture through the primary schools.

With improved health care and widespread availability of immunizations, more Berber children survive to adulthood. It is important that they receive an education that prepares them to function as citizens in North African society. It is clear that more a formalized, urban, and modern style of education is needed.

Berber oarents acknowledge that their children will not be able to support themselves by herding and farming. It is inevitable that Berber children will give up the rural or nomadic life to find employment in urban areas. Life in the city requires a sort of training beyond what is available through the mosque. Many Berber and especially Tashelhit students move through the traditional (mosque-based) educational system to become religious teachers. Berber students are enrolling in increasing numbers in the religious universities in Morocco, and some eventually join the faculty.


The Berber culture has its typical art and symbols, as well as its unique music that provides continuity through history. The ancient Berber culture is extraordinarily rich and diverse, with a variety of musical styles. These range from bagpipes and oboe (Celtic style) to pentatonic music (reminiscent of Chinese music)—all combined with African rhythms and a very important stock of authentic oral literature. These traditions have been kept alive by small bands of musicians who travel from village to village, as they have for centuries, to entertain at weddings and other social occasions with their songs, tales, and poetry.

Berber mothers have been largely responsible for the survival of the Berber language and cultural identity. Mothers share traditional stories and beliefs with their children. Women also preserve cultural traditions through the handicrafts such as tapestry, jewelry, tattoos, and pottery. In October 2001, the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) was established in Morocco to preserve Amazigh culture and language.


Important traditional Berber crafts were blacksmithing, basketry, and utilitarian woodwork, such as the making of plow handles and yokes. However, blacksmithing was typically considered a low-status occupation for men.

Berber women produced handmade pottery. In some areas, men also produced pottery, but it was considered low-status work. There is strikingly little economic specialization by Berber men. Silversmithing and saddle-making, occupations formerly practiced by rural Jews, were skills learned by some Berbers. Most Jews migrated to Israel when that country became an independent state in 1948, leaving silversmithing and leatherwork to Berbers and Arabs who remained in North Africa.

In pre-colonial times, Berber men were occupied with feuding and warfare. Modern Berber men are occupied with agriculture, herding animals, and, occasionally hunting. Berber women manage the household and perform all housework. However, preparing tea for guests is a special task reserved for the men of the household.

The management of the household engages the entire family. Women do the housework and are called on to help the men with the grain harvest. In addition, women are responsible for carrying the harvested grain in baskets to be threshed.

Men build the houses but women whitewash the walls. Women also smooth and clean the floors. Women are also frequently the ones to haul animal manure to the collective manure pile. Women milk the animals and fetch water for the animals and the household. Gathering firewood also falls to the women.

If a Berber household includes poultry and rabbits, the women care for them. Marketing the family's goods was traditionally the responsibility of the men, but sometimes elderly women, especially in poor families, would work the family's stall at the market. In modern markets, women are as numerous as men, due in part to the absence of some adult men who have migrated to Europe for work.

By around age six, boys (and some girls) herded goats on the slopes. Older girls helped care for the family's younger children. As emphasis on schooling has increased, many boys (and to a lesser degree, girls) enroll in school and are no longer available for household chores.


Before the French colonized North Africa, some traditional sports were played in the village communities or in the nomadic settlements. After the introduction of modern sports in accordance with French colonial policy, the traditional sports were threatened.

Modern sports, particularly football (soccer), spread rapidly throughout North Africa. North Africans in general, and Berbers in particular, relished the opportunity to contest against European teams. As a result of the introduction of modern sports, national sports organizations were established. These helped contribute to a sense of national identity among the countries of North Africa.

After independence from France, North African nations introduced policies of modernization and centralization. Through the modern educational system and the process of establishing an independent government, the playing of traditional sports was discouraged. These sports were viewed as primitive and backward and threatening to the development of the modern nation. Along with traditional religious practices, traditional games were criticized for being filled with superstitution.

Modern sports, however, cwere encouraged as the newly-independent nations worked to form a national identity and to find ways to compete internationally.


Ritual ceremonies serve partly as recreation and entertainment and often include music and dance. Storytelling is another favorite traditional pastime. Small bands of musicians travel from village to village, as they have for centuries, to entertain at weddings and other social occasions with their songs, tales, and poetry.

A traditional equestrian performance is practiced during cultural festivals. A performance on horseback oftens ends a traditional Berber wedding celebration. This performance is considered a form of martial art, symbolizing the strong bond between men and horses. Groups made up of hundreds or thousands of riders perform during festivals. Sports, television, and radio provide recreation for increasing numbers, especially in the cities.

Nomadic people traditionally enjoyed games involving sticks, stones, and drawing on the sandy desert ground around their settlements. These games are similar to tic-tac-toe, hop-scotch, or mancala.


Much Berber art is in the form of jewelry, leather, and finely woven carpets. The forms of Berber artistic expression, at least in the modern period, are primarily linked to utilitarian objects—pottery, weaving, and architecture—and to jewelry. All are characterized by predominantly geometrical, nonrepresentational patterns. Neither the forms and patterns nor the techniques appear to have changed significantly since ancient times, and they can be related directly to forms found in the Mediterranean basin from as early as the Iron Age. These art forms are not original or exclusive to Berbers. Still, the Berber culture has consistently produced artistic works for centuries.

Examples of Berber artistic expression include the massive earth and adobe structures, known as ksars, in southern Morocco. These architectural fortifications were constructed from packed earth, with towers and facades decorated with inscribed pattersn.

Berbers are also known for Kabyle and Chawia pottery, which are unique in their variety. Designed with elegant forms and elaborate applied patterns, this style of pottery is easily recognizable.

Berbers are also well known for their silver jewelry, which is embossed with intricate patterns and inlaid with stones. Some examples feature enameled cloisonné as well.

Berbers are also known for textiles produced throughout North Africa, but particularly in southern Tunisia and in central and southern Morocco.


Politicians in North Africa who take strong political stands in support of the Berber cause rarely reach high positions in their governments. Arabization is blamed for the continued poverty of most Berbers. Fifty percent of Moroccans live on less than $50 a month, and most of the poor are Berbers.

Government jobs are off-limits to those who speak only Berber, and Berber is prohibited in the courts; all legal documents must be translated into Arabic. One government-affiliated channel, 2M, broadcasts a mix of Arabic and French. The other, RTM, broadcasts predominantly in Arabic, with only 5 to 10 minutes a day of news in Berber.

Political tensions have risen between Berber groups and governments in North Africa during the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s. Berber activists argue that the Arabic education system, the lack of programs in Berber on state radio and television, and the absence of an entity in charge of preserving the Berber cultural heritage is threatening what is left of it.

In response to the demands of the Berbers, Morocco and Algeria have modified their policies. Algeria included language in its constitution declaring that the country is an Arab, Berber, and Muslim nation. Currently in Algeria, Berber is a national language and is taught as a non-compulsory language in the Berber speaking areas.

In Morocco, Berber is now taught. Nevertheless, Berber organizations have denounced the Moroccan education charter dealing with language and culture as insufficient. They point out that only two of its 100 articles deal with the question of Berber in school. The first said Berber could be used in primary school only to “facilitate the learning of the official language”—Arabic. The second said that certain universities would have the means to study the Berber language and culture.


Islam at its foundation was a liberator of women. For the first time in recorded Arab (and Western) 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.

Berber 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 tend to have fewer children than rural women and also 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 for sale. However, as men migrate to urban areas to look for jobs, more women have to take responsibility for traditionally men's tasks, as well as their own. This has many implications as women gain access and experience in public affairs and 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 women, like other Muslim women, are said to live in a male-dominated society with rigid sexual stratification. The seclusion and control of the sexual practices of a woman increase a man's status and power. This view has become more prevalent with the process of Islamization in Morocco, as elsewhere.


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Kossmann, Maarten G., and Joseph Stroomer Hendrikus. “Berber Phonology,” In Phonologies of Asia and Africa (Including the Caucasus), edited by Alan S. Kaye. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. 461–475, 1997.

McDougall, James. Nation, Society and Culture in North Africa. Portland: Frank Cass, 2003.

McGuinnes, Justin. Marrakech and the High Atlas Handbook. Bath: Footprint Handbooks, 2001. Montagne, Robert. The Berbers: Their Social and Political Organisation. Translated by David Seddon. London: Frank Cass, 1973.

Oregon State University. “Berber North Africa: The Hidden Mediterranean Culture.” (December 2008).

Shatzmiller, Maya. The Berbers and the Islamic State. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000.

—by M. Njoroge


views updated May 18 2018


person(s), language(s), and culture of north african groups descended from the pre-arab mediterranean-type indigenous populations.

The term Berber was first applied centuries ago by foreign conquerors. Modern-day Berbers generally prefer their own designationsamazigh (male Berber) and tamazight (female Berber or Berber language/dialect)or the local variants of these. Speakers of Berber languages, those who are now referred to as Berbers, are most numerous today in western North Africa, but they can be found as far east as easternLibya and even western Egypt (Siwa) and as far south as the Sahara Desert, northern Saharan regions of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The nation of Senegal takes its name from a Berber-speaking group, the Zenaga, who live in an area of southwestern Mauritania.

No Berber race can be distinguished, rather the variety of features found throughout the Maghrib (North Africa) are essentially those associated with Mediterranean peoples generally. There seems always to have been a considerable mixture and, at present, one is confronted with Berbers having a wide spectrum of skin colors, statures, and cranial and facial proportions.

Several of the largest groups of Berbers that are characterized by linguistic and cultural distinctiveness are referred to using terms of non-Berber origin, usually from Arabicthe Kabyles in Kabylia (Djurdjura mountains, east southeast from Algiers); the Chawia (Aurès mountains in eastern Algeria, south of Constantine); the Tuareg (Saharan Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso); the Chleuh (High Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountains, Sous valley in southern Morocco); and the Braber (also called simply imazighen, plural of amazigh ) of the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco. Virtually all other Berbers go by terms referring to the name of their place or region of origin: Nefusi, Djerbi, Mzabi, Rifi, and so on.

North African countries have not chosen to include native language data in their census processbut taking Berber speakers as constituting between 30 percent and the commonly cited 40 percent of Morocco's population, around 20 percent of Algeria's, adding several tens of thousands each from Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, one could very roughly assess the total to be somewhere around 12 million in the mid-1990s.

The overwhelming majority of Berbers have their homes in rural environments, far from the urban centers. In general, they can be found on the least productive landsthe mountains, the high plateaus, the pre-Saharan hammada, and in the Sahara Desert. Although the Tuaregcamel nomads of the central Saharamore vividly capture our imagination by their fascinating aspect and institutions, their lifestyle is not particularly representative. Most Berbers areand have been throughout recorded historysedentary agriculturalists. Along the mountains bordering on the high plateaus and desert, some Berbers practice forms of seminomadism, or transhumance, during part of the year to maintain their flocks (especially in the Aurès mountains and the southern part of the Middle Atlas).

Sedentary Berbers typically live in villages and eke out a meager peasant existence from small irrigated gardens, dry cereal culture, arboriculture, and small flocks of sheep and goats, occasionally a cow or two. In today's world, it is necessary for many of the most able-bodied men to export, for a time, their most marketable asset, their labor. It is not uncommon to find villages largely devoid of men between the ages of sixteen and forty. They emigrate temporarily, usually without families, both to North African cities and to European industrial centers and, from there, send home the money that, by living frugally, they are able to accumulate. Without their support, these villages and areas simply could not survive.

In many instances, by virtue of a natural tendency of younger emigrants to follow their elder family members, a village or even a whole area becomes specialized in a particular vocational field to the extent that they hold a near monopoly on one or another activity or commercial enterprise. Interestingly, this has happened in the grocery trade in all three of the main Maghrib countries. In each case, Berbers from a specific area have come to dominate to such an extent that, in the towns and cities, one typically does not go to the grocer's: In Tunisia one goes to the Djerbi's (from the island of Djerba), in Algeria to the Mzabi's (pre-Sahara), in Morocco to the Sousi's (Sous river valley and Anti-Atlas mountains). It is a significant instance of very successful adaptation to nontraditional ways, but it should be noted that its purpose, for the overwhelming majority, is precisely to permit the maintenance of the traditional homeland and lifestyle.


The forms of Berber artistic expression, at least in the modern period, are primarily linked to utilitarian objectspottery, weaving, and architectureand to jewelry. All are characterized by predominantly geometrical, nonrepresentational patterns. Neither the forms and patterns nor the techniques appear to have changed significantly since ancient times, and they can be related directly to forms found in the Mediterranean basin from as early as the Iron Age. While they are not especially original or exclusive to Berbers, one is struck by the extraordinary persistence and continuity, in Berber country, of the tradition. Some of the most remarkable examples of Berber artistic expression are: (1) the fortified architecture of the southern Moroccan ksars, massive but majestic rammed earth and adobe-brick structures with intricate decorative patterns seemingly chiseled into their towers and facades; (2) Kabyle and Chawia pottery, extraordinary for the variety and elegance of its modeled forms as well as the composition and proportion of its applied patterns; (3) silver jewelry, embossed and inlaid with stones as well as with enameled cloisonné, especiallybut by no means exclusivelythat represented by the Kabyle tradition; (4) textiles throughout North Africa, but particularly in southern Tunisia and in central and southern Morocco.

Social Organization

Traditional social organization is family based and therefore quite segmentary. Relations between extended familiesor, if need be, between clans or villageshave in the past been (and continue to some extent to be) mediated by an assembly of heads of family, or elders, called the Djemaʿa. In today's more centrally administered bureaucratic world, many of the traditional competencies of the assembly have been taken over by government agencies. Nonetheless, a number of issuesthose concerning local resources of common interest and responsibility: Maintenance of paths, irrigation canals, mosques, and Qurʾanic schools; hiring of the Qurʾanic teacher; usage of forests and pastureland; setting of plowing and harvest dates; protection of crops; cooperative support (usually in the form of labor) of disadvantaged families; collective meat purchasing; hospitality for outsiders; organizing local religious or secular celebrations; and so forthcontinue to require consensus decisions and the shared provision of labor and material resources. While the term democratic, which has often been applied to Berber institutions, does not appear appropriate, one is struck by their profound egalitarianism, less as a moral imperative than one born of a distrust of power concentrated in the hands of one segment or another. This is often summarized in the terms balance and opposition: balance of power maintained by a constant resistance to the other segments' natural self-interest and by vigilance to assure that all segments bear burdens and reap benefits equally.

Berbers seem always to have had, and earned, a reputation of fierce independence, of inclination to rebellion, of resistance to any imposition of control over their lives. North African history is extremely fragmented, constantly jostled by new revolts, realignments, and alliances. Every schismatic movement seems to be welcomed against the previous orthodoxy, Donatism when the Berbers were being Christianized, Kharijism in the early years of Islamization. As often as not, the not yet entrenched conqueror is joined with to throw off the previous tyrantwhether either or both were Berber or not. Each time that a choice was to be made, it was seemingly made in the direction of greater local control and independence. Only on rare occasions in their history did the Berbers put together something like a Berber nation, uniting for a time over a vast territory to create a state or empire. In the two most important instances, the Almoravid and the Almohad dynasties of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they were drawn together by the ideal of reform of the previously dominant regime(s), seen as having fallen into corrupt ways. This search for ever purer forms is, along with their deep cultural conservatism, one of the most constantly recurring themes throughout their history.


Virtually all Berbers by the twenty-first century were Muslims and, like most North Africans, are of Sunni Islam orthodoxy. In the Mzab and in Ouargla in Algeria, on the island of Djerba in Tunisia, and in the Nefusa mountains of Libya, there subsist Ibadite communitiesall essentially Berber-speakingwho trace their history back to the Kharijite schism of the seventh and eighth centuries.

Little reliable detail can be given as to the nature of the Berbers' pre-Islamic religious beliefs and practices. There is evidence from archaeology, from the remarks of observers in antiquity, and also from popular practices that have survived into the present in North Africa, of a generally animistic set of beliefs manifested in sacralization of promontories, outcroppings, caves, trees, and water sources. The usages seem to have been highly varied and local in their expression but widespread and reflective of the quasi-universal need to assuage the spirits to which the vicissitudes of everyday life can beand are stillattributed. Much of the North African fondness for the veneration of local saints, so-called Maraboutism, tolerated by the central tradition of Islam as somewhat deviant and marginal, can be understood as deriving in large part from this sub-stratum: Saints' "tombs" are often situated next to trees, caves, topographical features, or water sources that give evidence of cultic activity going back well before the life of the nominal vessel of baraka (blessedness, protection, God's power made present).

Language and Literature

Berber languages constitute together one branch of the AfroAsiatic (or HamitoSemitic) language family, whose other four branches are Semitic, Egyptian, Cushitic, and Chadic. Berber languages show a high degree of homogeneity in their grammar, somewhat less in their phonology. The differences that one notes between them are fewer and less considerable than those within the Semitic, Cushitic, or Chadic branches (Egyptian is manifested as essentially homogeneous at any historical moment). In a number of important respects, Berber bears a closer resemblance to Semitic languages than to the other branches: (1) the sound system employs contrasts of consonant "length" and pharyngealization (emphatics); (2) there are three basic vowels a, i, u with an archaic contrast of short versus long vowels found in the important set of Tuareg languages; (3) the morphological system is highly complex, characterized by a prevalence of tri-radical roots (less than Semitic, however), and considerable use of both consonant length and intraradical vowel alternation to express grammatical categories such as verb aspect and noun number; (4) the verbal system is based on a fundamental contrast of perfective versus imperfective aspect, with tense being secondary; (5) word order is predominantly V(erb) S(ubject) O(bject), though SVO is very frequent in main clauses.

Some noteworthy features peculiar to Berber include the following: (1) as reflected in the words amazigh, tamazight (cf. supra), as well as many place names on maps, masculine nouns begin with a vowel and feminine nouns begin with t + vowel and most often end in t as well (the vowel is a in 80% of nouns); (2) a special form of the noun (the annexed or construct form), characterized by an alteration of the vowel of the first syllable (amazigh > umazigh, tamazight > tmazight), is used for the subject noun after its verb, after prepositions, and as the second element in a noun-complement construction; (3) the subject markers of finite verb forms are both prefixed and suffixed to the stem (with the prefix elements being clearly identifiable with those of the Semitic prefix conjugation); (4) pronominal objects of the verb basically go immediately after the verb but must precede it in a number of conditions (essentially those of subordination); (5) particles can be used with the verb to "orient" the verbal action: d = "toward speaker" and n = "away from speaker."

Berber languages are generally only spoken, seldom written. Among the Tuareg, however, there subsists an alphabet, the tifinagh, which descends from the Libyan alphabet that is found in ancient inscriptions throughout much of North Africa (but principally present-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria). This alphabet, which like Arabic is essentially consonantal, can be written right to left or left to right, occasionally vertically. Among the Tuareg, it is used primarily for short inscriptions on rocks and for brief messages but does not seem to be employed for the recording of stories, documents, or history, those uses for which writing is basic in our Western cultures. Some efforts have been made by advocates of Berber cultural affirmation, to adapt the tifinagh to such functions and to broaden its use to other Berber-speaking groups, as in Kabylia and in Morocco. These efforts have had only very limited success and those publications (several in Algeria and in Morocco) written in the Berber language generally use the Latin-based transcription system employed by the French.

Berber literature is then essentially oral. It includes many traditional storiestales of animals, marvelous tales with ogres and monsters, tales of kings and princesses (à la Thousand and One Nights ), hagiographic legends, and myriad other stories that hand down the moral and ethical base of Berber society. As for poetry, among the Berbers it goes with music and isunlike the tales and storiesconstantly regenerated around a wide spectrum of subjects. There are extremely traditional forms, such as the often bantering repartee in the context of celebra-tory line dances in Morocco. There are more lyrical forms, songs of the heart and its joys and pains. There are the elaborate and often quite lengthy commentaries by troubador-like itinerant singers who hold forth, often quite bitingly, on all subjects, including the political scene. And, of course, one cannot fail to mention Berber popular music, which constitutes the richest and most fertile field of Berber literary expression today.

Of the languages with which Berber has shared North Africa at different times and placesamong them Phoenician, Latin, Germanic (German and English), Turkish, Italian, Spanish, and Frenchnone has had the profound effect that the Arabic dialects have had. Most Berber languages have a high percentage of borrowing from Arabic, as well as from other languages (these often indirectly through Arabic, however). Least influenced are the Tuareg languages; most influenced, those that are near urban centers and from whose areas there has traditionally been much temporary emigration for work.

Berber languages survive because children learn their first language from their mothers and it continues to be the language of the home, of the private world, long after they become adults and the men become bilingual. Berber women continue, in most areas, to have little education and little contact with the Arabic-speaking world around them, so their children will doubtless continue to learn and to perpetuate Berber languages. The movements to preserve Berber culture, most developed in Kabylia and somewhat in Morocco, will also doubtless have a conservative effect. Where Berber is spoken only in a village or two surrounded by Arabic speakers, it is disappearing. In the larger Berber-speaking regions, however, it is quite resistant, and the numbers of speakers are growing at nearly the same rate as that at which the population increases.

In postindependence North Africa, Berber languages and cultures have been neglected and even repressed by the agencies of the central governments. This seems to have been caused by a perceived need to discourage cultural differences in the building of the nation-statecultural differences that, it was felt, had been exploited by the French colonial regimes to divide the colonized and impose their authority. On occasion, the reaction to this repression has been violent, as in 1980 in Kabylia. Not surprisingly, political movements have grown up around the issues of cultural expression and autonomy. In both Algeria and Morocco, there exist official political parties made up essentially of Berbers, with Berber cultural preservation as one of their highest priorities.

see also djemaʿa; maghrib; marabout; mauritania; sunni islam.


Brett, Michael, and Fentress, Elizabeth. The Berbers. Oxford, U.K., and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

Eickelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976.

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

Gellner, Ernest, and Micaud, Charles, eds. Arabs and Berbers: From Tribe to Nation in North Africa. London: Duckworth, 1973.

Westermarck, Edward. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. London: Macmillan, 1926.

Thomas G. Penchoen


views updated May 29 2018


BERBERS , indigenous North African tribes who originally spoke dialects of the Berber language. Medieval Arab writers ascribed the ancestry of the Berbers to *Goliath the Philistine and maintained their Canaanite origin. The Phoenician colonization of Africa, the long Carthaginian domination, and the survival of Punic, a language closely related to Hebrew, supported these legends which spread among the Berbers themselves. Similar tales are found in the writings of Greek and Latin authors and in the Talmud which spread the legend that the Canaanites immigrated of their own free will to North Africa. It is said that the survivors of the Jewish revolt in *Cyrenaica (115–116 c.e.) found refuge among the Berbers of Western *Libya. Scholars have frequently claimed that the Jews' desire to proselytize found a favorable atmosphere among the Berbers from the first to the seventh centuries. African Christianity, whose early converts were Jews, clashed with Jewish proselytism. Archaeological discoveries, epigraphs, and writings of the Christian scholars Tertullian and St. Augustine, indignant at the growing Berber conversions to Judaism, attest to these facts. The persecutions by the Byzantines forced Jews to settle among the Berbers in the mountain and desert regions. Ibn Khaldun confirmed the existence of a large number of proselyte Berbers at the time of the Arab conquest of Africa. The Islamization of these countries, however, did not abolish all previous beliefs. Christianity was abandoned rapidly; Judaism continued to exist and – from Tripolitania to *Morocco – modern ethnographers and anthropologists encountered small groups whom they called "Jewish Berbers." These isolated groups of Jews lived in the high mountains of North Africa until the last few decades. Some scholars designated them as the descendants of Berber proselytes. In most cases they eventually intermingled with the rest of the population. However, the survival of such groups to the present is now doubted.

It is difficult to evaluate Jewish life in Berber society because Berbers did not have a written history. Berber history was completely oral. Thus, information on Jewish life comes from travelers who visited the Atlas Mountains, from a few written sources, and from interviews with people who lived in these areas. Two main sources are Higgid Mordechai, written by Mordechai Hacohen, a Jewish scholar from Tripoli who wrote about the Jews in Jabel Nafusa, south of Tripoli, and a statistical study carried out between 1961 and 1964 by the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, during the "Yachin Operation," in which the Mossad organized the aliyah of the Jews in the area.

Jews coexisted within Berber society. They had complete autonomy, communal organizations, and the possibility of practicing their religion. Jews were mainly occupied in trade and the crafts and did not work in agriculture. There was some kind of understanding between Berbers and Jews about the occupational structure of each group, enabling each to earn a livelihood. They also shared religious rituals and customs. For example, at Shavuot the Berbers of Libya poured water on Jews as one of their customs.

The Mossad study referred to Jewish life in Berber society at the end of its existence. In the village of Gourama in southeast Morocco, for example, there were 285 Jews, 73% of them below the age of 30. About 20% of the families had eight members, 50% fewer that seven persons. Seven Jews were tailors, seven farmers, five merchants, and two butchers. Although more research is needed it seems that these figures characterize Jewish life in the Berber villages.


H. Fournel, Les Berbères (1875), 32–41; S. Gsell, Histoire ancienne de l'Afrique du Nord, 1 (1920), 236–343; E.F. Gauthier, Le passé de l'Afrique du Nord (1942), 140ff., 225–44, 270ff., 439; Simon, in: Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses 26 (1946), 1–31, 105–45; M. Simon, Verus Israel (Eng. 1948), index; Hirschberg, in Zion, 22 (1957), 10–20; idem, in: Journal of African History, 4 (1963), 313–39; Hirschberg, Afrikah, 2 (1965), 9–36; N. Slouschz, Hébraeo-Phéniciens et Judéo-Berbères (1908); idem, Travels in North Africa (1927), 453–88, passim; A.N. Chouraqui, Between East and West (1968). add. bibliography: M. Shokeid, "Jewish Existence in a Berber Environment," in: Sh. Deshen and W.P. Zenner (eds.), Jews among Muslims… (1996), 109–20; E. Goldberg, "Ecologic and Demographic Aspects of Rural Tripolitanian Jewry 1853–1949," in: International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2 (1971), 245–65; E. Goldberg and H. Goldberg, Cave Dwellers and Citrus Growers: Jewish Community in Libya and Israel (1972); E. Goldberg, "Communal Organization of the Jews of Tripolitania during the Late Ottoman Period," in: Jewish Political Studies Review, 5:3–4, (Fall 5754/1993), 77–95; idem, "The 'Maskil' and the 'Mequbbal'; Mordecai Ha-Cohen and the Grave of Rabbi Shim'on Lavi in Tripoli," in: H.E. Goldberg (ed.), Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries (1996), 168–80.

[David Corcos /

Haim Sadoun (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 11 2018

Berbers Caucasian Muslim people of n Africa and the Sahara Desert. Some are herdsmen and subsistence farmers; others, like the Tuareg, roam the desert with their animal herds. The farmers live in independent villages, governed by tribesmen. Their remarkably stable culture dates back to before 2400 bc. Berber languages are spoken by more than 10 million people. See also Almohad; Almoravid


views updated Jun 08 2018

Berber XIX. — Arab. barbar.