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Berbers

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 Tuareg, 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 languages, 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 Mauretania and Numidia.

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 Donatism, 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 Fatimid 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 Almoravids and the Almohads, 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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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