Algeria: To the Early Nineteenth Century

To the Early Nineteenth Century

The earliest recorded inhabitants of Algeria were Berber-speaking peoples who by the 2d millennium b.c. were living in small village-based political units. In the 9th cent. b.c., Carthage was founded in modern-day Tunisia, and Carthaginians eventually established trading posts at Annaba, Skikda, and Algiers. Coastal Algeria was known as Numidia and was usually divided into two kingdoms, both of which were strongly influenced by Carthage. The kingdoms of Numidia were united by King Masinissa (c.238–149 b.c.).

In 146 b.c., Rome destroyed Carthage, and by 106 b.c., after defeating King Jugurtha of Numidia, it held coastal Algeria. The Romans also gained control of the Tell Atlas region and part of the Plateau of the Chotts; the rest of present-day Algeria remained under Berber rulers and was outside Roman rule. Under Rome, the cities were built up and impressive public works (including roads and aqueducts) were constructed. Much grain was shipped from Algeria to Rome. By the Christian era, Algeria (divided into Numidia and Mauritania Caesariensis) was an integral, albeit relatively unimportant, part of the Roman Empire. One of its most famous citizens was St. Augustine (354–430), who was bishop of Hippo (now Annaba) and a leading opponent of Donatism (which was in part a Berber protest against Roman rule).

By the 5th cent. Roman civilization in Algeria had been eroded by incursions of Berbers, and the destruction wreaked by the Vandals (who passed through Algeria on their way to Tunisia) in 430–431 marked the end of effective Roman control. Algeria again came under the control of numerous small indigenous political units. In the early 6th cent. a temporary veneer of unity and order was forged by the Byzantine Empire, which conquered parts of the North African coast including the region E of Algiers. In the late 7th and early 8th cent. Muslim Arabs conquered Algeria and ousted the Byzantines. Although few Arabs settled in the region, they had a profound influence as most of the Berbers quickly became Muslims and gradually absorbed the Arabic language and culture. In addition, the Arabs intermarried with the Berbers.

A number of small Muslim states rose and fell in Algeria, but generally the eastern part of the country came under the influence of dynasties centered in Tunisia (notably the Aghlabid of Kairouan) and the western part was controlled by states centered in Morocco (notably the Almoravids and Almohads). Also, in the 8th and 9th cent. Tlemcen was the center of the Muslim Kharajite sect, and in the early 10th cent. the Fatimid dynasty began its major rise from a base in NE Algeria. In the late 15th cent. Spain expelled the Muslims from its soil and soon thereafter captured the coastal cities of Algeria. Algerians appealed to Turkish pirates (especially the Barbarossa brothers) for help, and, with the aid of the Ottoman Empire, they ended Spanish control by the mid-16th cent. Algeria then came under Ottoman rule.

The country was at first governed by officials sent from Constantinople, but in 1671 the dey (ruler) of Algiers, chosen by local civilian, military, and pirate leaders to govern for life and virtually independent of the Ottoman Empire, became head of Algeria. The country was divided into three provinces (Constantine, Titteri, and Mascara), each governed by a bey. The power of the Ottomans, and later of the deys, did not extend much beyond the Tell Atlas. The coast was a stronghold of pirates (see Barbary States) who preyed on Mediterranean shipping. Privateering reached a high point in the 16th and 17th cent. and declined thereafter; there was a temporary increase during the Napoleonic Wars (early 19th cent.). A large percentage of the dey's revenues came from pirates. Considerable trade with Europe also was conducted from Algerian ports; the chief exports were wheat, fruit, and woven goods. The country was in addition a center of the slave trade, most of the slaves being persons captured by pirates.

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