Atlas Mountains: Facts and Location

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

The Atlas Mountains are a mountain chain located in North Africa. In this lesson, you will learn geologic facts in addition to important historical events tied to the mountain chain.

Where are the Atlas Mountains?

Besides having a great name, the Atlas Mountains are an important geographic area steeped in history. The Atlas mountain chain stretches across North Africa through Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The mountains formed over millions of years, gaining their present-day shape when the African continent collided with the Iberian peninsula, in what is known as a convergent plate boundary.

Because of their extensive range, the Atlas Mountains are divided into seven different sub-regions, each with their own unique ecosystem. Overall, however, the Atlas can be categorized as a semi-arid mountain range between the tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean/Mediterranean and the massive Sahara Desert. The highest mountain in the Atlas is Mount Toubkal. Mount Toubkal measures nearly 14,000 feet, and is located in southwestern Morocco.

Atlas Mountains
Atlas Mountains

Plants and Animals of the Atlas Mountains

Argan Tree
Argan Tree

The mix of tropical and arid climates creates poor soil, making the Atlas Mountains an area which is relatively inhospitable for settlement. The Sahara has undergone continuous desertification, which occurs when dry land becomes more and more arid and loses its water. This has wiped out much of the plant life in the Atlas Mountains outside of Mediterranean-style shrubs. One notable exception is the Argan Tree, an ancient North African tree which has endured desertification and is now a symbol of the region. Animal life is fairly limited, but includes interesting animals such as Barbary Macaques, jackals, and wild mountain goats.

People of the Atlas Mountains

Most of the populations around the Atlas are small villages, rather than cities. The most famous and numerous of the Atlas populations is the Berber People, a North African culture which traces its roots back thousands of years. The ancient kingdom of the Berbers was known as Numidia, who interacted heavily with the Romans. The area was even under Roman rule for a time, which led to the blending of South European and North African customs in the area.

Berber herders
Berber herders

Later, the Berber region was known as Maghreb, an Arabic name given during the Islamic conquest of the Middle Ages during the 1st millennium AD. The Atlas Mountains quickly became a key holding for various Islamic empires for centuries, linking the Middle East to Southern Europe.

Today, Berber culture is a mix of indigenous mountain traditions and Islam. Many Berber villages exist as they have for centuries, with small huts located on mountain ridges, surrounded by intricate terraced fields which make maximum use out of the poor mountain soil. Herding is also an essential livelihood of the Berbers, which takes advantage of the open mountain landscape.

More recently, the Atlas Mountain region was controlled by the French during the colonial era, and the French language can be heard throughout the region. Berbers still fight racial prejudices for their rural lifestyle, and are often differentiated from cosmopolitan Arabic populations in surrounding cities.

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