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The Berbers: Origin, Religion & Culture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Berbers are a major ethnic group of North Africa. In this lesson, we are going to get to know them a little better and check out their history, culture, and religious beliefs.

Berbers

If you ever find yourself visiting North Africa, you're likely to end up interacting with an ethnic group known as the Berbers. Just don't call them that. The Berbers are a pre-Arab ethnic group that has largely adopted an Arab identity; so many don't like to be identified by their ancestral ethnicity. Those who do still don't like to be called Berber because this is not a term native to North Africa.

''Berber'' is actually a Roman word that means ''barbarian,'' used as a loose, catch-all term to classify the non-Egyptian and non-Hellenized people of the region. So, if not Berber, what do these people call themselves? They are Imazighen (singular Amazigh), and there's a lot to learn about them.

Map showing areas where various Berber languages are most spoken
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Origins of the Berbers

So where do they come from, this somewhat loose ethnic group we know as Berbers? This population resided across Africa's Mediterranean coast long before the arrival of Arabic-speaking populations, and is generally considered to be ancestrally native to the region. We do know that they were here since the beginning of written history, and in fact, the Greeks wrote about them often. In Greek sources, most notably those of Herodotus, they are called the Libyans. But, what about before written history?

Ancient Egyptian image of a Libyan, the ancient term for the Berbers
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There are a few clues that can help us theorize the origins of the Berbers. The traditional Berber religion was dominated by solar and lunar deities, very similar to those worshipped by the Egyptians. Some scholars have interpreted this to suggest that Berbers and Egyptians shared an ancient, pre-urbanized, cultural or ethnic ancestry.

In addition to other native African groups, distant relatives of the Berbers may also include pre-Abrahamic cultures of West Asia with whom the Berbers shared burial practices. What we can say with certainty is that the Berbers have lived in North Africa for thousands of years, and perhaps have been there longer than anyone else.

Berber Culture

So, why exactly did the Romans think that the Berbers were less civilized than other African cultures, such as the Egyptians? It's because many of the so-called Berber groups were nomadic, and in fact, some still are. It's important to remember, however, that without a single, historic, shared identity, there were actually several social systems employed by Berber communities. Some were nomadic traders, while others were pastoralists, traveling with herds. Most, however, were simply farmers who lived in remote regions of North Africa. All of these systems are still employed by Berber communities in North Africa today, although the stereotype of Berbers as nomads persists.

Berbers are still often stereotyped as nomads, despite this being a way of life for only a few groups
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Berber identity and culture remains predominantly tied to rural North Africa. The reasons for this date back to the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th century. Following the consolidation of Islam, Arab invaders swept through North Africa, bringing their culture, language, and religion with them. They focused on capturing North African cities and basically ignored the neighboring mountains and deserts. Berbers could either fight the Arab armies or seek refuge in the mountains, which many of them did.

Of course, there are Berbers in every urban center of North Africa, but it should be acknowledged that most people in North African cities self-identify more as Arab than Berber. The one place that is really an exception is in Algeria. French colonial forces in the 19th and 20th centuries tried to undermine the urban, Arab elites by giving money and positions of power to Berber leaders instead. As a result, the Berber community in Algeria is amongst the most urbanized and politically active in all of North Africa.

In other parts of North Africa, Berber communities are only now starting to assert political rights in earnest and actively seek roles on national stages. In the mid-20th century, many North African countries pursued distinct policies of Arabization in order to eliminate French colonial influences. This also led to a further suppression of Berber cultural identity, which is being resisted today. Modern Berber groups have started pushing for greater recognition, and many have succeeded in finally getting local Berber languages recognized as official languages of the country.

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