North Africa: History and Cultures

Separated from the rest of Africa by the SAHARA DESERT, the peoples of North Africa share a language and many cultural, political, and economic traditions. The term North Africa refers to the modern states of EGYPT, LIBYA, TUNISIA, ALGERIA, and MOROCCO, as well as the territory of WESTERN SAHARA. In ancient times the lands north of the Sahara and west of Egypt were treated as a single unit. The Greeks called the region “Libya,” and the Arabs referred to it as “Jazirat al-Maghreb,” meaning “island of the west.” Although the geography and history of North Africa might suggest that the region developed separately from the rest of the continent, in fact its peoples have always had close contact with their neighbors south of the Sahara.

North Africa: History and Cultures


By about 40,000 years ago, North Africa's first human inhabitants had developed complex stoneworking techniques. This achievement led to the spread of human settlement across the region. After these Stone Age people began to form communities, a series of long droughts occurred in the Sahara. The change in climate drove the human inhabitants north, east, and south in search of better lands. Over the next 30,000 years, the Sahara had several wet and dry cycles. During each wet phase people would form settlements, only to move on as drought made the lands barren.

Migration and Settlement

Some people migrated east until they reached the NILE RIVER. By about 6000 B.C. they had developed a culture based on fishing, which eventually grew into the great civilization of Egypt. Others traveled north to the Mediterranean coast, where they found fertile lands and learned to grow grains. Those who traveled south settled around oases in the desert or found their way to the lands beyond the desert. These southern migrations provided the foundation for what would later become the great Saharan trade routes.

By about 1000 B.C. the domestication of crops and animals had spread throughout North Africa and ironworking technology had developed. The peoples who had settled along the Nile learned to control the river's flooding and improved their farming techniques. The population of the region increased rapidly and new forms of social organization developed. Small states arose along the Nile's fertile valley and delta. In about 3000 B.C. King Menes united the entire region—from the southernmost settlements to the Nile Delta in the north—and became Egypt's first pharaoh.


Over the next several hundred years, Egypt expanded northward into Palestine and became the most powerful nation in the region. Farther north in what is now Turkey arose the Hittite Empire, and to the east in Mesopotamia emerged the empire of Babylon. By 2000 B.C. the southern border of Egypt had extended beyond Aswan to include the region known as NUBIA. For the next 1,000 years, Egypt was the gateway for new inventions and trade goods entering Africa from the Middle East.

Centuries of Invasions

By the 600s B.C. the Assyrian Empire (in modern Iraq) had conquered the Hittites, the Babylonians, and Egypt. Later, the Persians, who came from what is now Iran, overthrew the Assyrians. At about the same time, traders from Phoenicia in the eastern Mediterranean began sailing along the North African coast. They established settlements where they could repair and provision their ships on the way to Spain. The most important of their settlements, CARTHAGE in present-day Tunisia, grew into a major city—and eventually an empire. The Phoenicians also founded three cities in what is now Libya, around which developed the region known as Tripolitania.

The city of Carthage formed trade relationships with the nomads of North Africa's interior, such as the Sanhaja BERBERS. These nomads had a monopoly on trade across the Sahara, exchanging salt from North Africa for food, gold, ivory, and slaves. By 600 B.C. Carthage had achieved great wealth and become an independent state.

As the demand for trade goods increased, Carthage's commercial network expanded south to the NIGER RIVER and west to settlements in what is now MAURITANIA. These trading contacts provided for the exchange of more than goods: along with salt and cloth the visitors from the north brought skills, such as ironworking, to their trade partners in the sub-Saharan lands.

The Phoenicians, however, were not the only people to claim land on the North African coast. The Greeks had reached northeastern Libya in about 1100 B.C. They had formed alliances with indigenous tribes and launched an unsuccessful attempt to invade Egypt. When the Greeks returned to North Africa about 500 years later, Phoenicia had already gained control of most of the coast. The only territory left unclaimed was the stretch of shore on which the Greeks had originally landed. Here they founded the town of Cyrene (in modern Libya) in about 630 B.C.

At first the Greek colonists settled into friendly relations with the local peoples, but as their numbers increased relations turned hostile. The greatest threat to peace, however, came from outside. Egypt tried, and failed, to invade the Greek territory in 570 B.C. Less than 50 years later, the Persians conquered the region. Persia held it for about 200 years, until Alexander the Great defeated Persia and claimed its North African colonies. After Alexander's death in 323, his general, Ptolemy, became pharaoh of Egypt and ruled the region from the newly created capital city of ALEXANDRIA.


The arrival of Romans in North Africa deeply influenced the region's development. As Rome grew it sought to gain land, resources, and commercial opportunities in Africa.

Relations with Local Kingdoms

Rome began by challenging Carthage for control of the North African coast. The Phoenician army rose in defense, assisted by leaders of some of the indigenous peoples ruled by Carthage, including the Numidian commander Masinissa. In 204 B.C. the Romans promised to recognize Masinissa as king of Numidia (now part of Tunisia and eastern Algeria) if he would abandon Carthage. Not a strong supporter of Carthage, he quickly switched sides. Soon afterward, a Berber leader named Bocchus struck a similar deal with the Romans and was recognized as king of Mauretania (present-day Morocco and western Algeria).

Rome destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C. and sent its own colonists to North Africa. Settling on the coast, the Romans built great plantations that were worked by slaves from nomadic groups in the Sahara. Over time resentment of the Romans grew among some of the peoples of the interior. Mauretania remained loyal, but the Numidians began raiding Roman settlements.

In 46 B.C. the Romans overthrew the Numidian monarchy and made the kingdom into a Roman province. They spent the next several decades consolidating their holdings in North Africa. Having already gained control of Egypt's Libyan province, Cyrenaica, they took over Egypt in 30 B.C.

As Roman control spread across North Africa, opposition stirred among the indigenous peoples. Even in Mauretania, where the kings continued to support Rome, independent Berber groups mounted raids against Roman estates. Over time, however, these conflicts lessened. Rome had powerful reasons for maintaining peace and order in North Africa. The farms in the region produced an abundance of grain, and the Saharan trade routes were a source of great wealth.


Trade flourished in North Africa under Roman rule. The Romans built garrisons to protect their colonies and the trade routes. Caravans increased in size and number and trading centers—such as Leptis in Libya and Djemila in Algeria—grew rapidly. Berber groups dominated commerce across the region.

Trade brought the ivory and gold merchants of the western Sudan into contact with the Mediterranean region and with new development from the world outside of Africa. The rise of the early SUDANIC EMPIRES along the Niger River occurred in large part as a response to the rich trade in ivory, gold, slaves, and other goods. The wealth generated by this trade was so great that merchants from other regions were attracted to North Africa. Arabs from Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula established commercial centers in Africa, extending the Saharan trading network as far east and south as ZANZIBAR.

The peace and prosperity of North Africa under Roman rule allowed Christianity to spread across the region. Christian communities began to appear in the A.D. 100s, and by the 300s the new religion had reached ETHIOPIA. The movement spread down the Nile River into Nubia and provided a common faith for many of the independent peoples of the region.

In the 400s the Roman Empire came under attack from the north. The Goths and Vandals of northern Europe stormed the city of Rome and, in a series of invasions, broke the strength of the empire. What remained of Roman territory was an area that came to be known as the Byzantine Empire, based around Constantinople (modern Istanbul in Turkey). The Vandals took over Rome's colonies in North Africa, and the Romans lost their share of the Saharan trade. However, within 150 years the Byzantine Empire had regained control of Rome's former territories in Tunisia.


Soon after the collapse of Roman rule, the religion of Islam was founded. This new faith quickly gained followers and became a major cultural and political force in North Africa and the Mediterranean region.

The Rise of Islam

In 622 the prophet Muhammad rose to power in the Arabian city of Medina and founded Islam. The Muslim leaders, or caliphs, who followed him used the religion to solidify and expand their rule throughout the Middle East and into North Africa. By the mid-600s they had invaded Egypt and the territories of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania in Libya. Then they expanded their North African holdings as far west as Tunis, spreading the new faith as they went.

Arab Trade and Culture

By the early 700s the Arabs had extended their empire across North Africa and up into Spain. Waves of settlers from Arabia came to live in North Africa, strengthening Arab control of the coast and trading with the Berber merchants of the region. Onceagain, trade provided a means of spreading new ideas. Through Arab merchants Islam quickly expanded beyond the Sahara, as far south as the Niger River and as far west as present-day SENEGAL.

Gradually, Arabic became the language used in everyday conversation and in literature and scholarship. Many people came to know Arabic through the Qur'an, the Islamic holy scripture. The spread of Islam also brought Islamic customs and religious practices to a wide area. The Arab rulers used Islamic law, called Shari'a, to settle disputes.

Under Arab rule, trading caravans ran more frequently and commercial networks expanded, accelerating the spread of Islam to distant regions. The Arabs relied on camels in their Saharan caravans and passed their skill in handling the animals on to the Sanhaja Berbers. The camels, superbly adapted to the desert, allowed merchants to travel more quickly and cover greater distances. New Berber groups became involved in trade and new routes opened up from Algeria south into Songhai and Mali.

Ruling Dynasties

By the late 900s the Arabs were well established in North Africa and had achieved independence from Baghdad (in modern Iraq), the political center of the Islamic world. In North Africa various powerful families worked to establish themselves as hereditary monarchs. A dynasty called the Tulunids took over in Egypt, and the Ahglabids rose to power in Algeria. The Idrisids gained influence in northern Morocco. These dynasties controlled the coastal strip of North Africa. However, in the south, the Berbers—particularly the Sanhaja and the TUAREG—remained independent.

For the next 400 years, different forms of Islam competed for dominance in North Africa. A version of the religion called Shia Islam was practiced by the Fatimid dynasty, which claimed descent from Muhammad's daughter Fatima. Gaining influence in Egypt and Tunisia, the Fatimids attempted to spread Shia Islam to the rest of North Africa. The followers of Sunni Islam, the more widespread version of the religion, opposed the Fatimids.

The conflict among these different forms of Islam kept the peoples of North Africa divided until a few great dynasties consolidated them. The Almoravids, Sanhaja Berbers who practiced Sunni Islam, rose to power in the west. By the 1100s, they had united the area from Morocco to Algeria and south into Senegal, Ghana, and Songhai. They also conquered much of Muslim Spain. Even after the Almoravid movement had passed on, it left a strong legacy in northern Africa. In its wake, it left behind the Maliki school of Islamic law, which became the dominant form of Islam in the region. It remains a powerful presence in parts of Africa. The Ziriids, also Sunni, came to power in western Algeria and Tunisia. The Fatimids remained in Egypt. Two Arab, rather than Berber, dynasties also gained some influence: the Hilali in western Algeria and Tunisia, and the Sulaym in Libya.

The Almoravids were the most powerful of these North African dynasties. However, in the 1100s the Soninke of Ghana challenged the Almoravids from the south. At the same time, the Almohads, a dynasty led by Berbers from the Atlas Mountains, began to challenge the Almoravids. The Almohads took the Almoravids' Spanish provinces and their lands along the North African coast. They held the region until 1269, when three new Berber states arose, ruled by the Marinid, Hafsid, and Zayyanid dynasties.

The Berber States

The Marinid dynasty held power in the territory now called Morocco, the Hafsids ruled from western Libya (Tripolitania) to eastern Algeria and Tunisia, and the Zayyanids controlled most of western Algeria. These rulers decided not to identify their states with any single religious sect, and they encouraged cooperation among followers of different doctrines. In this atmosphere, Islam thrived and the major cities of North Africa became important centers for scholarship and culture.

Relations among the three Berber states were frequently strained. In the mid-1300s the Marinid sultans, Abu al-Hasan Ali and Abu Inan, launched attacks on their eastern neighbors but were forced back. Such conflicts continued throughout the 1300s and 1400s, and territory in the region traded hands several times. The Marinids tried to take advantage of this instability and gain control of the entire region. But before they could do so, armies from Europe began to invade North Africa.

Toward the end of the 1400s, the conflict between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa intensified. The Spanish and Portuguese captured several towns, leading the peoples of the North African states to join forces to defend the coast. To defeat the Portuguese, the Sa'di family of southern Morocco organized a movement that succeeded in occupying Marrakech in 1525. Within 30 years the Sa'dis had gained control of Morocco. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Turks had taken over Egypt in 1517. Since the Ottomans were Muslim, the other North African states turned to them for support in their fight against Christian conquest. Algeria was the first to seek help from the Turks. However, Turkish assistance came at a price—Algeria had to submit to Ottoman rule.

Ottoman Takeover

Once the Ottomans had a foothold in the region, they attempted to take over the port city of Tunis, then occupied by Spanish troops. The Ottomans expelled the Spanish in 1534 but held Tunis for only a year before Spain recaptured it. Forty years later the Turks finally won the city. In 1551 Ottoman forces seized Tripoli from its Christian rulers and took Libya. Morocco remained outside the Ottoman Empire because the Sa'dis had succeeded in repelling the Christian invaders without assistance from the Turks.

North Africa's membership in the Ottoman Empire marks the beginning of the formation of its modern nation-states. Morocco remained independent of Turkish rule. Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt became provinces in the Ottoman Empire, ruled by military governors. Eventually the provinces became autonomous states under the Ottoman sultan. These states did not become independent nations for a long time, partly because of the arrival of European powers in the region. Beginning in the 1800s, England, France, Germany, and Italy all attempted to claim territory in North Africa. The status of Western Sahara was disputed for decades and still has not been clearly determined. (See also Animals, Domestic; Arabs in Africa; Christianity in Africa; Egypt, Ancient; History of Africa; Islam in Africa; North Africa: Geography and Population; Roman Africa; Trade.)