North Africa

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE According to legend, around 814 B.C. a Phoenician queen founded Carthage, one of the great cities of ancient Africa. She located it on a peninsula on the Gulf of Tunis. The location was ideal. The Lake of Tunis protected the rear of the peninsula from invasion. In addition, because Carthage was on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it had access to trading routes. Consequently, it became a trading and commercial force in the ancient world for hundreds of years. Carthage's history shows that a city's or a civilization's geographic position always plays an important part in its ability to thrive and grow.

Roots of Civilization in North Africa

North Africa includes Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia. Egypt and the Nile River valley formed a cultural hearth, a place where ideas and innovations come together to change a region. Those ideas and innovations reached other regions through cultural diffusion.


The Nile River made possible the existence of the great civilization of ancient Egypt. The river flooded at roughly the same time every year, providing the people with water and rich soil for their crops. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus remarked in the fifth century B.C. that Egypt was the “gift of the Nile.”

Egyptians had been living in farming villages around the Nile River since 3300 B.C. Each village followed its own customs and rituals. Around 3100 B.C., a strong king united all of Egypt and established the first Egyptian dynasty. The history of ancient Egypt would span 2,600 years and around 30 dynasties. During the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian god-kings, called Pharaohs, ruled Egypt.

Egyptians believed that those kings ruled even after death, and they built pyramids to house the Pharaohs' remains.

Movement influenced ancient Egypt and the Nile valley. Egyptian ideas about farming, the building of their cities, and their system of writing may have come from the Mesopotamians, who lived in what is now Southwest Asia.

Egyptians pioneered the use of geometry in farming to set boundaries after the Nile's annual flood. Furthermore, Egyptian medicine was famous throughout the ancient world. Egyptians could make splints for broken bones and effectively treat wounds and fevers. Trade and travel on the Nile River, the Mediterranean and Red seas, and overland trade routes helped spread those practices.


Africa lies close to Southwest Asia and across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe. As a result, it has been invaded and occupied by many people and empires from outside Africa. Greeks and Romans from Europe and Phoenicians and Ottoman Turks from Southwest Asia all invaded North Africa.

Expansion of Islam, 750–1500

Islam, however, remains the major cultural and religious influence in North Africa. Islam, a monotheistic religion, is based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, whom you will read about in Chapter 22. Muslim invaders from Southwest Asia brought their language, culture, and religion to North Africa. Beginning in A.D. 632, the successors of Muhammad began to spread Islam through conquest and through trade.

Around 634, Muslim armies swept into lower Egypt, which was then part of the Byzantine Empire. By 750, Muslims controlled most of North Africa. Muslims bound their territory together with a network of sealinked trading zones. They used the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean to connect North Africa and Europe with Southwest Asia.

Economics of Oil

North Africa began with an economy based on agriculture. Over the course of its history, it evolved into an economy based on the growth of cash crops and mining. Today, the economy revolves around the discovery of oil in the region.


Oil has transformed the economies of some North African countries, including Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia. In Algeria, oil has surpassed farm products as the major export and source of revenue. Furthermore, oil makes up about 99 percent of Libya's exports. Libya and Algeria supply the European Union with much of its oil and gas.

Although oil has helped the economies of those countries, it has also caused some problems. For example, Libya's labor force cannot meet the demands of the oil industry because of a lack of training and education. Oil companies therefore are forced to give many high-paying jobs to foreign workers. Despite the oil industry, overall unemployment is still a problem. As a result, large numbers of North Africans have migrated to Europe in search of jobs.

A Culture of Markets and Music

North African culture is a combination of Arabic influences and traditional African ethnic groups.


Souks, or marketplaces, are common features of life in North Africa. A country souk opens early in the morning. Tents are erected, and storytellers, musicians, and fortunetellers entertain the crowds. A typical city souk is located in the medina, or old section, of a North African town or city. A medina has narrow, winding streets. Some of the best souks in North Africa can be found in Marrakesh, Morocco. The markets are known for high-pressure sales, and shoppers must be prepared to bargain fiercely for the lowest price.

In both the city and the country, people fill the souks throughout the day. All kinds of bartering and haggling take place for a range of products, including brightly colored clothes, spices, and a variety of foods. The aroma of lamb, spices, and animals fills the air. It is also a place where one can eat traditional foods such as couscous, a kind of steamed grain.


Algeria is home to rai, a kind of music developed in the 1920s by poor urban children. Rai was at first carefree and centered around topics for youths. The music is fast paced and contains elements of popular Western music.

Before Algerian independence in 1962, however, performers began using rai to communicate Algerian resentment toward their French colonizers. After independence, the Algerian government tried to ban rai. In the 1990s, Islamic fundamentalists have criticized rai for its Westernstyle qualities. Rai is now used as a form of rebellion against Islamic fundamentalists, especially by women.

Changing Roles of Women

Modern life in North Africa is in a constant state of change. The role of women, especially, has shifted during the past several years.


North African households tend to be centered around males. Men go out to work in offices or on farms. Few women hold jobs after they marry. Men and women also generally eat and pray separately.

Women's roles, however, are changing, especially in Tunisia, where having more than one wife at a time has been abolished. It has also increased the penalty for spousal abuse. Moreover, either spouse can now seek a divorce. In addition, Tunisia no longer permits preteen girls in arranged marriages and requires equal pay for equal jobs.

Women in North Africa have also made gains outside the home, particularly in cities. Growing numbers of them, for instance, have professional jobs. Women hold seven percent of Tunisia's parliamentary seats and manage nearly nine percent of the businesses in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. In the next section, you will read about how trade formed the foundation of ancient civilizations in West Africa.