The Maghreb (‘The West’), also known as Northwest Africa or Northern Africa, Greater Arab Maghreb, Arab Maghreb or Greater Maghreb, or by some sources the Berber world, Barbary and Berbery, is a major region of North Africa that consists primarily of the countries Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. It additionally includes the disputed territories of Western Sahara (mostly controlled by Morocco) and the cities of Melilla and Ceuta (both controlled by Spain and claimed by Morocco). As of 2018, the region has a population of over 100 million people.
|Countries and territories|
In historical English and European literature, the region was known as the Barbary Coast or the Barbary States, derived from “Berbers“. Sometimes it was referred to as the Land of the Atlas, derived from the Atlas Mountains. In current Berber language media and literature, the region is part of what is known as Tamazgha.
The region is usually defined as much or most of northern Africa, including a large portion of Africa’s Sahara Desert, and excluding Egypt, which is part of Mashriq. The traditional definition of the region that restricted it to the Atlas Mountains and the coastal plains of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya was expanded by the inclusion of Mauritania and of the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
During the era of Al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula (711–1492), the Maghreb’s inhabitants, the Muslim Berbers or Maghrebis, were known by Europeans as “Moors“, or as “Afariqah” (Roman Africans). Morocco transliterates into Arabic as “al-Maghreb” (The Maghreb).
Before the establishment of modern nation-states in the region during the 20th century, Maghreb most commonly referred to a smaller area, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlas Mountains in the south. It often also included the territory of eastern Libya, but not modern Mauritania. As recently as the late 19th century, Maghreb was used to refer to the Western Mediterranean region of coastal North Africa in general, and to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, in particular.
The region was somewhat unified as an independent political entity during the rule of the Berber kingdom of Numidia, which was followed by the Roman Empire‘s rule or influence. That was followed by the brief invasion of the Germanic Vandals, the equally brief re-establishment of a weak Roman rule by the Byzantine Empire, the rule of the Islamic Caliphates under the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate and the Fatimid Caliphate. The most enduring rule was that of the local Berber empires of the Almoravid dynasty, Almohad Caliphate, Hammadid dynasty, Zirid dynasty, Marinid dynasty, Zayyanid dynasty, and Wattasid dynasty – from the 8th to 13th centuries. The Ottoman Empire for a period also controlled parts of the region.
Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya established the Maghreb Union in 1989 to promote cooperation and economic integration in a common market. It was envisioned initially by Muammar Gaddafi as a superstate. The union included Western Sahara implicitly under Morocco’s membership, putting Morocco’s long cold war with Algeria to a rest. However, this progress was short-lived, and the union is now frozen. Tensions between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara re-emerged strongly, reinforced by the unsolved borderline issue between the two countries. These two main conflicts have hindered progress on the union’s joint goals and practically made it inactive as a whole. However, the instability in the region and growing cross-border security threats revived the calls for regional cooperation – foreign ministers of the Arab Maghreb Union declared a need for coordinated security policy in May 2015 during the 33rd session of the follow-up committee meeting, which revives hope of some form of cooperation.
The toponym maghrib is a geographical term that the Muslim Arabs gave to the region extending from Alexandria in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. Etymologically it means both the western place/land and the place where the sun sets. It is composed of the prefix m−, which makes a noun out of the verb root, and غرب (gharaba, to set, as in setting sun).
Muslim historians and geographers divided the region into three areas: al-Maghrib al-Adna (the near Maghrib), which included the lands extending from Alexandria to Tarabulus (modern-day Tripoli) in the west; al-Maghrib al-Awsat (the middle Maghrib), which extended from Tripoli to Bijaya (Béjaïa); and al-Maghrib al-Aqsa (the far Maghrib), which extended from Tahart (Tiaret) to the Atlantic Ocean. They disagreed, however, over the start of the eastern boundary. Certain authors had it extend as far as the sea of Kulzum (the Red Sea) and thus include Egypt and the country of Barca in the Maghrib. Ibn Khaldun does not accept this definition because, he says, the inhabitants of the Maghreb do not consider Egypt and Barca as forming part of their country. The latter commences only at the province of Tripoli and encloses the districts of which the country of the Berbers was composed in former times. Later Maghribi writers repeated the definition of Ibn Khaldun, with a few variations in details.
As of 2017 the term Maghrib is still used in opposition to Mashriq in a sense near to that which it had in medieval times. It also denotes only Morocco when the full al-Maghrib al-Aksa is abbreviated. Certain politicians seek a political union of the North African countries, which they call al-Maghrib al-Kabir (the grand Maghrib) or al-Maghrib al-Arabi (the Arab Maghrib). Berber-language speakers now call this region Tamazɣa or Tamazgha, which translates to: “Berbery” (land of the Berbers). This term has been popularized by Berberism activists since the second half of the 20th century.
Around 3,500 BC changes in the tilt of the Earth‘s orbit may have created a rapid desertification of the Sahara and formed a natural barrier that severely limited contact between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. The Maghreb or western North Africa is believed to have been inhabited by Berbers since from at least 10,000 BC.
Partially isolated from the rest of the continent by the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara desert, inhabitants of the northern parts of the Berber world have long had commercial and cultural ties to the inhabitants of the Mediterranean countries of Southern Europe and Western Asia, going back at least to the Phoenicians in the 1st millennium BC (the Phoenician colony of Carthage having been founded, according to tradition, in what is now Tunisia circa 800 BC).
Berber coast ports and cities were predominantly constructed by the Berbers. Later some Phoenicians and Carthaginians arrived for trade. The main Berber and Phoenician settlements centered in the Gulf of Tunis (Carthage, Utica, Tunisia) along the North African littoral between the Pillars of Hercules and the Libyan coast east of ancient Cyrenaica. They dominated the trade and intercourse of the Western Mediterranean for centuries. The Carthage defeat in the Punic Wars during 206 BC allowed Rome to establish the Province of Africa and control many of these ports, and eventually control the entire Maghreb north of the Atlas Mountains. Rome was greatly helped by the defection of King Massinissa and Carthage’s eastern Numidian Massylii client-allies. Some of the most mountainous regions, such as the Moroccan Rif, remained outside Rome’s control. The pressures put on the Western Roman Empire by the invading forces of the Barbarian invasions (the Vandals and Spain) in the 5th-century reduced Roman control and establishment of the Vandal Kingdom with its capital at Carthage in 430 AD. A century later, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I sent a force under General Belisarius that succeeded in destroying the Vandal kingdom; Byzantine rule lasted for 150 years. The Berbers contested outside-the-area control. After the 640s–700 AD period (the advent of Islam), the Arabs controlled the entire region.
The Arabs reached the Maghreb in early Umayyad times. Islamic Berber kingdoms like the Almohads expansion and the spread of Islam contributed to the development of trans-Saharan trade. While restricted due to the cost and dangers, the trade was highly profitable. Commodities traded included such goods as salt, gold, ivory, and slaves. Arab control over the Maghreb was quite weak. Various Islamic variations, such as the Ibadis and the Shia, were adopted by some Berbers, often leading to scorning of Caliphal control in favour of their own interpretation of Islam.
The Arabic language and dialects spread slowly without eliminating Berber, as a result of the invasion of the Banu Hilal Arabs, unleashed by the Fatimids in punishment for their Zirid former Berber clients who defected and abandoned Shiism in the 12th century. Throughout this period, the Berber world most often was divided into three states roughly corresponding to modern Morocco, western Algeria, and eastern Algeria and Tunisia. The region was occasionally briefly unified, as under the Almohad Berber empire, and briefly under the Marinids.
The Maghreb is primarily inhabited by peoples of Berber ancestral origin. Berbers are autochthonous to Algeria (80%), Libya (>60%), Morocco (80%), and Tunisia (>88%). French, Arab, West African and Jewish populations also inhabit the region.
The Maghreb population was 1/8th of France in 1800, 1/4th in 1900 and par in 2000. The Maghreb is home to 1% of the global population as of 2010.
Various other influences are also prominent throughout the Maghreb. In northern coastal towns, in particular, several waves of European immigrants influenced the population in the Medieval era. Most notable were the moriscos and muladies, that is, the indigenous Spaniards (Moors) who forcibly converted to Catholicism and later to be expelled, together with ethnic Arab and Berber Muslims, from the Spanish Catholic Reconquista. Other European contributions included French, Italians, and others captured by the corsairs.
Historically, the Maghreb was home to significant Jewish communities called Maghrebim who predated the 7th-century introduction and conversion of the region to Islam. These were later augmented by Jews from Spain who, fleeing the Spanish Catholic Inquisition, established a presence in North Africa, chiefly in the urban trading centers. Many Jews from Spain emigrated to North America in the early 19th century or to France and Israel later in the 20th century.
Sub-Saharan Africans joined the population mix during centuries of trans-Saharan trade. Traders and slaves went to the Maghreb from the Sahel region. On the Saharan southern edge of the Maghreb are small communities of black populations, sometimes called Haratine, who are apparently descended from black populations who inhabited the Sahara during its last wet period and then migrated north.
In Algeria especially, a large European minority, the “pied noirs“, immigrated and settled under French colonial rule in late 19th century. The overwhelming majority of these, however, left Algeria during and following the war for independence.
The original religions of the peoples of the Maghreb seem to have been based and related with fertility cults of a strong matriarchal pantheon, given the social and linguistic structures of the Amazigh cultures antedating all Egyptian and eastern, Asian, northern Mediterranean, and European influences.
Historic records of religion in the Maghreb region show its gradual inclusion in the Classical World, with coastal colonies established first by Phoenicians, some Greeks, and later extensive conquest and colonization by the Romans. By the 2nd century of the common era, the area had become a center of Phoenician-speaking Christianity, where bishops spoke and wrote in Punic, and even Emperor Septimius Severus was noted by his local accent. Roman settlers and Romanized populations converted to Christianity. The region produced figures such as Christian Church writer Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 202); and Christian Church martyrs or leading figures such as Perpetua and Felicity (martyrs, c. 200 CE); St. Cyprian of Carthage (+ 258); St. Monica; her son the philosopher St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo I (+ 430) (1); and St. Julia of Carthage (5th century).
The arrival of Islam in 647 challenged the domination of Christianity. The first permanent foothold of Islam was the founding of the city of Kairouan in 667. Carthage fell in 698 and the remainder of the region followed by 709. Gradual Islamization proceeded slowly. From the end of the 7th century the region’s peoples began their total conversion to Islam which took more than 400 years. Many left during this time for Italy.
Although surviving letters showed correspondence from regional Christians to Rome up until the 12th century. Christianity was still a living faith. Although there were a fair number of conversions after the conquest Muslims did not become a majority until some time late in the 9th century and became vast majority during the 10th (Staying Roman, Jonathan Conant, pp. 362–368, 2012). Christian bishoprics and dioceses continued to be active, with relations continuing with Rome. As late as Pope Benedict VII (974–983) reign, a new Archbishop of Carthage was consecrated. Evidence of Christianity in the region fades from the 10th century. However, by the end of the 11th century only two bishops were left in Carthage and Hippo Regius. Pope Gregory VII, 1073–85, consecrated a new bishop for Hippo. Christianty seems to have suffered several shocks that lead to its demise. First many upper-class urban-dwelling Latin-speaking Christians left for Europe after the Muslim conquest. The second were large scale conversions to Islam from the end of the 9th century and many Christians of a much reduced community left in the mid-11th century and evacuated by the Norman rulers of Sicily in the 12th. The Latin-African language lingered on a while longer.
There is a small but thriving Jewish community, as well as a small Christian community. Most Muslims follow the Sunni Maliki school. Small Ibadi communities remain in some areas. A strong tradition of venerating marabouts and saints’ tombs is found throughout regions inhabited by Berbers. Any map of the region demonstrates the tradition by the proliferation of “Sidi“s, showing places named after the marabouts. Like some other religious traditions, this has substantially decreased over the 20th century. A network of zaouias traditionally helped proliferate basic literacy and knowledge of Islam in rural regions.