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One of the most famous Berber peoples are the Tuareg
Berbers make up the majority of the population in Morocco , but in most cases speak the Arabic language (along with various Berber dialects).

Berber ( Berber ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ Imaziɣen , spelling variant Amazigh, Pl.  Imazighen ; Arabic الأمازيغ, DMG al-ʾAmāziġ orبربر, DMG barbar ) is a collective name for certain indigenous ethnic groups of the North African countries Morocco , Algeria , Tunisia , Libya and Mauritania . Berbers also live in eastern Mali , northern Niger and the Egyptian oasis of Siwa . There are between 40 and 70 million Berber, about 36 million of which one of the Afro-Asiatic languages belonging Berber language (Tamaziɣt) speak as a native language. Other Berbers have lost their mother tongue over the centuries and speak Maghreb Arabic dialects.

Name and origin

Fantasia : The folk equestrian game is based on the earlier Berber warfare.

The name Berber probably derives from the Greek word βάρβαρος bárbaros , possibly mediated by the Latin ( barbarus ) or Arabic ( al-barbar , plural barābira ). Today, many Berbers refer to themselves as imazighen 'free' in order to find themselves in their own ethnic group designation in their mother tongue, and reject the external designation “Berber”, which is understood as pejorative . Usually the Berber peoples use the names of the individual tribes (for example Rifkabylen or Tuareg ).

Genetically, the Berbers are most closely related to the Egyptians , the Arabs , the Levantines and southern Europeans and can be clearly delineated from the populations of sub-Saharan Africa .



Evidence about the Berbers was already known in ancient Egypt (as Lebu, Tehenu , Temehu, Meschwesch ) as well as in Greek and Roman sources. Early inhabitants of the area can already be found on Saharan rock art. The Numidians , Garamanten and Libyans are considered their predecessors . The Greek historian Herodotus mentioned them in his histories .

Berber peoples were first mentioned in Egyptian writings during the predynastic period . During the New Kingdom , the Egyptians fought against the Meshvesh (Ma) and the Libu on the western border . From around 945 BC. BC. The Egyptians were dominated by the Berber people of the Meshwesh which the 22nd dynasty under I. Sheshonq justified. With it began a long time of Berber rule in Egypt, during which the Berbers made up the main population in the western desert.

For many centuries the Berbers inhabited the coast of North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, the coastal regions of North Africa saw a long line of conquerors, settlers and colonizers: the Phoenicians who founded Carthage , Greeks (mainly in Cyrene ), Romans , Vandals , Alans , Byzantines .

The Phoenicians , according to their maritime trade culture, never penetrated into the interior of the country beyond the port cities of the coast. Only in Roman times were the Numidian and Mauritanian provinces fully incorporated into the Roman Empire , whereby Berbers living there received Roman citizenship. After 429 around 80,000 Germanic Vandals and Alans conquered North Africa and founded an empire independent of Rome with Carthage as its capital.

Even before the conquest of North Africa by the Arabs, the Berber peoples were divided into three major groups:

  1. the Luwāta in the eastern Maghreb in the areas of Tripolitania , the Cyrenaica , the Djarid and the Aurès Mountains. Among them were the Hawwāra, the Aurīgh, the Nafzāwa and the Aurāba. The Hawwāra, who formed the largest group, in turn belonged to various subgroups. One of them were the Misrāta in Tripolitania, after whom the current city of Misrata is named.
  2. the Sanhajah in the central and western Maghreb . They included the Kutāma in the small Kabylia , the Zawāwa in the great Kabylia, the Ghumāra in the Rif Mountains , the Masmuda on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, the Jazūla in the High Atlas and the Lemta in southern Morocco.
  3. the Zanāta , who populated the Algerian coast between Kabylia and Cheliff , but also lived in various other places between Tripolitania and the western Maghreb.

Early Islamic period

The Islamization of the Berbers began in the 660s with the military operations of the Meccan general ʿUqba ibn Nāfiʿ in Tripolitania . During the second Fitna, the Arabs advancing to the west were confronted by Berber tribes from the area of ​​Northeastern Germany under the leadership of a woman who has become known in Muslim historiography as the Kāhina ("priestess"). Around the year 698, however, other Berber tribes supported the Arab general Hassān ibn Nuʿmān in driving the Byzantines from Carthage and the other coastal fortresses in North Africa. The Kāhina fell in battle.

Berbers themselves now played a leading role in the Islamic expansion movement . Tāriq ibn Ziyād , a Berber, whom the Arab general Mūsā ibn Nusair had appointed governor of the newly conquered city of Tingis (= Tangier ) at the beginning of the 8th century , followed suit in spring 711 in an unauthorized action with an army of 7,000 exclusively Berber fighters Europe over and thus initiated the Islamic conquest and partial repopulation of the Iberian Peninsula . The Taifa kingdoms that arose after the end of the Caliphate of Cordoba (1031) were mostly in the hands of Berber dynasties. From the 11th to the 13th centuries, the Berber dynasties of the Almoravids , Almohads and Merinids dominated the Maghreb and in some cases also Al-Andalus .

In the period that followed, the teachings of the Sufritic Kharijites found strong support among the Berbers. Around 739, Berber tribes with a Sufrit orientation in the region around Tangier under their caliph Maisara began an open revolt against the Umayyad rule. They took Tangier and were able to expand their rebellion eastwards to Kairuan over the next three years . Other Sufrit leaders from Tlemcen and Beja joined their Berber tribes in the uprising, which in 741 put an Umayyad army to flight. It was not until the second half of the 740s that ʿAbd ar-Rahmān ibn Habīb, an Umaiyad governor who was independently ruling in Ifrīqiya at that time, succeeded in breaking the onslaught of the Sufrit Berber tribes.

Political role in the Middle Ages

Leaders of the Sufritic Kharijites founded the city of Sidschilmāsa in the southeast of today's Morocco (757) and established their own imamate there , which remained in the hands of the Berber family of the Midrārids , who formed the first Berber dynasty in Islamic North Africa, for over two centuries .

In other areas, Berbers supported claims to rule by real or alleged descendants of the prophets. In the western Maghreb , 789 Berber tribes proclaimed the Hasanid Idrīs ibn ʿAbdallāh to be imam. At the end of the 9th century, the Ismaili Dāʿī Abū ʿAbdallāh asch-Shīʿī succeeded in winning over the Kutāma Berbers living in the Little Kabylia for his teaching. They became the household power of the Fatimids , who conquered western Libya, Tunisia, eastern Algeria and Sicily in the early 10th century. In order to break the power of the Ibadite leader Abū Yazīd Machlad ibn Kaidād , who enjoyed the support of the Berber Hauwāra, the Fatimids integrated a second Berber people into their power structures: the Sanhādscha of central Algeria, whose prince Zīri was closely associated with the Fatimids. When the Fatimid caliph al-Muʿizz made Cairo his residence in 973 , numerous Kutāma-Berbers followed their master to Egypt and left the hegemony over the Maghreb to the Sanhādja: as Fatimid viceroys, the Berber princes from the Zīrid clan moved into the abandoned palaces of the Fatimids at Kairuan.

The new Taifa kingdoms that arose on the Iberian Peninsula after the end of the Caliphate of Cordoba (1031) were mostly in the hands of Berber dynasties, which were often at odds with one another.

Around the middle of the 11th century, Ibn Yāsīn , a member of the Sanhādscha from the Sūs Valley , who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca , appeared as a missionary to the only superficially Islamized nomadic Berber tribes of the Western Sahara. Ibn Yāsīn preached a strict, puritanic Islam to them, which was based on the legal school of Mālik ibn Anas , and formed the combat unit of the Murābitūn from among them . The aim of his military Islamization campaigns was not only the non-Islamic but also the superficially Islamized or heterodox Berbers, especially the Bargawata in the Moroccan coastal plain south of Rabat , where a Berber prophet appeared with a new Koran in Berber language; Ibn Yāsīn died in 1059 fighting against them. A successor was able to quickly expand the Almoravid state to the north and, in 1070, make the city of Marrakech the new urban center of the western Maghreb. Under Yūsuf ibn Tāschfīn (reigned 1072–1106), who was able to unite almost all of Andalusia under his rule in addition to north-west Africa , the Berber Almoravid state acquired an imperial dimension.

In the early 12th century, the young Berber scholar Ibn Tūmart traveled through the Maghreb as a penitential preacher after studying in Córdoba , Mecca and Iraq . In 1121 he retired to the High Atlas , where he was proclaimed by his followers as the Mahdi and infallible Imam. At the center of Ibn Tūmart's teaching was the dogma of the absolute uniqueness of God ( Tawheed ). His followers therefore called themselves "uniqueness confessors" ( al-muwaḥḥidūn ; hence their European name Almohads ) and set themselves apart from Sunni teachings. Although an attack by the Almohads on Marrakech in 1130 failed, in which Ibn Tūmart also died, his successor ʿAbd al-Muʾmin (r. 1130–1163) succeeded in overthrowing the Almoravids and founding a new Berber dynasty, theirs Dominion included all of Northwest Africa and parts of Al-Andalus . At the beginning of the 13th century, various territories separated from the Almohad Empire one after the other. In several of them Berber dynasties came into play: the Hafsids in Tunis , the Abdalwadids in Tlemcen and the Merinids in central Morocco .

Today's distribution

Distribution of the Tuareg (dark blue) and other Berbers in Northwest Africa
Berber flag

Berbers can be found mainly in today's Morocco and Algeria, isolated groups also in Tunisia and south of it in the Sahara . Their current population numbers are difficult to determine, as the mixing with the Arab population and the Arabization measures of the post-colonial period pushed back the Berber culture and language. Numerous Berber tribes speak Arabic today. With around 99%, the Berbers make up the absolute majority of the population in Algeria and Morocco, as well as in Tunisia (98%). However, they are linguistically largely "Arabicized" and the proportion of Berbers who only use the Berber languages ​​is 20 to 30% in Algeria and around 45% in Morocco.


Trilingual place-name signs in Arabic , Kabyle ( Tifinagh ) and French

Part of the population of the Maghreb states of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia is of Berber origin, but has been increasingly Arabized since the 7th century during the Arab-Islamic expansion , so that today only smaller parts of the population of these countries speak the Berber language.

Berbers can also be found in Libya , Mauritania , Egypt and some West African countries, especially Burkina Faso , Niger , Chad and Mali , where, however, the Berber language is no longer spoken.


Morocco's Berber dialects are divided into three language regions:

In addition, the Moroccan Tamazight has been the standard and official language since the constitution of 2011 .

Tamazight also denotes the Berber language in general and functions as the standard dialect; Berbers are called Amazigh . For the predominantly spoken language, an alphabet called Tifinagh was developed .


Algeria's Berbers are divided into four dialect families:

  • about two thirds of the Algerian Berbers live in Kabylia and speak the local dialect Thaqbaïlith
  • a small group speaks Chaouias in the Aurès to the east of the country
  • isolated, small numbers of Berbers speak Mzab-Wargla in the south of the country
  • and Tuareg among the Tuareg nomads in the Sahara


Kabyle vase, made in Algeria in the 19th century
Ag Alhabib (2011), founder of the Tuareg band Tinariwen

Some myths refer to the strong social position of women in pre-Islamic times. Old matrilineal social structures are connected with the Tuareg's easier divorce options. Women sometimes have more decision-making powers than in Arab societies.

In the course of the twentieth century, certain groups of women lost their previously accorded freedoms in the course of an increased trend towards orthodox Islam. This included, for example, unmarried women in southern Algeria who performed the erotic entertainment dance Ouled Nail . Other, less suggestive dances, such as the Abdaoui fertility dance in eastern Algeria, are still allowed to be performed by women.

Hospitality is deeply rooted in the culture. With the exception of the Tuareg , the Berbers are sedentary; only a few still live as partial nomads ( transhumants ). The Berber nomadic Tuareg has its own, from the altlibyschen or Phoenician alphabet developed font , the Tifinagh . They had their own calendar that has almost been forgotten; the calendar began in 950 BC. This date corresponds to the ascension of the Egyptian throne by a Berber king, Scheschonq I , a Libyan (ancient Egyptian libu ). He founded the dynasty of the Bubastids, named after their capital Bubastis in the Nile Delta .

Today's Berbers are strongly influenced by the culture of earlier invaders ( Arabs , Ottomans , French and Spanish ). The Berber groups that have best preserved their language and tradition, especially the Kabyle in the Kabylia in northern Algeria, the Schlöh and Riffs in Morocco were generally exposed to the least foreign domination.


The overprinting of foreign religions did not prevent the Berbers from clinging to their animistic belief in natural forces. Before Islamization, some had adopted the Jewish faith and later, to show their dislike of Roman supremacy, the Christian faith. Even after converting to Islam, they retained elements of an old ethnic religion , such as myths, fairy tales, field cults, the worship of moats and belief in spirits .


A written document in a (Libyan) Berber language was first published in 149 BC. Secured. The early literature in the Berber language from the time of Islamization is largely theological in nature. Berber literature reached its heyday in the early modern period; the artistic poetic works such as that of Sidi Ḥammu (Sidi Hamou) from the 16th or 17th century were passed down orally and are still popular in Morocco today.


Algerian Berber bride of the Ouled Nail with tattoos on her face (around 1905)

Mostly among Berber women, blue-green tattoos on the face, forearms, wrists and calves were culturally anchored into the 20th century. The tattoos consisted of spiritual characters, traditional symbols and ornaments. The patterns that can also be found on the decorations of houses and everyday objects are an expression of the bond with nature and the cosmos and symbolize fertility and protection; Originally, they mostly had a disastrous ( apotropaic ) function. The ornaments varied slightly between the individual tribes.

The patterns to be pricked were first drawn and then stuck into the skin with a needle. The blue color was obtained from the indigo plant ( nila ). Alternatively, carbon black or charcoal was used. The pricked areas were then rubbed with a plant containing a green dye ( kheddira ).

Due, among other things, to the influx of Berbers into the cities and the associated increasing influence of Arab and Western culture, the tradition has hardly been practiced since the late 20th century and can only be seen today among older women.


Berber jewelry

While the Arab-born or Arab-influenced population of the northern Maghreb preferred finely worked gold jewelry , the Berbers , who lived without money in earlier times - often more massive - were left with silver jewelry , which was regarded as both apotropaic and defensive for families , who were often nomadic or semi-nomadic Times of emergency served as a capital reserve. This inherited family jewelry has been bought up by antique dealers - increasingly since the middle of the 20th century. A few pieces can also be seen in the ethnographic museums of the respective countries.


Berber architecture

The Berbers of the Maghreb produced a simple, but in many respects highly original architecture: Particularly worth mentioning are the well-fortified granaries ( igoudar ) and residential castles ( tigermin ) as well as the cave dwellings in southern Morocco and Tunisia. The village construction ( ksour ) z. B. von Aït-Ben-Haddou , Tizourgane , Ghadames or Chinguetti is almost unique.

See also


  • Youcef Allioui: Timsal, enigmes berbères de Kabylie - commentaire linguistique et ethnographique , Paris, Ed. L'Harmattan, 1990, ISBN 2-7384-0627-0
  • Dalila Arezki: L'identité berbère , Paris, Séguier, Biarritz, Atlantica, 2004, ISBN 2-84049-393-4
  • Lamara Bougchiche: Langues et littératures berbères des origines à nos jours , Paris, Ibis Press, 1997, ISBN 2-910728-02-1
  • Jörg-Dieter Brandes: The history of the Berber. From the Berber dynasties of the Middle Ages to the Maghreb of modern times . Casimir Katz Verlag, Gernsbach 2004, ISBN 978-3-925825-87-3 .
  • Michael Brett, Elizabeth Fentress: The Berbers. People of Africa. Blackwell, Oxford 1996. ISBN 0-631-16852-4 .
  • Salem Chaker: Amaziɣ (le / un) Berbère - Linguistique berbère. Etudes de syntaxe et de diachronie , Paris, Peeters, 1995, ISBN 2-87723-152-6
  • Salem Chaker: Études berbères et chamito-sémitiques , Paris [u. a.], Peeters, 2000, ISBN 90-429-0826-2
  • Margaret Courtney-Clarke, Geraldine Brooks : The Berber Women. Art and Culture in North Africa . Frederking & Thaler, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-89405-357-7 .
  • Encyclopédie Berbère. Édisud, Aix-en-Provence 1984, ISBN 2-85744-201-7
  • Ernest Gellner , Charles Micaud (Eds.): Arabs and Berbers: From Tribe to Nation in North Africa. Duckworth, London 1973
  • Malika Hachid: Les premiers Berbères - entre Méditerranée, Tassili et Nil , Aix-en-Provence, Édisud, 2000, ISBN 2-7449-0227-6
  • Gabi Kratochwil: The Berbers in the historical development of Algeria from 1949 to 1990. On the construction of an ethnic identity , K. Schwarz Verlag, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-87997-254-0 .
  • Alphonse Leguil: Contes berbères grivois du Haut-Atlas , Paris [u. a.], Harmattan, 2000, ISBN 2-7384-9904-X
  • Alphonse Leguil: Contes berbères de l'Atlas de Marrakech , Paris, L'Harmattan, 1988, ISBN 2-7384-0163-5
  • Bruce Maddy-Weitzman: Contested Identities: Berbers, 'Berberism' and the State in North Africa. The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2001
  • Makilam: The magic of Kabyle women and the unity of a traditional Berber society . Kleio Humanities, Bremen 2007, ISBN 978-3-9811211-3-1 .
  • Makilam: sign language. Magical rituals in the art of Kabyle women . Kleio Humanities, Bremen 2007, ISBN 978-3-9811211-4-8 .
  • Wolfgang Neumann: The Berbers. Diversity and unity of a traditional North African culture (= DuMont documents. ). DuMont, Cologne 1983, ISBN 3-7701-1298-9 .
  • Kurt Rainer: TASNACHT - carpet art and traditional handicrafts of the Berbers of southern Morocco . Academic Printing and Publishing Company, Graz 1999, ISBN 3-201-01715-9 .
  • Ulrich Rebstock : The Ibāḍites in the Maġrib (2nd / 8th 4th / 10th century). The story of a Berber movement in the guise of Islam. Berlin 1983. Digitized
  • Gerhard Schweizer : The Berbers. A people between rebellion and adjustment. Wiener-Verlag, Himberg near Vienna 1984 ISBN 3-7023-0123-2
  • G. Yver: Art. Berbers. I. History, b) Before Islam in The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition Vol. I., pp. 1174a-1175a.
  • Uwe George: Lockers from the Stone Age . In: Geo-Magazin. Hamburg 1978, 6, pp. 138-150. (Personal experience report with photos about Berbers in Morocco) ISSN  0342-8311
  • Fazia Aïtel: We are Imazighen: The Development of Algerian Berber Identity in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture. University Press of Florida, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8130-4939-7 ( Table of Contents )

Web links

Commons : Berber  collection of images

Individual evidence

  1. Steven L. Danver, ME Sharpe (Ed.): Native Peoples of the World: An Encyclopedia. Mesa Verde Publishing, 2013, p. 23f.
  2. Mohand Akli Haddadou: Le guide de la culture berbère. Paris Méditerranée, Paris 2000, pp. 13-14
  3. LL Cavalli-Sforza, P. Menozzi, A. Piazza: The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1994. pp. 169-174.
  4. Andrew J. Pakstis, Cemal Gurkan, Mustafa Dogan, Hasan Emin Balkaya, Serkan Dogan: Genetic relationships of European, Mediterranean, and SW Asian populations using a panel of 55 AISNPs . In: European Journal of Human Genetics . tape 27 , no. December 12 , 2019, ISSN  1476-5438 , p. 1885–1893 , doi : 10.1038 / s41431-019-0466-6 ( [accessed December 2, 2019]).
  5. ( Memento from March 12, 2015 in the Internet Archive )
  6. See Yver: Art. Berbers. in EI² p. 1174b.
  7. See T. Lewicki: Art. Misrāta in The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition Vol. VII, pp. 186a-187a. Here p. 186b.
  8. See Rebstock: The Ibāḍites in Maġrib . 1983, pp. 1-56.
  9. See T. Lewicki: Art. Hawwāra in The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition Vol. III, pp. 295b-299b. Here p. 296a.
  10. Africa :: Morocco - The World Factbook - Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved December 2, 2019 .
  11. ^ Africa :: Tunisia - The World Factbook - Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved December 2, 2019 .
  12. Cynthia Becker: Deconstruction of the History of Berber Arts. In: Katherine E. Hoffman, Susan Gilson Miller (Eds.): Berbers and Others: Beyond Tribe and Nation in the Maghrib. Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2010, pp. 207f
  13. s. Weblink: Dieter Jobst: Ethnological study: The Berbers - North Africa.
  14. Snakes, jackals and scorpions - Berber tattoos in North Africa ( Memento from June 4, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) ,