Location: Morocco and other neighbouring Saharan countries in northern Africa.
Population: 3 million.
Neighbouring Peoples: Hausa, Fulani, Mossi, Mauritanians, Bedouin, Egyptians.
Types of Art: Much Berber art is in the form of jewellery, leather, and finely woven carpets.
History: Berber history in North Africa is extensive and diverse. Their ancient ancestors settled in the area just inland of the Mediterranean Sea to the east of Egypt. Many early Roman, Greek, and Phoenician colonial accounts mention a group of people collectively known as Berbers living in northern Africa. In actuality, Berber is a generic name given to numerous heterogeneous ethnic groups that share similar cultural, political, and economic practices.
Economy: Contrary to popular romanticism which portrays Berbers as nomadic peoples crossing the desert on camels, most actually practice sedentary agriculture in the mountains and valleys throughout northern Africa. Some do, in fact, engage in trade throughout the region, and such practices certainly had a tremendous influence on the history of the African continent. Trade routes established from western Africa to the Mediterranean connected the peoples of southern Europe with much of sub-Saharan Africa thousands of years ago.
There are basically five trade routes which extend across the Sahara from the northern Mediterranean coast of Africa to the
great cities, which are situated on the southern edge of the Sahara. Berber merchants were responsible for bringing goods from these cities to the north. From there they were distributed throughout the world.
Political Systems: Berber society was divided between those who tended the land and those who did not. At one time, tilling the land was considered the work of the lower classes, while the upper classes were merchants. Usually, groups of sedentary Berber paid allegiance to a locally appointed headman, who in turn reported to the noble who considered the village his domain. As time has passed, however, these sedentary farmers have been able to accumulate wealth while the trans-Saharan trade routes diminished in importance. They were also given political status by colonial and postcolonial administrations.
Religion: Most Berbers are at least nominal followers of Islam, and many strictly observe Islamic traditions. Most of the feasts are observed and celebrated, but the fasting that is required during Ramadan is often excused
for those who travel. Like most followers of Islam in northern Africa, many Berbers believe in the continuous presence of various spirits (djinns). Divination is accomplished through means of the Koran. Most men wear
protective amulets which contain verses from the Koran.
Credits: Prof. Christopher D. Roy also see credit page. Professor of the History of Art. The University of Iowa.