If you want to travel through Morocco it can be handy to know a little bit about the history. As our guides are Berber nomads we think it is important to share some of our history and culture. In this blog we will share something about our history. This way we hope you understand why we work with Berber guides and why we like to give something back to our communities.
Berbers in Morocco; since when and where?
Did you know that Berbers are one of the early inhabitants of Morocco?
Not only in Morocco, but all over North Africa you will find Berber communities. From very early days this culture lives around Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, north of Niger, Tunisia, Algeria, western Egypt and of course Morocco. Even the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands (not the Spanish) are believed to be Berber too.
Imazighen: free people ?
In Morocco almost 2/3 of the inhabitants is Berber. They call themselves Imazighen. Although there are different interpretations of this word, in general it means “free people”.
As history will show you: there is no such thing as 1 group of Berbers. They all live in different areas, came from different kingdoms and different tribes. Although everyone speaks Berber, but there are different dialects. Yet most of them understand each other.
The Berber culture goes way back. Not just a couple 100 years, or even a thousand. No, we mean wayyyyyyyy back. Scientist say that the culture goes as far back as 17.000 B.C. In these days the Sahara was a totally different landscape, it was still fertile soil.
Most of these people lived a low key life, a lot of them as nomads, some in tiny villages but no one had real power. Just taking life at it was. Unfortunately; the north of Africa was strategic place for a lot of other empires. For centuries people from other parts of the world came along. And although it was never a good marriage between these parties they try to make it work.
Let's look at some of the empires that came by and try to count:
Empires in Morocco
The Phoenicians, the Romans and the Arabs in Morocco.
The Phoenicians came by and started to trade with the different Berber tribes but soon build bigger settlements to insure their strategic position. In the 4 th century B.C. a couple of Berber communities founded the kingdom Maurentania. This kingdom was spread out over modern central Algeria tot the Atlantic coast of modern Morocco.
The Phoenicians also build their empire. The biggest city ‘Cartago” (near modern Tunis) was the center of power in North Africa. But the Romans became very powerful in modern Europe. They also build an empire. You can guess they outcome: the two went into battle for the bigger empire. The story of Hannibal (born in Cartago) going across the Alps with his elephants to fight the Romans and concurring big parts of modern Italy is a very epic story. In the end the Romans learned from their mistakes, thought about new fighting strategies and fought back hard and beat Hannibal.
The Romans became the new neighbors around the 2th century BC and had no real intention of leaving. They made Maurentania a state of the Roman empire. The Romans took over full control when the last kind died. And although it’s never any fun to be controlled by others the Romans made live a little bit easier for the Berber people by introducing a large funny looking animal: the dromedary. This was of much greater use then a horse in some parts of the country. On the back of a dromedary it was easier to walk over, let’s say a business lunch in Volbulis. This city was the administrative center of the Roman empire in North Africa. But it was also the city where Romans and Berbers got together and were Berber people could enjoy some of the roman spare time activities. Like watching a real bear fighting a lion. Normal every day stuff for the Romans. The Romans became less and less interested in North Africa and lost control tot the the Byzantine empire and after that the Arabs took over. Maybe we should call it the Arab Empire, just to add another one.
Why are most Berbers Muslim?
The Arabs conquest to spread the Islam and create an Islamic state went very well. Although the Romans where mostly Christian, just some Berber communities converted to Christianity. In that time a large group of Jews lived in Morocco, therefore some Berbers had converted to Judaism, but most of them had followed the more traditional polytheist religion. A lot of Berbers lived a nomadic lifestyle. The Islam is a religion that suits this lifestyle. You don’t really need a holy place to go to, just a place to pray and clean yourself. Therefore the Islam was also spread by Berber nomads themselves. The Christian Berber and Jewish Berbers lived under Islamic law. And although converting to the Islam in Morocco went in friendly way (instead to some other countries, where it was more forced) Christians and Jews slowly became a minority and had different rights. Thus Muslims became the biggest religion in Morocco.
Back to empires: the dynasties and kingdoms
So the Berbers did not mind the Islam, but they had enough of other people controlling them. They learned enough in the last centuries and started to fight back. The Arab empire was so big that it was hard for the Arabs to control every region. The best they could do is to gave back part of the control by dividing the different regions into Berber kingdoms again.
Around 1061 the dynasty of the Allmoravids made an end to all these divided kingdoms. Well at least; they tried too. This by going to war against other kingdoms. In the end they succeeded by uniting the country and expending their power to Spain and the Ganesh empire. Yes, another empire. Are you counting? That way they got control over Timboektoe. This city was the trading hub of all Africa.
The Almohads went to war with the Almoravids, then came the Marinids, the Wattasids and the Saadi dynasty (from Arab origin) and in 1666 the Alawites. This last dynasty has his origin in Syria and is still ruling today.
The French and the Spanish: Morocco as colony
Years of war between civilians, against the Christian faith, with other countries such as France and Spain, had weakened the country. To make matters worse in the 18th century there was a big drought, a lot of hunger and the black plaque killed many people.
In 1912, the French (already invaded parts of the country) made an offer to sign a deal. In this deal France would no longer attack the country, the Sultan would give up his power and the northern part of Morocco: to Tetouan and to Western Sahara fell under French domination. Spain, already very active in the south of Morocco, did the same. Only thing was that the appointed president wasn't popular. It lead to much protest, so much that the after 40 years the sultan came back to negotiate for independence. This worked :the sultan became the king and died very shortly after this.
Moroccan Berbers after independence.
The Berbers make up 2/3 of the inhabitants of Modern Morocco. Most of them converted to the Islam, but they still feel very different to the Arab inhabitants.
After the independence Arabic became the official
language. Berbers could not use their language in school anymore.
Hassan II, the king who took over after his father suddenly
died, just wanted 1 king to rule the country and not alot of opposition. This was, to say in in friendly way, a very tense period in de life of the Berber community. Therefore many Berber men
went to work in Europe. They needed cheap labor
and thus many moved over and still live in countries such a France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.
Afte Hassan II dies his son took over: Mohammed VI. He took some measures to improve the position of the Berbers. For instance he released 46.000 political prisoners and changed the constitution in 2011 to make life better in Morocco for all people. Part of the changes was that Amazigh became, in addition to Arabic, an official language.
What is the position of Berbers now ?
The position of the Berbers is gradually improving. Althoug life is hard for many Berber families. Berbers have a lesser position on the labor market and less easy access to a good school.
Many of them live in mountain areas, valleys or the desert. Schools seems to be unattainable for most kids, especially high school and universities, as they are mostly located in larger cities. Transport to the cities is difficult. Therefore you will see a lot of kids working. And although we understand that these kids sometimes need to work and will ask you money for tiny chores; it’s better if you tip an organization that helps these kids go to school. That way they can learn a profession and get a job.
The advantage of all this is that our guides speak many languages: French, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Berber (with many dialects) and English. In addition, they have learned to make the best of life with the resources they have. They are hard workers, who are interested in others and can easily transfer knowledge and make it their own. With the knowledge they have about the environment, the history, their nomad roots, they want to show you the country where they have been living for so long and which they absolutely love. The position of the vast majority of the population will hopefully improve in the coming years. By traveling with our guides you really come into contact with the Berber culture and help these families to have a better future.
Our manager, Ibrahim, volunteers for Organizzazione Umanitaria ONG Bambini nel Deserto when they come to Morocco. If you are touring with us and want to see what this organisation does: just let us know.
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