History of North Africa

History of North Africa

North Africa is a relatively thin strip of land between the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean, stretching from Moroccan Atlantic coast to Egypt. The region comprises the modern countries, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Libya and Egypt.] The history of the region is a mix of influences from many distinct cultures. The development of sea travel firmly brought the region into the Mediterranean world, especially during the classical period. In the first millennium AD the Sahara became an equally important area for trade as the camel caravans brought goods and people from the south. The region also has a small but crucial land link to the Middle East, and that area has also played a central role in the history of North Africa.


The earliest known hominids in North Africa arrived around 200,000 BC. Through most of the Stone Age the climate in the region was very different than today, the Sahara being far more moist and savanna like. Home to herds of large mammals, this area could support a large hunter-gatherer population and the Aterian culture that developed was one of the most advanced paleolithic societies.

In the Mesolithic, the Capsian culture dominated the region with Neolithic farmers becoming predominant by 6000 BC. Over this period, the Sahara region was steadily drying, creating a barrier between North Africa and the rest of the African continent. Eventually North Africa became culturally and ethnically quite distinct from the rest of the continent.

The Nile Valley on the Eastern edge of North Africa is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. The desiccation of the Sahara is believed to have increased the population density in the Nile Valley and large cities developed. Eventually Ancient Egypt unified in one of the world's first civilizations.

Classical period

:"See also: North Africa during the Classical Period, Ptolemaic Egypt, Roman Egypt"

The expanse of the Libyan Desert cut Egypt off from the rest of North Africa. Egyptian boats, while well suited to the Nile, were not usable in the open Mediterranean. Moreover the small Egyptian merchant had far more prosperous destinations on Crete, Cyprus and the Levant.

Greeks from Europe and the Phoenicians from Asia also settled along the coast of Northern Africa. Both societies drew their prosperity from the sea and from ocean-born trade. They found only limited trading opportunities with the native inhabitants, and instead turned to colonization. The Greek trade was based mainly in the Aegean, Adriatic, Black, and Red Seas and they only established major cities in Cyrenaica, directly to the south of Greece. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and for the next three centuries it was ruled by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

The Phoenicians developed an even larger presence in North Africa with colonies from Tripoli to the Atlantic. One of the most important Phoenician cities was Carthage, which grew into one of the greatest powers in the region. At the height of its power, Carthage controlled the Western Mediterranean and most of North Africa outside of Egypt. However, Rome, Carthage's major rival to the north, defeated it in a series of wars known as the Punic Wars, resulting in Carthage's destruction in 146 BC and the annexation of its empire by the Romans. In 30 BC, Roman Emperor Octavian conquered Egypt, officially annexing it to the Empire and, for the first time, unifying the North African coast under a single ruler.

The Carthaginian power had penetrated deep into the Sahara ensuring the quiescence of the nomadic tribes in the region. The Roman Empire was more confined to the coast, yet routinely expropriated Berber land for Roman farmers. They thus faced a constant threat from the south. A network of forts and walls were established on the southern frontier, eventually securing the region well enough for local garrisons to control it without broader Imperial support.

When the Roman Empire began to collapse, North Africa was spared much of the disruption until the Vandal invasion of 429 AD. The Vandals ruled in North Africa until the territories were regained by Justinian of the Eastern Empire in the 6th century. Egypt was never invaded by the Vandals because there was a thousand mile buffer of desert.

Arrival of Islam

:"See also History of Arab Egypt, Rise of Islam in Algeria, Berbers and Islam, Muslim History, Islam in Africa"

The Arab Conquest

:"see also Umayyad conquest of North Africa, Byzantine-Arab Wars, and the Battle of Carthage (698)"

The Arab conquest of the Maghrib began in 642 AD when Amr ibn al-As, the governor of Egypt, invaded Cyrenaica, advancing as far as the city of Tripoli by 645 AD. Further expansion into North Africa waited another twenty years, due to the First Islamic civil war. In 670 AD, Uqba ibn Nafi al-Fihiri invaded what is now Tunisia in an attempt to take the region from the Byzantine Empire but was only partially successful. He founded the town of Kairouan but was replaced by Abul-Muhajir Dinar in 674 AD. Abul-Muhajir successfully advanced into what is now eastern Algeria incorporating the Berber confederation ruled by Kusaila into the Islamic sphere of influence. "A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, Cambridge University Press, 1987.]

In 681 AD Uqba was given command of the Arab forces again and advanced westward again in 682 AD, holding Kusaya as a hostage. He advanced as far as the Atlantic Ocean in the west and penetrated the Draa River Valley and the Sus region in what is now Morocco. However, Kusaila escaped during the campaign and attacked Uqba up his return and killed him near Biskra in what is now Algeria. After Uqba’s death, the Arab armies retreated from Kairouan, which Kusaila took as his capital. He ruled there until he was defeated by an Arab army under Zuhair ibn Kays. Zuhair himself was killed in 688 AD while fighting against the Byzantine Empire who had reoccupied Cyrenaica while he was busy in Tunisia. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, Cambridge University Press, 1987.]

In 693 AD, Caliph Abd al-Malik sent an army of 40,000 men, commanded by Hasan ibn al-Nu'man, into Cyrenaica and Tripolitania in order to remove the Byzantine threat to the Umayyads in North Africa. They met no resistance until they reached Tunisia where they captured Carthage and defeated the Byzantine Empires and Berbers around Bizerte A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, Cambridge University Press, 1987. ] .

Soon afterwards, al-Nu'man’s forces came into conflict with Berbers of the Jrāwa tribe under the leadership of their queen, Al-Kahina. The Berbers defeated al-Nu'man in two engagements, the first on the river Nini and the second near Gabis, upon which al-Nu'man’s forces retreated to Cyrenaica to wait for reinforcements. Reinforcements arrived in 697 AD and al-Nu'man advanced into what is now modern day Tunisia, again meeting Al-Kahina near Gabis. This time he was successful and Al-Kahina retreated to Tubna where her forces were defeated and she was killed. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, Cambridge University Press, 1987. ] .

al-Nu'man next recaptured Carthage from the Byzantine Empire, who had retaken it when he retreated from Tunisia. He founded the city of Tunis nearby and used it as the base for the Ummayad navy in the Mediterranean Sea. The Byzantines were forced to abandon the Maghreb and retreat to their islands of the Mediterranean Sea. However, in 705 AD he was replaced by Musa bin Nusair, a protégé of then governor of Egypt, Abdul-Aziz ibn Marwan. Nusair advanced into what is now Morocco, captured Tangier, and advanced as far as the Sus river and the Tafilalt oasis in a three-year campaign. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, Cambridge University Press, 1987. ]

Kharijite Berber Rebellion

:"see also Kharijites"


:"See also: Rustamid"

Banu Midrar


:"See also: Aghlabid"


:"See also: Abbasid"


:"See also: Idrisid Dynasty"


:"See also: Fatimid"


:"See also: Zirid"

The Berber Dynasties


:"See also: Almoravid dynasty"

In the 11th century, Berbers of the Sahara began a jihad to reform Islam in North Africa. This movement created an empire encompassing parts of Spain and North Africa. At its greatest extent, it appears to have included southern and eastern Iberia and roughly all of present-day Morocco and Western Sahara. This movement seems to have assisted the southern penetration of Africa, one that was continued by later groups.


:"See also: Almohad Dynasty"

The Almohads, or Almohadis, were similar to the Almoravids in that they were similarly attacking what they saw as corruption of Islam. They managed to conquer southern Spain, and their North African empire extended further than that of the Almoravids, reaching to Egypt.


:"See also: Marinid Dynasty"



:"See also: Zayyanid"


:"See also: Wattasid Dynasty"

Ottoman rule

:"See also History of Ottoman Egypt"After the Middle Ages, Northern Africa was loosely under the control of the Ottoman Empire, except for the region of Morocco. Ottoman rule was centered on the cities of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

European colonization

:"See also French rule in Algeria"During the 18th and 19th century, North Africa was colonized by France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. During the 1950s and '60s, and into the 1970s, all of the North African states gained independence from their colonial European rulers, except for a few small Spanish colonies on the far northern tip of Morocco, and the Western Sahara, which went from Spanish to Moroccan rule.

In modern times the Suez canal in Egypt has caused a great deal of controversy. The Convention of Constantinople in 1888 declared the canal a neutral zone under the protection of the British, after British troops had moved in to protect it in 1882. Under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the United Kingdom insisted on retaining control over the canal. In 1951 Egypt repudiated the treaty, and by 1954 Great Britain had agreed to pull out.

After the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew their pledge to support the construction of the Aswan Dam, president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, which caused Britain, France and Israel to invade in the week-long Suez War. As a result of damage and sunken ships, the canal was closed until April, 1957, after it had been cleaned up with UN assistance. A United Nations force (UNEF) was established to maintain the neutrality of the canal and the Sinai Peninsula.

See also

*History of Algeria
*History of Egypt
*History of Libya
*History of Mauritania
*History of Morocco
*History of Tunisia
*History of Western Sahara



* Stearns, Peter N., et al. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. AP Edition DBQ Update. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006. 174.

External links

* [http://home.earthlink.net/~lilinah/Library/HistoryMaroc.html "A Taste of Maghribi History"]

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