You are headed to the African nation of Morocco. Your Moroccan tour operator has told you about visiting Berber villages. You have heard all about the Berber craftsmen, their knowledge of the land, some of their indestructible history and maybe a bit more. Or perhaps you’ve never heard of them at all. Just who are these Berber people? In short, in Morocco, the Berbers are a pre-Arab culture that has ruled unperturbed and unconquered for thousands of years. Let’s take a look at this amazing people!
Morocco Berber History
Believe it or not, Berber history goes back to prehistoric times. In fact, Morocco is home to the oldest Homo Sapiens ever found — nearly 300,000 years old! This means that the indigenous people of Morocco have been here for a long, long time. Longer than any other known group of people in the world. Much of what we know about the very first people of Morocco come from archeological records. Of the Berbers themselves, well, much of that history is oral. In fact, it’s probably a mistake to call them “Berber” at all!
The Berbers proudly call themselves the Amazigh, the “free people.” The name “Berber” derives from “Barbary,” that is, from the Greek barbaria. Though “Berber” is commonly used throughout Morocco, both by those who identify as Amazigh, and other Moroccans, it’s probably not the nicest or most accurate name.
Thousands of years ago, the Amazigh ruled all of North Africa, largely through different tribes. They would crisscross over the Sahara and throughout the southern basin of the Mediterranean for trade and travel. Over the centuries, they have been called by many names: The ancient Greeks called them “Libyans”; Romans called them variously “Numbians,” and “Africans” while much of medieval Europe referred to this collection of tribes in North Africa as “Moors.” In fact, it was the Arabs who came up with the Berber name: Al-Barbar. This was likely a re-adaptation of the ancient Greek term of “barbar.” However, there is some thought, as written by the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun, that there could have been an ancient person by the name of “Barbar,” in some texts, a mother named “Barbara,” who gave the name to the tribes, perhaps around Somalia.
When Moulay Idriss, the founder of modern Morocco, fled the Abassid Dynasty, he brought Islam with him, peacefully converting the Awraba tribe and establishing the Idrissid Dynasty. Prior to then, most Berbers across all of North Africa were Anamist, Christian or Jewish. Islam quickly spread through the region, though somewhat different than what was practiced in Middle East. Two of the greatest historic Moroccan dynasties, the Almoravids and Almohads, were Islamic Berber dynasties that ruled large parts of Spain and northwest Africa.
Over the years, the Amazigh have battled, traded, negotiated, and played host to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, and French. Even though the Romans and others have tried to colonize the Berber people, they have managed to preserve their own language and culture and in reality have never been conquered!
Berber language is primarily oral in nature, although they have had their own writing system for at least 2,500 years. Sometimes hard to find, the earliest writings can be found catalogued in the small museums throughout the south. More recently, the language has been officially codified and, alongside classical Arabic, is one of the two official languages of Morocco.
About Morocco Berbers Today
Today, most of the thirty-six million Moroccans are likely some mix of Berber and Arab. You will see “Berber Pride” stickers, graffiti, tee-shirts and hats pretty much everywhere. In recent years, there has been a resurgence with many Moroccans taking extreme pride in their ethnicity and heritage. In fact, in 2014 the state lifted a ban on Amazigh names, embracing this sort of pride at the state level.
In recent history, it was thought that the country was roughly divided with Berbers largely living in the High Atlas, Middle Atlas and Rif mountain ranges of Morocco while the Arabs held the cities and valleys, though this division is less obvious these days. Still, Moroccans living in the mountains generally identify more as being “Amazigh” while in the cities, identities are more fluid.
In some parts, the Occident has falsely characterized Berbers as being largely nomadic, using camels to cross the Sahara desert. Though this was true of a subset of tribes, this is a sort of stereotype that played out throughout the Berber world. It should be said that Amazigh have a long recorded influence of affecting commerce by establishing trade routes between West Africa and Sub-Sahara Africa. They transported goods from beyond the Sahara desert to the Northern Moroccan cities, particularly Fez and Marrakesh. The desert routes were accomplished by nerve, knowledge and dromedary, of course. However, in Morocco, most Berbers were farmers living in the mountains and valleys. Still others were traders and shopkeepers. Merchants were considered in a higher class than the farmers, however, over the years, the roles have mostly been reversed.
A Bit More about the Morocco Berbers
Different tribes of Berbers inhabit different regions in Morocco. Drawa Berbers are found in the Draa Valley. The Dades live in the North East, The Mesgita, Seddrat and Zeri tribes are along the rives of the North West. Moroccan Rif region is home to the Ghomara.
To better know the Berbers of Morocco, book a Morocco tour with a local tour operator and be sure to spend some of your time trekking in the Atlas mountains. Visit the palm oasis of the Draa Valley or explore the Sahara by camelback, just to mention a couple. You’ll visit the many villages along the way. The Berber people are incredibly friendly and will offer to share a glass of famous Moroccan mint tea or cook you a traditional Moroccan dish for your dinner.
Your Moroccan tour guide will help you chose the best route for you. Visit the markets of Marrakesh or Fez and you find many examples of Berber craftsmanship. Stunning silver jewelry by Tuareg and Amazigh artists, handmade babouches or belga made in the workshops are among the treasures you will find. If your tastes run to elegant embroidered caftans, or textiles such as Berber carpets, pillows, kilims and so forth, you will find these, too. Though it should be mentioned that if you are shopping in Morocco, it is better for the people and the economy if you shop fair trade.
Talk to your Moroccan tour guide and operator and find yourself on a vacation of your dreams! A Moroccan adventure will take you from the modern cities on the coast to Amazigh villages of the High Atlas, Middle Atlas, or Rif Mountains.. where you can even trek in Chefchaouen!
You can go trekking or try to visit during one of the many festivals to see age-old Amazigh customs being practiced even today. Stay in a modern riad or an ancient kasbah. It matters not where you go in this magical land as you will find the adventure of a life time. You can customize your tour to suit your interests and needs. Book your Morocco tour and begin your adventure today.
– Original Text by Carole Morris, Morocco Enthusiast, & Writer & Columnist for the JBT Team; *Updated text and photos on April 22, 2020