Traveling in Morocco, you are bound to trip across one of the most defining characteristics of the country – the Berbers. As the original inhabitants of Morocco, they are rightly proud of the contributions they have made in shaping the country. With a unique language and culture, the Berbers stand out as one of last bastions of tradition in an ever-modernizing society; while even the oldest villagers now happily chat on cell phones, they do so in a tongue almost impenetrable to anyone from the outside world.
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 pretty long time. Much of what we know about the very first people of Morocco come from archeological records. Of the Berbers themselves, 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. On the flip side, should you ever hear yourself called an arumi, you are being called a foreigner, or, literally, a Roman.
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 “Numidians,” 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 that, most Berbers across all of North Africa were Anamist, Christian or Jewish. Islam quickly spread through the region, though somewhat different to 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.
Most figures put the Berber population of Morocco at around 40 percent of the nation’s 32 million people, though almost 80 percent of the country claims at least some Berber heritage. Smaller Berber populations can also be found in Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Mali. 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, with many Moroccans taking extreme pride in their ethnicity and heritage. In 2014 the state lifted a ban on Amazigh names, embracing this 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, but 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. 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 shifted.
While Berbers in Morocco have a common identity, they can be roughly separated into three distinct tribes. In fact, while nearly all Berbers refer to their language as Tamazight, it’s far from homogeneous. One Berber might not understand a compatriot just a few hours down the road, and dialects from tribes across the country are nearly indecipherable.
In the north, the Riffian Berbers speak a dialect called Tarafit. The Moroccan Rif region is home to the Ghomara. This is the smallest Berber population in the country, and this group stays within the bounds of the Rif Mountains.
In the Middle Atlas are the Zayanes, who spread from Fes in the north, to Marrakesh in the south. Their dialect, Tamazight, varies wildly from region to region but is usually intelligible by native speakers. Some Zayanes, particularly those near Ouarzazate in the south, are still nomads, traveling with their livestock as the seasons change.
The southern Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains are home to the Shilhah. The Shilhah is the largest Berber tribe in the country and often viewed as having the most ‘pure’ Berber language, Tashlheit. The majority of Berber films and music are produced in the Tashlheit language.
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.
To get to 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 few options. Visit the many villages along the way, and if you see a sign for medfouna (med-foon-aa), also known as Berber pizza, it is worth a swift pitstop. The word medfouna means buried, referring to how the bread is traditionally cooked, buried in the sands of the Sahara. The Berber people are traditionally hospitable and will often offer to share a glass of famous Moroccan mint tea or cook you a traditional Moroccan meal, always with bread – aghroum – fresh from the oven, for your dinner.
Your Moroccan tour guide will help you choose the route best for you, and if you are interested in artisanal crafts, a stop at a carpet market can (and should) be included! Visit the markets of Marrakesh or Fez and you will find many examples of Berber craftsmanship. Stunning silver jewelry by Tuareg and Amazigh artists, handmade babouches or belga made in the workshops are just some of treasures you will find. Berber motifs and patterns are distinctive and often colorful, and can be found woven into and painted onto a lot of the crafts. Woven textiles, and carpets in particular are a strong thread running through the culture, from sequinned wedding blankets (handira), to the black and white woolen Beni Ourain carpets. 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.
A Moroccan adventure can take you from the modern cities on the coast to Amazigh villages of the High Atlas, Middle Atlas, or Rif Mountains. You can ride a camel across the desert, smell the roses in Kalaat M’gouna, or arrange 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, unfold your map or open your app, and start plotting your Moroccan adventure.
Original text by Carole Morris. Updated by Pauline de Villiers Brettell — a freelance writer and designer who lives between the UK and Morocco. When in Morocco she is based in the small seaside village of Asilah, and spends time working with local weavers and sourcing textiles in between attempting to grow enough olives for an annual supply of olive oil! She writes about all of these things — the olives, the carpets, and other elements of design inspiration — on her blog Tea in Tangier: www.teaintangier.com.
Photos by Lucas Peters. Lucas is the principal photographer and author of the Moon Guidebooks: Morocco as well as Marrakesh and Beyond published by Hachette. He edited and contributed to the Our Morocco anthology and helps the travelers of Journey Beyond Travel experience the adventure of a lifetime. He lives in Tangier with his family.