Algeria has been inhabited by Berbers, or Imazighen, since at least 10,000 BC. After 1,000 BC, the Carthaginians began establishing settlements along the coast. The Berbers seized the opportunity offered by the Punic Wars to become independent of Carthage, and Berber kingdoms began to emerge, most notably Numidia. In 200 BC, however, they were once again taken over, this time by the Roman Republic. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Berbers became independent again in many areas, while the Vandals took control over other parts, where they remained until expelled by the generals of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I. The Byzantine Empire then retained a precarious grip on the east of the country until the coming of the Arabs in the eighth century.
According to historians of the Middle Ages, the Berbers are divided into two branches, two are from their ancestor Mazigh. The two branches Botr and Barnès are also divided into tribes. Each Maghrib (North Africa) region is made up of several tribes in which, the large Berber tribes or peoples are Sanhadja, Houaras, Zenata, Masmouda, Kutama, Awarba, Berghwata, etc. Each tribe is divided into sub tribes. All these tribes have independence and territorial decisions.
Several Berber dynasties have emerged during the Middle Ages in the Maghreb, Sudan, Andalusia, Italy, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Egypt and the surrounding areas. Ibn Khaldoun has a table summarising the Maghrib dynasties in which the Berber dynasties are the Zirid, Banu Ifran, Maghrawa, Almoravid, Hammadid, Almohad, Merinid, Abdalwadid, Wattasid, Meknassa and Hafsides dynasties.
The Almohads were able to unify the Maghrib and the Berbers of the Middle Ages have contributed to the Arabisation of the Maghrib, which is a historical fact.
Islam in Algeria
The greatest cultural impact came from the Arab invasions of the 8th and 11th centuries AD, which brought Islam and the Arabic language.The introduction of Islam and Arabic had a profound impact on North Africa beginning in the seventh century. The new religion and language introduced changes in social and economic relations, established links with a rich culture, and provided a powerful idiom of political discourse and organisation. From the great Berber dynasties of the Almoravids and Almohads to the militants seeking an Islamic state in the 1990s, the call to return to true Islamic values and practices has had social resonance and political power.
The first Arab military expeditions into the Maghrib, between 642 and 669, resulted in the spread of Islam. The Umayyads (a Muslim dynasty based in Damascus from 661 to 750) recognised that the strategic necessity of dominating the Mediterranean dictated a concerted military effort on the North African front. By 711 Umayyad forces helped by Berber converts to Islam had conquered all of North Africa. In 750, the Abbasids succeeded the Umayyads as Muslim rulers and moved the caliphate to Baghdad. Under the Abbasids, the Rustumid imamate (761-909) actually ruled most of the central Maghrib from Tahirt, southwest of Algiers. The imams gained a reputation for honesty, piety and justice, and the court of Tahirt was noted for its support of scholarship. The Rustumid imams failed, however, to organise a reliable standing army, which opened the way for Tahirt’s demise under the assault of the Fatimid dynasty.
With their interest focused primarily on Egypt and Muslim lands beyond, the Fatimids left the rule of most of Algeria to the Zirids (972-1148), a Berber dynasty that centred significant local power in Algeria for the first time. This period was marked by constant conflict, political instability and economic decline. Following a large incursion of Arab Bedouin from Egypt, beginning in the first half of the 11th century, the use of Arabic spread to the countryside, and sedentary Berbers were gradually Arabised.
The Almoravid movement developed early in the 11th century among the Sanhaja Berbers of the western Sahara. The movement’s initial impetus was religious, an attempt by a tribal leader to impose moral discipline and strict adherence to Islamic principles on followers. But the Almoravid movement shifted to engaging in military conquest after 1054. By 1106 the Almoravids had conquered Morocco, the Maghrib as far east as Algiers, and Spain up to the Ebro River.
Like the Almoravids, the Almohads found their inspiration in Islamic reform. The Almohads took control of Morocco by 1146, captured Algiers around 1151, and by 1160 had completed the conquest of the central Maghrib. The zenith of Almohad power occurred between 1163 and 1199. For the first time, the Maghrib was united under a local regime, but the continuing wars in Spain overtaxed the resources of the Almohads, and in the Maghrib their position was compromised by factional strife and a renewal of tribal warfare.
In the central Maghrib, the Zayanids founded a dynasty at Tlemcen in Algeria. For more than 300 years, until the region came under Ottoman suzerainty in the 16th century, the Zayanids kept a tenuous hold in the central Maghrib. Many coastal cities asserted their autonomy as municipal republics governed by merchant oligarchies, tribal chieftains from the surrounding countryside, or the privateers who operated out of their ports. Nonetheless, Tlemcen (pearl of the Maghrib), prospered as a commercial centre.
The final triumph of the 700-year Christian reconquest of Spain was marked by the fall of Granada in 1492. Christian Spain imposed its influence on the Maghrib coast by constructing fortified outposts and collecting tribute. But Spain never sought to extend its North African conquests much beyond a few modest enclaves. Privateering was an age-old practice in the Mediterranean, and North African rulers engaged in it increasingly in the late 16nth and early 17th centuries because it was so lucrative. Algeria became the privateering city-state par excellence, and two privateer brothers were instrumental in extending Ottoman influence in Algeria. At about the time Spain was establishing its presidios in the Maghrib, the Muslim privateer brothers Aruj and Khair ad Din – the latter known to Europeans as Barbarossa, or Red Beard – were operating successfully off Tunisia. In 1516, Aruj moved his base of operations to Algiers but was killed in 1518. Khair ad Din succeeded him as military commander of Algiers, and the Ottoman sultan gave him the title of beylerbey (provincial governor).
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