Meet the nomad warriors who conquered Egypt, battled Rome, and ruled Spain.
If you grew up watching Star Wars (like I did), you probably dreamed of visiting Tatooine, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker gazed up at the twin suns and imagined becoming a Jedi.
Like a surprising number of things in sci-fi and fantasy,
Tatouine is a real place.
It’s a town in Tunisia, North Africa, where many of the desert scenes in Star Wars were actually filmed. And while it’s not home to any starships or aliens, its true story is every bit as strange.
In my first article of this “Great African Empires” series, I mentioned that people in North Africa were living in settled villages, practicing farming and animal agriculture, as early as the 11,000s BCE —
A full 7,500 years before the Great Pyramid was built.
These people — whatever they originally called themselves — may have been related to the Natufian culture of the nearby Levant region (roughly modern Syria and Palestine). They’ve left us no writing, but they probably spoke some variant of the Proto-Afroasiatic language family that was widely spoken throughout North Africa at this time.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, the original Proto-Afroasiatic language is so old that it’s the common ancestor of both ancient Babylonian and modern Swahili — along with Arabic, Hebrew and many other Middle Eastern languages, ancient and modern.
Though they didn’t have writing, these North African farmers did leave us a rich library of visual art — most notably the rock paintings and engravings at Tassili n’Ajjer and Wadi Tashwinat, which depict animals like crocodiles and gazelles, as well as tribal activities like hunting and dancing, with stunningly expert skill.
Tassili n’Ajjer is mostly desert today, but its name means “Plateau of the Rivers” — a reference to a time, perhaps as far back as 11,000 BCE, when the plateau’s climate was wet enough to support vast fields of crops and grazing grass. Over thousands of years, these populations of farmers and herders — who probably originally spoke many different languages and practiced many different lifestyles and customs — coalesced into a vast tribal confederation.
Thousands of years later, the ancient Greeks would call these people barbaroi, “barbarians,” a slur they made their own and wore as a badge of honor, earning them the name “Berbers,” which is what they’re still called by most outsiders to this day.
But in their own language, they call themselves the Imazighen.
This term, too, is of uncertain origin and meaning. It dates from no earlier than the Byzantine period, and may have referred to a different tribe, or to several tribal groups in the area. Thus, sadly, their original name for themselves seems to be permanently lost to history.
Our only concrete sources are archaeological sites, along with a few brief references by foreign writers in much later periods. But we do know that since prehistoric times, people in North Africa had buried their honored dead in tombs, which evolved over the centuries into the enormous stone mounds and pyramids raised throughout the 300s and 200s BCE. These people also constructed megalithic sites (arrangements of huge rocks, similar to Stonehenge), which seem to indicate that they worshipped the stars, and perhaps other heavenly bodies as well.
While some Berbers later worshipped Egyptian gods like Isis, Osiris and Set, they’ve always insisted that certain deities worshipped by the Egyptians — especially Neith and Amunet — had originally been Berber gods and goddesses. In fact, the Egyptian ram-god Ammon (Amun) may indeed be older than Egypt: worship sites associated with Ammon have recently been discovered in the desert of Libya — the heart of Berber territory — and dated to as early as 9,600 BCE.
How much of their culture did the ancient Egyptians “borrow” from these Stone-Age nomads of the Libyan plateau, with their astronomical expertise and animal-faced gods?
We may never know the full story.
If they lived anything like modern nomadic Berbers, these ancient people probably organized themselves on a clan basis. Chieftains ruled groups centered around a certain geographical location, such as a well or a grazing-ground, or around a certain way of life, like hunting or sedentary farming. Nobles may have held monopolies on certain arms and armor — as they held monopolies on owning guns in much later centuries — and collected taxes from vassals who tended herds of goats and cattle.
Artisans probably belonged to a separate caste, as they do in many Berber societies to this day; and those who produced certain specialized objects may have held special roles in annual rituals, as only certain castes in modern Berber societies sacrifice animals at Islamic festivals. They probably also owned slaves, as many Berbers do today.
Their men probably wore turbans, and women, veils; long centuries before Islam came to their lands. Men and women both wore distinctive tattoos on their faces and hands — elaborate networks of symbols, rich with meaning.
Since prehistoric times, these people had led vast caravans across the Sahara, trading with people along the northwest African coast, and perhaps as far east as the Nile Delta. They were known for their sharp swords and elaborate jewelry, and for their fine flutes and drums, which they played with legendary expertise.
And in the empty expanse of the desert, they had only one way to navigate: by the stars, which became their trusted friends. Long before the first Egyptian pharaohs raised the first sun-temples, the ancestors of the Berbers carved their knowledge of the heavens in solid rock.
A dynasty of Berbers actually did rule ancient Egypt for more than 200 years, from 945 to 715 BCE. They were known (in Egyptian records) as the Meshwesh, and they represented the spearhead of a millennia-spanning struggle between the Egyptian pharaohs and the tattooed, long-haired tribes of the Libyan plains.
Usually the pharaohs’ armies managed to beat the Berber forces back — but during the rule of the 19th and 20th Egyptian Dynasties (c. 1295–1075 BCE), the Meshwesh intensified their assault, seized control of the Egyptian throne, and established a line of Berber pharaohs, starting with Osorkon the Elder. This dynasty ruled until its last pharaoh was, in turn, unseated by the army of the Nubian Kushite king Piye, whose dynasty ruled Egypt for the next few centuries.
But the Berbers never lost control of the Libyan heartland. And centuries later, when the Carthaginians — expert seafaring traders of Phoenician descent, who spoke a language related to Hebrew— sailed west from the area of modern Palestine to colonize North Africa, they made sure to seek alliances with the local Berber rulers. In fact, the Carthaginians recognized the combat skill of the Berber armies — and when the Romans invaded in the First Punic War —
The Carthaginians hired thousands of Berbers as mercenaries to fight the Roman invaders.
Unfortunately for the Carthaginians, the Romans won the First Punic War—and, as usual, they imposed crippling peace terms on their defeated enemies, purposefully taxing the Carthaginians into (temporary) poverty. The Carthaginian leaders, finding themselves very short on cash all of a sudden, refused to pay their Berber mercenaries—a decision that would have dire consequences for both sides.
The outraged Berbers launched a Mercenary War against their former employers, the Carthaginians—who sent in the merciless general Hamilcar Barca to eliminate the Berber threat. Barca, who’d made his name as a vicious guerrilla fighter against the Romans , inflicted “truceless war” on his Berber opponents. His methods were shockingly brutal even by the standards of the time: horror stories of his predilections for torture, crucifixion and other unusual atrocities spread across North Africa, even reaching ears as far away as Rome.
In the end, the relentless Carthaginian armies managed to capture the Berber leaders and regain control of their territory—but oddly enough, they didn’t drive their conquered enemies away. Berbers continued to live in their tens of thousands throughout the cities and countryside of North Africa—and less than a century later, they’d carved out a number of independent kingdoms of their own.
The king of one of these kingdoms—a warrior known as Masinissa—allied with Rome against the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War; and once the Romans had defeated the Carthaginians yet again, they stuck around to help Masinissa wipe one of his rival kings (a guy named Syphax) off the map. Now that he was free of serious local competition, Masinissa unified all the local Berber kingdoms into one great kingdom called Numidia (literally, “Nomad Land”).
Masinissa enriched his realm with monumental architecture and beautiful art — and around this time, the Berbers also developed their own unique writing system, the Tifinagh script, probably adapted from the Phoenician alphabet used in Carthage.
A version of that script is still used throughout North Africa today.
But that golden age was not to last. A few generations later, Masinissa’s illegitimate grandson Jugurtha, a popular hero for some reason, killed the heir to the throne and sparked a war with Rome — a quagmire worthy of the modern Middle East, in which the Numidians’ relentless guerilla tactics wore down the Roman legions man-by-man, and ever-present bribery and sneak attacks removed any hope of trust between the Romans and the local civilians.
What was supposed to be a quick “surgical strike” devolved into a knock-down drag-out nightmare that stretched on for six years, sparking outrage and protests back home in Italy. In the end, though, Jugurtha was finally captured, and was dragged back to Rome in chains.
All Numidia bore the punishment for Jugurtha’s crimes.
The Romans treated the conquered Numidians much as they’d treated the Carthaginians before them: they imposed crippling taxes that starved the Numidian cities, spreading poverty and sparking revolts. Urban centers slowly collapsed as more people returned to sustainable small-scale farming and herding. And so the situation remained for a very long time.
More than 800 years later, when the armies of Islam arrived in North Africa in the 700s CE, they found the land populated sparsely by tribes of Berber nomads, their faces tattooed and swathed in cloth, their eyes scanning the outsiders with suspicion. Of the once-great Numidian cities, only abandoned ruins remained.
It’s not exactly clear why the Berbers put up relatively little resistance against Islam, or why this new religion integrated into Berber culture so much more deeply and permanently than the influences of Egypt, Carthage, Greece or Rome ever did. By the early 1000s CE, nearly all the nomadic Berber tribes had converted to Islam, and the religion had permeated every aspect of their society, from war and law to marriage and education.
Confederations of Arabic and Berber tribes began to inflict persecution on the surrounding Christian, Jewish, and animist (nature-worshipping) communities. In the 1120s, the Berber-led Almohad Caliphate launched attacks north into Al-Andalus (Spain). Over the next few decades, they brought much of the Iberian peninsula under Berber rule, establishing strongholds in towns like Toledo, Talavera and Merida — where it’s still easy to find Berber architecture today.
For the next several centuries, the destinies of the Berbers would be inextricably bound up with those of rival Islamic dynasties warring for Spain and North Africa. Some Berber kings allied with powerful Umayyad caliphs, helping fend off Fatimid assassins; others rejected the old patterns of diplomacy and waged war against Umayyad rulers. The Hammudids, a caliphate of Berbers, battled the Umayyads, the Zirids, and their fellow Hammudids for Andalusian territory throughout the 1000s.
Meanwhile, down in North Africa, a powerful new Berber kingdom was taking shape.
The Almoravid dynasty, based in Morocco, snatched up much of southern Spain, fought off waves of attacks from Christian armies, and warred with the Wagadu (Ghana) empire to the south.
It was this war, it seems, that finally put an end to the Almoravid dynasty. The Wagadu warriors were no slouches themselves —proud sons of a vast, wealthy and tightly organized empire, these professionally drilled horsemen and archers attacked by the thousands, wreaking havoc not only on the battlefield, but on the entire ecosystem of the Northwest African plains.
The war stretched on for decades — and by the time it was over, vast stretches of grassland had been razed down to dirt. The delicate system of canals and farms, which the Berbers had cultivated since prehistory, lay in ruins; setting off a “disastrous process of desertification” that drove many formerly-urban Berbers out into the desert to pursue nomadic ways of life.
Yet some fertile areas survived and continued to prosper. The Almohad Caliphate, based in what’s now Morocco, continued to rule for more than a century—well into the 1200s—fighting successful battles against the Norman kings of Sicily, and even allying with Catholic kings of Castile in Spain. Like so many other great empires, the Almohads weren’t undone by any single factor, but by a combination of changing environment, loss of territory to enemies, and internal revolts by rebellious tribes.
One of these tribes, the Banu Marin, founded the Marinid dynasty, which rose to take the place of the Almohads. The Marinids were, in their turn, displaced by the Wattasids, who lost their kingdom to the Saadis, who were defeated by the Alouites—who ruled Morocco all the way up to the days of French colonialism, and ruled again when the country gained its independence in 1963. The current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, is an Alouite.
Meanwhile, other Berber royal houses had been conquering neighboring areas—parts of what are today Libya and Algeria to the east, along with Mali and Mauritania to the west. In all these countries, Berbers still constitute large percentages of the population. In Mauritania, they constitute most of the ruling class.
And to this day, clans of Berber nomads still graze their camels and cows on the sparse grass; to water them at isolated oases and wells; to sleep beneath the stars in the shade of their ancestors’ mud-brick walls and palaces.
These people who’ve been here since the Stone Age, who taught religious ideas to the ancient Egyptians, who fought with — and against — Phoenicians and Greeks and Romans, who conquered Spain and ruled as Muslim Caliphs… their descendants are still here, now, in Morocco and Algeria, in Libya and Tunisia, in Mauritania and Mali; speaking the same languages, still farming and herding and watering their camels at the same wells. And on cool desert nights, the air here still rings with the thumps of old drums and the clashes of old cymbals —
And the melodies that have been sung here since always.
The men and women who sing the old songs are still called Berbers, “barbarians,” by the ephemeral peoples who pass like shadows over their land, as so many shadows have passed over their stones for tens of thousands of years, and will pass for tens of thousands more.
Through it all, they remain.