The Berber people are the natives of North Africa, their lands stretching from the Nile Valley to the Atlantic seaboard, and from the Mediterranean coast to the Niger River in the south, an enormous land mass of greatly differentiating topography. The term Berber, relating to Barbarian, was introduced by invading armies, the natives knew themselves as Imazighen, 'free people.'
There is evidence dating their existence to 10,000 BCE. These nomadic herdsmen, travelling largely through desert and scrub, had a language, religion and culture which united the various tribes for centuries prior to the Islamic invasion of their lands. Those who began to settle and farm also developed unique styles of building, art, and music.
As the early Berbers did not have a written language there is no documentation of their history. The ancient Egyptians recorded fighting against the Libu (Libyan) tribe on their western border.
The lands of the Berbers encompassed northern Algeria and western Tunisia, and was later expanded southwards into the Sahara, to completely surrounded the land side of the Punic city of Carthage. The two major Berber tribes were divided during the Punic wars, those of the west aligned with Rome, whilst those of the east supported Carthage. However in 206 BCE, during the conflict, a new king Masinissi, became leader of the eastern tribe and treacherously changed sides to support the Romans. Because of this action, when Rome subsequently defeated Carthage, Masinissi was given all the Berber lands, uniting for the first time the kingdom of Numidia.
On the death of Masinissi in 148 BCE there began sibling fights over the kingdom, which eventually led to Rome's intervention and a war between the two nations.
Before the arrival of the Arabs many Berbers were xtians or Jews, although some still followed their original Pagan religion, but much of north west Africa became Berber speaking despite turning Muslim. However by the 11th century the area had become generally Arab in its culture as well as religion.
Under the Arab rule Berber also became
synonymous with the Barbary slave trade, responsible for taking over a
million white slaves from
Europe into North Africa. A trade which is
still believed to continue up to this day.
There were many different factions of Muslim invaders over the years, from Ottomans, Egyptians and those from the Middle East. The Muslim army which invaded Iberia in 711, was led by the Berber Tariq ibn Ziyad, and was largely made up of Berber tribesmen. The landing place is still named after him, Gibr al-Tariq, Tariq's rock.
Over the centuries the Berbers have been assimilated into other cultures, and only in the mountainous areas, where invading armies did not venture, and the nomads driven back into the desert, do they still survive in their pure state.