15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Berbers of Morocco
Today we share some incredible facts about the Berbers of Morocco that you perhaps didn’t know before. So, continue reading the post to explore things that may astonish you.
You head to the African kingdom of Morocco, and your Moroccan travel/tour operator enlightened you about visiting Berber villages. You may or may not have known about the Berber craftsman, some of their eternal history, their erudition of the land, and a lot more.
But, have you ever wondered who these Berber people are?
A people that held their ground for centuries battling all conquerors – They traveled the world and have given us Warriors and Queens, Pharaohs and Scholars. Still, they are keeping their nomadic and ancient culture active across the mountains and deserts of Morocco.
In short, a Moroccan pre-Arab, pre-Roman, Pre-Egyptian culture that has ruled level headed and unsurpassed for a long time. We probably need to illuminate ourselves more about these incredible people of Morocco.
Here are some facts about the Berbers of Morocco, or as they prefer to be called; The Amazigh.
1. They are Morocco’s original inhabitants.
Morocco is often put into the Middle East instead of North Africa and categorized as an Arabic country. However, the native people of Morocco, the Berbers are the region’s original inhabitants.
In the 7th century, earlier to the invasion/takeover by Arabs, Berber people were Christians or Animists/Jews. An animist deems it is not only humans with spirits and souls, but that all animals, land, and plants are spiritual.
Lately, his Majesty, the King Mohammed 6th has described the diversity of Moroccan Identity “plurality of the Moroccan identity, united and rich with the diversity of its branches, and at the heart of which is Amazigh, the heritage of all Moroccans.” This has coincided with the amendment of the constitution in July 2011, which made the Amazigh language official among Arabic and French.
2. They don’t like the term “Berber”.
Berber comes from the Greek word “Barbaroi”, which means those who do not speak Greek. However, it has been interpreted by Romans, and westerners as a term to describe “Barbarians”, which can have a negative connotation meaning barbaric or savage. Hence, the term was misunderstood mostly because the Romans used it to describe the Ancient Egyptians, who we all know were far more advanced and civilized than the Greeks and the Romans combined.
Because of this connotation, the Berbers prefer to be called the Amazigh or Imazighen, which means the “Free people”, looking at history and the facts below, you will understand that this term does hold true to its meaning for the Amazighs.
PS: We will refer to them as both Berber and Amazigh in this article, just to avoid the repeated words, apologies my fellow Amazigh!
3. The Majority of Moroccans are Berber.
The Amazigh people have been in North Africa as far as 3000 years ago, and many can trace back their lineage to Yemen and other regions or countries in the Middle East. In Morocco, over 70% of people are Amazigh or Berber. The Atlas Mountains range, dominating the country, is the abode to the majority.
With time, there has been inter-cast marriage among inhabitants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. But, all these cultures contribute to today’s Moroccan ancestry. While less than 30% speak the Amazigh language, according to the data from 2016 census, almost 20 million Berbers live in Morocco and around 30 million throughout North Africa and the Sahel.
4. They are one of the most diverse civilisations in the planet.
The history of the Amazigh is diverse and extensive. The Amazigh people are a large group of non-Arabic tribes who share the same common mother language. They can be found from Egypt to the Canary Islands, as well as the Sahara desert, stretching as far as Niger and Mali.
Many Archaeologists believe the Amazigh people have ancestors from the Caspian culture, a North African civilization that inhabited the area since 10,000 years ago. Amazigh speaking tribes have lived in North Africa for a long time. You can find references and texts about them by the ancient Egyptians during 3,000 BC, they were called by the name Temehu. Scriptures by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans can be found mentioning the Amazigh people.
North Africa has been a crossroad of many civilizations. Africans, Europeans and Middle Eastern invaders have settled in the North African region, marrying and mingling among the Amazigh people. From The Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, Turks and Arabs, the Spanish, the Italians, the French, and the portuguese have all ruled during different periods in what is known as the Berber homeland.
The population of Berbers of Morocco is divided into dozen different tribes with varying sizes and spreading across the region. Berbers in Morocco speak numerous different dialects. Moreover, some dialects are incredibly different that they are almost known as separate languages. However, the main three dialects are:
- Tarifiyt in the north
- Tamazight in the centre
- Tashelhiyt in the southwest
Currently, many Berber people include Arabic words, mainly religious words, in their everyday speech. But, most speak Tamazight, which is a standardized version of the numerous Berber dialects. The language has its own letter system and isn’t linked with Arabic in any way.
Watch this fun video if you want to learn more:
5. They have incredible wedding traditions.
In Morocco, wedding celebrations vary depending on each region. Customs, traditions, music, meals and dresses are so different from an area to another thanks to the diverse Amazigh culture. In Southern Morocco, for example, wedding ceremonies happen during the summer and usually last for 3 days. This is due to the belief of the fertility of pastures and groups of cattle. In Tiznit, the tribe of Erasmine’s wedding ceremony lasts for seven days, all so different from one day to the next.
One of the most popular Amazigh cultural events or festivals is the Imilchil wedding festival. Every year, in September, as per their lunar calendar, local tribes unite in the High Atlas Mountains to let young women and men meet for marrying. The event is celebrated to memorize a legend of two lovers who were prohibited from marrying as they belong to families with different tribes.
Contrary to stereotypes, the marriages at the festival are rarely pre-arranged. The women usually arrive in a unique symbolic dress, and they spend the day flirting and chatting with the available men during the festival while watching the dances and performances. During the end of the celebration about 30,000 people gather to finish the day with new marriage ceremonies. This event is open to tourists; if you’re coming to Morocco in September, I encourage you to go, maybe you’ll find your own special one! 🙂
6. The cuisine has not changed for centuries.
The delicious cuisine of Morocco has remained quite much the same for a long time, and it includes tajines, bourjeje, pastillas, and tahricht.
The Tagine pot is of Amazigh origins. They date as far as 2000 years ago. The Amazighs are what introduced the preservation techniques of lemons, meat (known as Khlii). The slow cooking techniques of Tangia are also from Berber origins. They are also known for being one of the best farmers who understand the mountainous landscape of Morocco. It is believed that couscous, the grain, is also of Amazigh origins.
7. They have several mysterious rituals and beliefs.
The Amazigh culture is known for different local cults. The Berbers had a rich belief of various gods. They have traditions that were developed locally. However, many were influenced by African, ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, Judaic, Iberian, and Hellenistic methodologies and customs.
Only after the 7th century that they started getting influenced by the Arab methodology and religion, this is when the majority of Amazigh people were converted to Islam. Today, some of the ancient pagan beliefs still exist among the Islamic culture and traditions, especially in rural parts of Morocco where ancient cults are still practised.
For instance, facial tattoos (prohibited in Islam but widely common in Moroccan Berber tribes) is one famous ritual – women of the tribe get whenever they reach certain milestones or come of a certain age like giving birth to the first child, marrying, etc.
I still remember many of our elder grandmothers and her siblings with intricate facial tattoos. Unfortunately, this tradition is fading away together with many Amazigh customs.
Find below an archive video of some Amazigh women elders showing their tattoos, we apologize if the video is not translated, however, if you click on the video description you will find the script in English.
8. Most Amazigh (Berbers) can be found in Rural Morocco.
Most Amazigh berbers live in the rural areas of Morocco. It includes most mountainous regions, for instance –
- The High Atlas
- The Middle Atlas
- The Rif Mountains
- And desert areas too.
In urban regions like Casablanca and Marrakech, many people are either possessing Berber ancestry or 100% Berber.
9. They have unique cultural traditions and holidays.
The culture of Amazigh, or Imazighen, celebrates or enjoys the same holidays as the rest of the country, for instance, Eid al Adha and Ramadan. However, they have their own unique celebrations.
Some examples are:
It is prevalent and known as Amazigh New Year, depending on the Amazigh agrarian calendar. It is usually celebrated on Jan 14. A big meal, including Couscous, is ready and it’s considered a good sign to marry on this particular day.
It is a lesser-popular Moroccan cultural celebration. It celebrates after Eid al Adha and lasts for three days, and the ceremony has several different explanations. Myths claim that the intent is to portray the encounter of good Vs evil. Mainly visible in rural areas of Morocco, this ceremony involves music, dancing and masquerading, some may call it the Berber version of Halloween. Participants wear everything they can creatively find, from sheepskin, goats skins to bird feathers, they wear masks, paint their faces, attach horns around their heads, the more weird and scary you look, the better.
*I remember driving with some foreign friends to a village up the Atlas Mountains during Boujloud, none of us knew this was happening. All of a sudden bunch of sheepskin scary-looking drum-playing masses came out with fire torches, stopped our car and started dancing around us. I have never seen anybody turn blue as much as my European friends did that day. If you’re into the weird, the off the beaten path, do not miss this ceremony, especially if you’re coming during early August.
10. They were skilled horsemen.
Yes, Berbers were skilled horsemen, and their talent was a substantial asset in the “Game of Gunpowder” battle. Today, this same horsemanship is seen as a performance during/at the closing of their wedding celebration. The performance is a thrilling colorful show of expert riding. In fact, a group of riders wear traditional dress and line up on their horses. Then, they move forward at speed for 200 meters before firing their ancient gunpowder loaded weapons into the air together at the same time, creating one compelling synchronized sound. That’s where their skill comes in.
11. They love music.
The native people of Morocco love music, and it is a vital element of every celebration. Mostly in rural areas, music is performed using drums and flutes. Ritual music is performed at ceremonies like weddings, and it is also played to get rid of evil spirits.
12. Women in Amazigh Society have considerably more freedom than their Arab neighbours.
Women were often considered as second class humans throughout history, with female babies being buried alive in some pre-Islamic cultures. In the west, they were considered witches and evil. In Amazigh societies, women are seen as the most important members of the tribes. There are outstanding records of women leaders in the military, spiritual leaders, and goddesses.
Amazigh tribes in Tunisia around 400 BC worshipped a woman called Tanit. She was the goddess of fertility, the moon, love and prosperity. Another primary example of women leaders in Amazigh societies is Dihiya, also called Tihiya, Damya, or commonly known as Kahina. She led multiple battles against the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs in the 7th century.
Amazigh women are the leading artists in Berber culture, known to make beautiful carpets, interiors, fabrics and artisanal products.
Women are the public symbol of Amazigh identity. For instance, in the Sahara desert, the nomads called Touareg, it’s the women who control the camps. The first ruler of a Touareg tribe was a woman named Tin Hinan. In Amazigh culture, women can choose their husbands, divorce, own property, lead raids, take part in the tribe’s administration council, and did not have to wear the veil typical in Muslim and Arab societies.
Amazigh societies are quite democratic with all tribes and families being equal in governing themselves. Controlled by codes of honour and councils of elders called the “Jamaa”, usually supervised by women leaders who delegate social, economic and political issues of the tribe.
13. Few ancient Egyptian Pharoahs were of Amazigh (Berber) origin.
In ancient Egypt, all of the west of the Nile was inhabited by Berbers, Including the Delta and all the oases in the Libyan Desert.
Ramesses II was one of the most powerful and influential Kings that reigned over ancient Egypt during the 19th Dynasty.
“A study of the mummy of Ramesses II, the Museum of Man in Paris in 1976, concluded that the pharaoh was a “leucoderma, Mediterranean type similar to that of North African Amazigh”.
14. The first Christian Bible was written by Saint Mark, a Berber native from Cyrene, the Pentapolis of North Africa, (now Libya).
He was a primary figure in the foundation of Christianity in Africa. When he arrived in Egypt, he created the Church of Alexandria and started spreading the new religion. One of the most influential Christian thinkers and philosophers, Saint Augustine, was also Amazigh, born in Thagaste, today known as Souk Ahras, Algeria.
15. They are one of the oldest people on the planet.
We all know that the Amazigh culture dates back to 3000 BC, however, if you understand a little bit about genetics, you may be surprised to learn that the Berbers are amongst the oldest people in the planet. Hence, we are all berbers and come from berber ancestry, one way or another.
Human geneticists have traced Y-chromosomal Adam (Y-MRCA) to Africa — more specifically to West, Northwest and Central Africa. The Y-MRCA is the patrilineal Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) from which all human descendants come. The chromosomes were traced to haplogroup A1a (found in two Moroccan Berbers, Fulbe, and the Tuaregs) or A1b (identified in three Bakola pygmies from Cameroon and one Algerian Berbers, which concludes that the Pygmies and Berbers are among the oldest people on earth. This reminds me of the latest discovery of one of the oldest fossils of Homo Sapiens which was found in Morocco, dated 300,000 years old.
Some Final Words:
As you can now see, the Berbers of Morocco are not just in colourful wardrobes, and crafts. In fact, there is far more to their ethnicity and culture than just selling incredible crafts and entertaining tourists. Witnessing their ancient and unique celebrations while visiting Morocco is something special that one should definitely include in their trip.
Curious of what kind of road trips you could have with us in Morocco? Check Tom’s Immersive Journey across the country. And find out why he decided to visit Morocco! Follow us on instagram to see our 3000 kms bike tour.
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