History Of The Moroccan Atlas Mountain Tribes

Traditional Berber Homestead

When visiting Morocco, you are bound to come across one of the most important characterizations of the country, the Berber people. The Berbers were the original inhabitants of the country and are proud to share with anyone who will listen how they contributed to shaping Morocco. In an ever-modernising world, they remain one of the last defenders of tradition with their unique culture and language. Even though cell phones and modern technology has penetrated to the oldest villages high up in the Atlas Mountains, Berbers happily chat on them in a different tongue that is all but impenetrable to outsiders.

 

Statistics estimate the Berber population in Morocco to be in the region of 40% of the nation’s 32 million inhabitants. However, almost 80% of Moroccan citizens claim to have some Berber heritage. Historians place the first arrival of Berbers in the region at around the 2nd to 3rd millennium BCE.  Berbers refer to themselves as the Amazigh, which means “free people”, while the name “Berber” likely comes the Roman term for a barbarian. Berbers refer to outsiders as “arumi”, which means foreigner, or literally, Roman.

 

Village in Atlas MountainsThe Berber tribal people are ethnically distinct and have inhabited the Atlas Mountains and surrounding deserts for thousands of years before the 7th century AD when the Arab Conquest brought Islam to the region. For centuries after the Arab conquest, Berber tribes were driven out from the plains to seek arable land, grazing for their livestock, and above all, freedom from the Arabs. Those who remained in the lowlands gradually adopted the culture, language and religions of their conquerors that over the centuries have included the Romans, Arabs and French. But the tribes isolated in the mountainous areas vowed to preserve their language, identity, and, as was being made clear, their fierce independence.

 

Most of the past thirteen centuries some of the most hostile and remote territories in the High Atlas Mountains have been ruled by warlords who refuse to accept the rule of Arab sultans. During the years between 1912  and 1956 when most parts of Morocco was under the protectorate of France, the mountains were designated a tribal area and left to the de facto control of the local collaborating warlords.

 

 

Despite their collective identity, Berbers can be separated into roughly three distinctly different tribes. The preferred language of Tamazight is, however, far from homogeneous and many find it almost impossible to understand compatriots who live just a few hours away with some dialects across the country being almost indecipherable.

–    The Riffian Berber tribe is the smallest population in the country and speak Tarafit. This group is tightly knit and live in the north in the Rif Mountains.

 

–    The Zayanes who spread out from the north to the south to live in Marrakesh speak a dialect called Tamazight which varies widely from one region to another, but can usually be interpreted by native dwellers. Some of them are still nomads, particularly near Quarzazate where the travel around the southern parts of the country with their livestock following the changing seasons.

 

–    The Shilhah is the largest of the Berber tribes and lives in the south Atlas Mountains and the Anti-Atlas Mountains. The Shilhah speak the purest version of the Berber languages, Tashlheit which is the chosen language for Berber music and films in that region.

 

Berber Tribe on Camel BackAlthough all Berbers maintain that they had never been conquered, their identity and national heritage have consistently been stamped down throughout their history. The autonomous mountain tribes posed a threat to the Moroccan government who preferred the assimilation of their culture and language in the larger Moroccan/Arab way of life. Morocco’s constitution has declared the country to be part of Arab North Africa with Arabic as the official language despite the fact that nearly 40% of the people speak one of the three Berber languages and most claim Berber descent. This is mainly due to the legacy of Arab nationalism that triggered independence movements during the colonial era. In the name of unity the culture, language and identity of non-Arab peoples were ignored and even suppressed.

 

 

Perseverance, however, has paid off and changes are underway with new cultural and educational initiatives working to help preserve the Berber culture and identity. Today many schools teach standard Tamazight, and the flag of the Berber’s can be seen fluttering from many shop windows in almost every city in Morocco. A small film industry and radio programs have sprung up in recent years, and they even have their satellite television channel broadcasting exclusively in Berber.

Historical Berber Town