Maghreb, Africa – World Atlas

The region known as the Maghreb is a region in northwestern Africa. The word “Maghreb” literally means “west” in the Arabic language. This name makes sense because it is found in the west of the Arabian Peninsula, which is the original homeland of the Arabs.

Today, the Maghreb encompasses the countries of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and the disputed region of Western Sahara. Some also add Mauritania to the region. Interestingly, Morocco’s name in Arabic is also Maghreb, so it should not be confused with the Maghreb region.


Map of the Maghreb and Sahel regions.

The Maghreb is made up of two well-defined regions, the Sahara Desert to the south and the Atlas Mountains to the north. The Sahara Desert covers the overwhelming majority of the territory belonging to Mauritania, Western Sahara, Algeria and Libya. It also covers the southern half of Tunisia. The dunes for which the Sahara is famous are mainly found in Algeria and Libya.

The Atlas mountain range, which stretches from Morocco to Tunisia, has a number of plateaus that receive regular rainfall of over 100mm per year, in an area where regular rainfall is very difficult to obtain. . The mountains are very difficult to cross due to the extremely high peaks they present. The highest peak in the Atlas Mountains is called Jbel Toubkal and is located in the southwest of Morocco. It is 4,167 meters high. In Antiquity, the Atlas Mountains served as a sort of border between the coastal Maghreb and the Saharan Maghreb.


Ruins of the Roman basilica of Volubilis in Morocco.

The earliest recorded history of the Maghreb dates back to when it was the domain of the Phoenicians, who migrated from their homeland to modern Lebanon to establish ports on the Maghreb coast. One of these ports was Carthage, which later became a powerful empire controlling the northern part of present-day Tunisia, most of the Maghreb coast, the Canary Islands, southern part of Spain d ‘today the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and part of the Mediterranean island of Sicily. This empire, however, was only informal, as there was no central government for the entire extent of Carthaginian territory.

The Carthaginian Empire lasted from 575 to 146 BCE. For many years he fought for supremacy against another emerging superpower of the time, the Roman Republic, the precursor of the Roman Empire. The so-called Punic wars, three in number, were the wars fought between the Romans and the Carthaginians. The long struggle between the two empires ended in the Third Punic War when the Romans occupied and destroyed Carthage itself.

The Roman conquest of Carthage marks a turning point in history. To begin with, he shifted the path of civilizational development from Africa to Europe. In addition, he transformed Rome from a regional power to a world power. This forced the Romans to develop a complex system of administration due to the vast new territory they had to control. The methods of administration that the Romans developed to rule its expanded imperial kingdom shaped the administrations of modern nation states, including the United States.

Arabic and Turkish rule

The Arabs introduced camels to the Maghreb region.

The Roman Empire will rule over the Maghreb for many centuries. But in the 7th century CE, another empire emerged that would conquer the entire region and change it forever. This new empire was the Islamic Caliphate. In the middle of the 7th century AD, Arab invaders entered North Africa. By the end of the century, they had brought almost all of the coastal Maghreb under their control. Meanwhile, traditional indigenous leaders have been replaced by Arab leaders.

The Arabs took with them the new religion of Islam, which would eventually become the dominant religion in the Maghreb. Arab rule in the Maghreb will continue until the 16th century, when the Turks began to conquer parts of the region. They eventually took control of almost all of the Maghreb, with the exception of Morocco.

The Arab and Turkish invasions of the Maghreb introduced new fauna to the region. One animal in particular, the camel, would forever change the way trade was conducted in the region. Due to the camel’s ability to withstand the harsh conditions of the Sahara Desert, a Trans-Saharan trade route was established, which increased intercontinental communication between Africa and West Asia. It was the prosperous Maghreb trade that ultimately attracted European powers to the region. At first, the Europeans simply tried to establish trade relations using the coastal territories of the Maghreb as entry points into the larger regional trade market. Later, however, the Europeans changed their intentions from trade to conquest.

European colonization and decolonization

French colonial architecture in Algiers, Algeria. Image Credit: Oguz Dikbakan / Shutterstock

In the first quarter of the 19th century, European powers began to take over parts of the Maghreb. France eventually became the dominant colonial power in the region. The French began their conquests in the region by taking control of what is today the coastal area of ​​Algeria. At the start of the 20th century, they controlled most of the Maghreb and West Africa. Spain had seized territory in what is now Western Sahara and on the northern coast of Morocco, while Italy conquered what is now Libya.

After World War II, a wave of nationalism swept through European colonies overseas, including those in the Maghreb. Libya was the first country in the region to gain independence, followed by Tunisia and Morocco. Algeria gained independence in 1962, following an often bloody revolt against French rule. Spain withdrew from what is now Western Sahara in 1976, after which Morocco immediately claimed sovereignty, a claim which was rejected by the inhabitants of the enclave, which led to a armed resistance. The conflict in Western Sahara remains unresolved to this day.

In 2011, a popular uprising took place in Tunisia, leading to the overthrow of the country’s longtime dictator and the establishment of a democratic government. That same year, in neighboring Libya, an armed rebellion took place, in which Western powers under NATO leadership intervened militarily to help end the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled Libya since 1969. Fighting in Libya continues, however. , between militias vying for control of the country.


People walking in Algiers, Algeria. Image Credit: Oguz Dikbakan / Shutterstock

The population of the Maghreb is around 100 million inhabitants. 4.5 million more people can be added if Mauritania is included in the region. Algeria is the most populous country in the Maghreb, with around 43.8 million people living within its borders. Not too far behind is Morocco, with around 36.9 million people. Tunisia has around 11.8 million inhabitants, while Libya has around 6.8 million. The disputed enclave of Western Sahara is the least populated in the Maghreb region, with less than 600,000 people living there.

Most of the people living in the Maghreb are of Arab, Berber or mixed Arab and Berber origin. The Berbers, more correctly called the Imazighen (Amazigh in the singular), are the first inhabitants of the Maghreb, having been in the region before the start of the Arab invasions in the 7th century AD. There are several subgroups of Berber peoples, who speak different Berber languages. Although stereotyped as nomads, most Berbers are in fact farmers. For a long time, Europeans called Northwest Africa the Barbary Coast, denoting the presence of Berbers in the region.

A Berber farmer in Morocco.

The Arabic and Berber languages ​​are spoken in the Maghreb, although it is the first that dominates. It should be noted, however, that the Arabic language is not uniform throughout the Maghreb region, nor is it uniform in other parts of the Arab world. The two most commonly spoken varieties of Arabic in the Maghreb are Hassaniya Arabic and Maghreb Arabic, the latter with over 70 million speakers, making it the most common type of Arabic in the region. But Maghrebian Arabic can be further divided into national dialects spoken by Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Libyans. A heritage of colonialism, French is still used, spoken and understood in the Maghreb countries that were once under French domination.

About Wesley V. Finley

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