The People of North Africa

Historic Migrations

Egypt was geographically a crossroads for movements of people and practices. By 2000 BCE the Saharan Desert had expanded across the continent, creating a 1,500-mile barrier across northern Africa. As more and more of North Africa became uninhabitable, the Nile River became a line of cultural linkage between far-flung areas. Berbers from the Sahara raided Egyptian settlements around the Nile around 2000 BCE and Berber-speaking societies came to predominate.

The camel arrived in northern Africa around 1000 BCE. The Berbers living on the edges of the desert adopted the camel very quickly. They became pastoral nomads, living in temporary dwellings, moving whenever new pastures were needed.

Spread of World Religions

One of the most important social trends as this time was the spread of two world religions, Christianity and Islam. Christianity followed the trade routes as merchants spread the word of the new religion. Christianity was adopted by most urban and rural peoples, except for the western part of North Africa where the nomadic Berbers maintained their traditional beliefs.

Islam followed Christianity. The Arab Muslims wanted to build an Islamic empire. Starting in Egypt around 640 CE, they moved across the region, bringing the urban areas under a unified political-religious rule by around 700 CE. Even Berbers were included in this movement.

As the Arab/Berber civilizations declined, first the non-Arabic (but Islamic) Ottoman Empire filled in the gap. Most of North Africa was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century CE until the early 20th century CE. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European nations defeated the Ottomans.


Much of the region speaks and works in Arabic. People living in Berber regions, usually somewhat rural and isolated, often speak a Berber dialect.

Written languages are limited in North Africa. The most common written language is Modern Arabic. In Morocco, French is the second official language due to French colonization, while in Egypt it is English. It is not uncommon for an educated North African to speak three, four, or even five languages.

Source: The People of North Africa
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