North Africa is a region encompassing the northern portion of the Africa
n continent. There is no singularly accepted scope for the region, and it is sometimes defined as stretching from the Atlantic shores of Mauritania
in the west, to Egypt
's Suez Canal
and the Red Sea
in the east. Varying sources have limited it to the countries of Algeria
, and Tunisia
, a region that was known by the French during colonial times as "Afrique du Nord" and is known by Arabs as the Maghreb
("West", ''The western part of Arab World''). The most commonly accepted definition includes Morocco
, and Sudan
, the 6 countries that shape the top North of the African continent. Meanwhile, "North Africa", particularly when used in the term Middle East and North Africa
(MENA), often refers only to the countries of the Maghreb.
North Africa includes a number of Spanish and Portuguese possessions or integral part of their territory: Spanish Ceuta
and plazas de soberanía
on or just off Morocco's Mediterranean coast, and the Spanish Canary Islands
and Portuguese Madeira
off Morocco's Atlantic coast. The countries of North Africa share a common ethnic, cultural and linguistic identity with the Middle East or West Asia
, and is unique to this region as compared to Sub-Saharan Africa
. Northwest Africa has been inhabited by Berbers
since the beginning of recorded history
, while the eastern part of North Africa has been home to the Egyptians
. Between the A.D. 600s and 1000s, Arabs from the Middle East
swept across the region in a wave of Muslim conquest
. These peoples, physically quite similar, formed a single population in many areas, as Berbers and Egyptians merged into Arabic
and Muslim culture
. This process of Arabization and Islamization has defined the cultural landscape of North Africa ever since.
The distinction between North Africa, the Sahel
and the rest of the continent
is as follows:
or "African Transition Zone" has been affected by many formative epochs in North African history ranging from Ottoman
occupation to the Arab-Berber control of the Andalus
. As a result, many modern African nation-states
that are included in the Sahel evidence cultural similarities and historical overlap with their North African neighbours. In the present day, North Africa is associated with West Asia
in the realm of geopolitics
to form a Middle East-North Africa
region. The Islam
ic influence in the area is also significant and North Africa is a major part of the Muslim world
North Africa has three main geographic features: the Sahara
desert in the south, the Atlas Mountains
in the west, and the Nile River
and delta in the east. The Atlas Mountains
extend across much of northern Algeria
. These mountains are part of the fold mountain
system that also runs through much of Southern Europe
. They recede to the south and east, becoming a steppe
landscape before meeting the Sahara
desert, which covers more than 75 percent of the region. The tallest peaks are in the High Atlas range in south-central Morocco, which has many snow-capped peaks.
South of the Atlas Mountains is the dry and barren expanse of the Sahara
desert, which is the largest sand desert in the world.
In places the desert is cut by irregular watercourses called wadis—streams that flow only after rainfalls but are usually dry. The Sahara's major landforms include ergs, large seas of sand that sometimes form into huge dunes; the hammada, a level rocky plateau without soil or sand; and the reg, a level plain of gravel or small stones. The Sahara covers the southern part of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and most of Libya. Only two regions of Libya are outside the desert: Tripolitania
in the northwest and Cyrenaica
in the northeast. Most of Egypt is also desert, with the exception of the Nile River and the irrigated land along its banks. The Nile Valley forms a narrow fertile thread that runs along the length of the country.
Sheltered valleys in the Atlas Mountains
, the Nile Valley and Delta
, and the Mediterranean coast are the main sources of fertile farming land. A wide variety of valuable crops including cereals, rice and cotton, and woods such as cedar and cork, are grown. Typical Mediterranean crops, such as olives, figs, dates and citrus fruits, also thrive in these areas. The Nile Valley is particularly fertile and most of the population in Egypt
live close to the river. Elsewhere, irrigation is essential to improve crop yields on the desert margins.
Variously the Sudan
and Western Sahara
are considered to be part of the region by the United Nations
, while Western Sahara and Mauritania
(but not Sudan) are included by the African Union
. In general geopolitical and business usage, as for example with the World Bank, North Africa is often grouped with the Middle East
under the acronym MENA
("Middle East and North Africa") and sometimes in American governmental usage the geopolitical
term Greater Middle East
. Similarly, the traditional Arabic toponym Maghreb
(meaning "the West") is commonly used to mean the African part of the Arab World
, though usually with the exclusion of Egypt.
The inhabitants of the Spanish Canary Islands
are of mixed Spanish and North African Berber ancestry, and the people of Malta
are of primarily Southern Italian/Sicilian, as well as, to a lesser extent, North African and Middle Eastern ancestry
and speak a derivative of Arabic
. However, these areas are not generally considered part of North Africa, but rather Southern Europe, due to their proximity to mainland Europe and their European-based cultures and religion.
The inhabitants of North Africa are roughly divided in a manner corresponding to the principal geographic regions of North Africa: the Maghreb, the Nile
valley, and the Sahel
. The Maghreb or western North Africa on the whole is believed to have been inhabited by Berbers
since at least 10,000 B.C., while the eastern part of North Africa or the Nile Valley
has mainly been home to the Egyptians
. Ancient Egyptians record extensive contact in their Western desert with people that appear to have been Berber or proto-Berber. As the Tassili n'Ajjer
and other rock art findings in the Sahara have shown, the Sahara
also hosted various populations before its rapid desertification
in 3500 B.C and even today continues to host small populations of nomadic trans-Saharan peoples
In the eleventh century, the Banu Hilal
invaded the North African plains and plateaus, but not the mountainous areas such as the Tell Atlas
range, the Rif
or the Aurès Mountains
and brought with them Hilalian dialects
, which over the centuries have been in significant contact with other languages, including the languages of Europe
. Historians mark their movement as a critical moment in the Arabization of North Africa.
The official languages in the countries making up the Maghreb are Arabic, Tamazight
as a second official language in Algeria and Morocco, and Spanish in Ceuta and Melilla. French is also used as an administrative language in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The most spoken language is Maghrebi Arabic
, which is a form of ancient Arabic dating back from the 8th century AD that follows a Berber grammatical and syntactical structure. For the remaining North African countries the official language is Arabic. The largest ethnic groups in North Africa are Berbers
and West Africa
ns in the west and the Arabs in the east approaching the Middle East. The region is predominantly Muslim
with a Jewish
minority in Morocco
, and significant Christian minority—the Copts
, Morocco and Tunisia.
The people of the Maghreb and the Sahara regions speak Berber languages
and several varieties of Arabic
and almost exclusively follow Islam. The Arabic and Berber languages are distantly related, both being members of the Afroasiatic language family
. The Tuareg
Berber languages are notably more conservative than those of the coastal cities.
Over the years, Berbers have been influenced by contact with other cultures: Greeks
ns. The cultures of the Maghreb and the Sahara therefore combine indigenous Berber, Arab and elements from neighboring parts of Africa and beyond. In the Sahara, the distinction between sedentary oasis
inhabitants and nomadic Bedouin
s and Tuaregs
is particularly marked.
The diverse peoples of North Africa are usually categorized along ethno-linguistic lines. In the Maghreb, where Arab and Berber identities are often integrated, these lines can be blurred. Some Berber-speaking North Africans may identify as "Arab" depending on the social and political circumstances, although substantial numbers of Berbers (or ''Imazighen'') have retained a distinct cultural identity which in the 20th century has been expressed as a clear ethnic identification with Berber history and language. Arabic-speaking Northwest Africans, regardless of ethnic background, often identify with Arab history and culture and may share a common vision with other Arabs. This, however, may or may not exclude pride in and identification with Berber and/or other parts of their heritage. Berber political and cultural activists for their part, often referred to as Berberists
, may view all Northwest Africans as principally Berber, whether they are primarily Berber- or Arabic-speaking.
over the centuries have shifted their language from Egyptian
(in its late form, varieties of Coptic
) to modern Egyptian Arabic
while retaining a sense of national identity that has historically set them apart from other people in the region. Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslim
, although there is a significant minority of Coptic Christians.
The Maghreb formerly had a significant Jewish population, almost all of whom emigrated to France or Israel
when the North African nations gained independence. Prior to the modern establishment of Israel, there were about 600,000–700,000 Jews in Northern Africa, including both Sephardi Jews
(refugees from France, Spain and Portugal from the Renaissance era) as well as indigenous Mizrahi Jews
. Today, less than fifteen thousand remain in the region, almost all in Morocco and Tunisia, and are mostly part of a French-speaking urban elite. (See Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries
Due to the recent African origin of modern humans
, the history of Prehistoric North Africa is important to the understanding of pre-hominid and early modern human history in Africa.
Some researchers have postulated that North Africa rather than East Africa
served as the exit point for the modern humans who first trekked out of the continent in the Out of Africa
migration. The earliest inhabitants of central North Africa have left behind significant remains: early remnants of hominid occupation in North Africa, for example, were found in Ain el Hanech, near Saïda
(c. 200,000 BCE); in fact, more recent investigations have found signs of Oldowan
technology there, and indicate a date of up to 1.8 million BCE.
Recent finds in Jebel Irhoud in Morocco have been found to contain some of the oldest ''Homo sapiens'' remains; This suggests that, rather than arising only in East Africa
around 200,000 years ago, early ''Homo sapiens'' may already have been present across the length of Africa 100,000 years earlier. According to study author Jean-Jacques Hublin, "The idea is that early ''Homo sapiens'' dispersed around the continent and elements of human modernity appeared in different places, and so different parts of Africa contributed to the emergence of what we call modern humans today."
Early humans may have comprised a large, interbreeding population dispersed across Africa whose spread was facilitated by a wetter climate that created a "green Sahara", around 330,000 to 300,000 years ago. The rise of modern humans may thus have taken place on a continental scale rather than being confined to a particular corner of Africa.
In September 2019, scientists reported the computerized determination, based on 260 CT scan
s, of a virtual skull shape
of the last common human ancestor to modern human
s/''H. sapiens'', representative of the earliest modern humans, and suggested that modern humans arose between 260,000 and 350,000 years ago through a merging of populations in East
and Southern Africa
The cave paintings found at Tassili n'Ajjer, north of Tamanrasset, Algeria, and at other locations depict vibrant and vivid scenes of everyday life in central North Africa during the Neolithic Subpluvial period (about 8000 to 4000 BCE). Some parts of North Africa began to participate in the Neolithic revolution in the 6th millennium BCE, just before the rapid desertification of the Sahara around 3500 B.C. largely due to a tilt in the Earth's orbit.
It was during this period that domesticated plants and animals were introduced in the region, spreading from the north and east to the southwest. There has been an inferred connection between areas of rapid drying and the introduction of livestock in which the natural (orbital) aridification was amplified by the spread of shrubs and open land due to grazing. Nevertheless, changes in northern Africa's ecology after 3500 BCE provided the backdrop for the formation of dynastic civilizations and the construction of monumental architecture such as the Pyramids of Giza
When Egypt entered the Bronze Age, the Maghreb remained focused on small-scale subsistence in small, highly mobile groups. Some Phoenicia
n and Greek colonies
were established along the Mediterranean coast during the 7th century BCE.
Antiquity and ancient Rome
The most notable nations of antiquity in western North Africa are Carthage
. The Phoenicians colonized much of North Africa including Carthage and parts of present-day Morocco (including Chellah
). The Carthaginians were of Phoenicia
n origin, with the Roman myth of their origin being that Dido
, a Phoenician princess, was granted land by a local ruler based on how much land she could cover with a piece of cowhide. She ingeniously devised a method to extend the cowhide to a high proportion, thus gaining a large territory. She was also rejected by the Trojan
according to Virgil
, thus creating a historical enmity between Carthage and Rome
, as Aeneas would eventually lay the foundations for Rome. Ancient Carthage
was a commercial power and had a strong navy, but relied on mercenaries for land soldiers. The Carthaginians developed an empire in the Iberian Peninsula
and North West Sicily
, the latter being the cause of First Punic War
with the Romans
Over a hundred years and more, all Carthaginian territory was eventually conquered by the Romans, resulting in the Carthaginian North African territories becoming the Roman province of Africa
in 146 B.C. This led to tension and eventually conflict
and Rome. The Numidian wars are notable for launching the careers of both Gaius Marius
, and Sulla
, and stretching the constitutional burden of the Roman republic as Marius required a professional army, something previously contrary to Roman values, to overcome the talented military
. Kingdom of Mauretania
remained independent until being annexed to the Roman Empire by Emperor Claudius
in 42 AD.
North Africa remained a part of the Roman Empire, which produced many notable citizens such as Augustine of Hippo
, until incompetent leadership from Roman commanders in the early fifth century allowed the Germanic peoples
, the Vandals
, to cross the Strait of Gibraltar
, whereupon they overcame the fickle Roman defense. The loss of North Africa is considered a pinnacle point in the fall of the Western Roman Empire as Africa had previously been an important grain province that maintained Roman prosperity despite the barbarian incursions, and the wealth required to create new armies. The issue of regaining North Africa became paramount to the Western Empire, but was frustrated by Vandal victories. The focus of Roman energy had to be on the emerging threat of the Huns
. In 468 AD, the Romans made one last serious attempt to invade North Africa but were repelled. This perhaps marks the point of terminal decline for the Western Roman Empire
. The last Roman emperor was deposed in 476 by the Heruli
. Trade route
s between Europe
and North Africa remained intact until the coming of Islam. Some Berbers were members of the Early African Church
(but evolved their own Donatist doctrine
), some were Berber Jews
, and some adhered to traditional Berber religion
. African pope Victor I
served during the reign of Roman emperor Septimius Severus
. Furthermore, during the rule of the Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Ottomans and Carthaginians the Kabyle people were the only or one of the few in North Africa who remained independent. The Kabyle people were incredibly resistible so much so that even during the Arab conquest of North Africa they still had control and possession over their mountains.
Arab conquest to modern times
The early Muslim conquests
included North Africa by 640. By 700, most of North Africa had come under Muslim rule. Indigenous Berbers subsequently started to form their own polities in response in places such as Fez
. In the eleventh century, a reformist movement made up of members that called themselves the Almoravid dynasty
expanded south into Sub-Saharan Africa
North Africa's populous and flourishing civilization collapsed after exhausting its resources in internal fighting and suffering devastation from the invasion of the Banu Sulaym
and Banu Hilal
. Ibn Khaldun noted that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.
After the Middle Ages
much of the area was loosely under the control of the Ottoman Empire
. The Spanish Empire
conquered several coastal cities between the 16th and 18th centuries. After the 19th century, the imperial and colonial presence of France
, the United Kingdom
left the entirety of the region under one form of European occupation.
In World War II
from 1940 to 1943 the area was the setting for the North African Campaign
. During the 1950s and 1960s all of the North African states gained independence. There remains a dispute over Western Sahara
and the Algeria
n-backed Polisario Front
In 2010–2011 massive protests swept the region leading to the overthrow of the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as civil war in Libya. Large protests also occurred in Algeria and Morocco to a lesser extent. Many hundreds died in the uprisings. This uprising is commonly referred to as the "Arab spring".
Science and technology
Transport and industry
The economies of Algeria
were transformed by the discovery of oil and natural gas reserves in the deserts. Morocco
's major exports are phosphate
s and agricultural produce, and as in Egypt
, the tourist industry is essential to the economy. Egypt
has the most varied industrial base, importing technology to develop electronics and engineering industries, and maintaining the reputation of its high-quality cotton textiles.
Oil rigs are scattered throughout the deserts of Libya
. Libyan oil is especially prized because of its low sulfur
content, which means it produces much less pollution than other fuel oils.
* Demographics of the Middle East and North Africa
* European Digital Archive on Soil Maps of the World
* List of modern conflicts in North Africa
* Cesari, Jocelyne. ''The awakening of Muslim democracy: Religion, modernity, and the state'' (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
* Fischbach, ed. Michael R. ''Biographical encyclopedia of the modern Middle East and North Africa'' (Gale Group, 2008).
* Ilahiane, Hsain. ''Historical dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen)'' (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).
* Issawi, Charles. ''An economic history of the Middle East and North Africa'' (Routledge, 2013).
* Naylor, Phillip C. ''North Africa, Revised Edition: A History from Antiquity to the Present'' (University of Texas Press, 2015).
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