Horsemen of the Maghreb: the Berber

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They call themselves i-Mazigh-en ‘the noble people’ and they have inhabited western North Africa for at least 12,ooo years. Or as the 8th century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun put it:

“The men who belong to this family of peoples have inhabited the Maghreb since the beginning.”

This might be mythically ‘true’ but scientific enquiry has produced other scenarios. For instance DNA tests show that i-Mazigh-en have common traits with the Sami reindeer herders of Scandinavia. They seem to have arrived in North Africa from the Near East back in the Mesolithic era, in other words before the development of agriculture. Over the millennia they have absorbed many different ethnic groups, including Neolithic farmers, Romans and much, much later, the Bedouin Arabs who began to invade the Maghreb from the mid-600s AD  and, in the process, largely converted the Berber to Islam.

The name Berber appears first in Roman accounts, and probably derives from the Roman habit of calling non-Latin speakers barbarians. (At least this is the sort of thing my Latin teacher used to tell us). The ancient Berber kingdom of Numidia (202 B.C. – 46 B.C.) once extended along Africa’s western Mediterranean seaboard including territory that is now part of modern day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Numidia’s border effectively cut off Roman Carthage from the African hinterland, which may explain why the Romans were set on annexing the kingdom. During the last two centuries BC,  Numidia became highly Romanized, at different times serving as either a Roman province or a client state.

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Today the are  some 9 million Berbers in Morocco,  4 million in Algeria as well as significant populations in neighbouring countries. Most Berbers are farmers. They grow wheat, barley, fruit, olives, nuts on lowland farms and graze their flocks of  goats and sheep  in mountain pastures during the summer months. They also keep mules, oxen, camels and horses for  work and transport.  Then there are the nomadic pastoralists. These include the Tuareg of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, who though sometimes seen as a separate people, in fact carry Berber genetic markers that suggest they may be members of the founding Berber population.

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These photos, however, were all taken in rural Morocco, somewhere on the road from Marrakech to Fez  (Atlas mountains in the distance). Again they come from G’s slides of his overland trip, and they show a traditional Berber performance of the Fantasia, known locally as  lab el baroud  “the gunpowder play”. On this occasion village people were commemorating  the  25 years rule of King  Hassan II (1929-1999), but the Fantasia can also mark the conclusion of wedding celebrations, and other seasonal festivals.

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The performance harks back to past days of warfare, mimicking the charge formation by Berber and Arab desert riders. It hardly needs me to say that the synchronised charge, followed by the firing into the sky of antique muskets or muzzle-loading rifles, requires great riding skill. The horses also are especially bred and selected for the purpose. Lab el baroud has become the equivalent of a martial art. Each region in Morocco may have several fantasia groups or serba, amounting to thousands of riders nationwide. The 19th century image below shows how little has changed, at least at the time when these photographs were taken.

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Édouard Detaille painting : Fantasia de Spahis (1886)

But in other ways, Berber culture has moved on. Well, it has and it hasn’t. Make up your own mind with this performance of desert blues from the Tuareg band Tinariwen.

Frizz’s Tagged ‘H’

21 thoughts on “Horsemen of the Maghreb: the Berber

  1. An interesting post Tish, I enjoyed reading the history of the horsemen of the Maghreb. It must be quite a sight to see the performance. Great post for H 🙂

  2. Hi Tish. Loved the post. I worked with Tuaregs and their slaves in Upper Volta in 1979. They usually rode camels, not horses. I’ve changed my gravatar.

    1. Gosh, I bet that was exciting. Good gravatar change. Interesting that the Tuareg might be more Berber than the Berbers, but perhaps they represent a population that moved south to avoid being annexed by Romans or Bedouin. And of course camels must be pretty much a necessity with the growing aridity of the Sahel. I have read accounts that describe that whole area (in the distant past) as orchard-like and lush – full of shea nut trees etc.

      1. I could never stop the bloody thing. Once I had to manoeuvre it towards some trees, and I grabbed onto an overhanging branch, allowing the beast to carry on, then I dropped to the sand. The locals managed camels impeccably, of course. See the next change of gravatar.

      1. I started work in January 1979 for Save the Children fund in Gorom Gorom, a small town a few sand dunes into the Sahel. Worked for a year as Médecin Chef du Sous Secteur, Oudalan. I was the only doctor in the area, 70,000 people. Training barefoot doctors, mobile clinics, mother and child health care, running a small hospital, nutrition centre, massive vaccination campaigns. I was very young and inexperienced. I remember travelling on La gazelle train from Ouagadougou to Bobo Dioulasso, but I never reached Côte d’Ivoire.

        After a year, I left there to go to Southern Sudan, which was grim even then during a hiatus in the civil war.

      2. Annette (above) beat me to it. I was going to ask you if you had written any accounts of these years. My Kenya diary started off well, but then grew more and more intermittent, and when I read any of it, I’m amazed (and saddened actually) at how much I’ve forgotten. The photos ARE a big help though. I do hope that you WILL write your memoirs, Ian.

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