North Africa

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Map of Africa with northern countries highlighted

North Africa is a region generally considered to include:

The Azores, Canary Islands, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Madeira are sometimes considered to be a part of North Africa.

The Maghreb (also called Northwest Africa or Tamazgha) is the portion of North Africa that consititutes Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania (thus excluding the Nile Valley). In common usage - particularly in French - the term is often restricted to the first three countries, as all are former French colonies. In Arabic, the term can also refer to Morocco alone.

Some countries in northern Africa, particularly Egypt and Libya, often get included in common definitions of the Middle East, since they in some respects have closer ties to western Asia than to the Maghreb. In addition, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt is part of Asia, making Egypt a transcontinental country.



The people of North Africa can be divided into roughly three, distinct groups: the Berbers of the Maghreb; the Tuareg and other, original black Berbers; and the Nilotic blacks of the Nile Valley. Maghreb Berbers are generally fairer-skinned than the Berbers to the west. They are considered indigenous to the area, and are believed be the descendants of black Berbers mixed with Asiatic and Caucasoid peoples who spread westward, laterally across the continent. Berbers predominate in the northwestern part of Africa, but the area also hosts various black Berber peoples and equatorial Africans, as well. Over the centuries, there has been some intermariage between Maghreb Berbers, who generally are classified as "Caucasoid," with black Africans, producing a population with a wide range of phenotypical characteristisc, including skin color and hair texture. Most Maghreb Berbers outside much of Morocco and parts of Algeria, identify themselves as Arabs and no longer speak Tamazight, their original language, and speak [Arabic]]. Far more Tuareg Berbers speak Tamazight, an Afro-Asiatic language; but they, too, have been Arabized culturally, though to far a lesser extent than have the Maghreb Berbers.


North Africa is naturally divided into three rather distinct cultural regions: the Maghreb (Northwest Africa), the Sahara, and the Nile Valley.

The culture of the Maghreb and the Sahara combines indigenous Berber and Arab elements. Most Maghrebis and Saharans have mixed Berber, Arab, and sometimes also black African, ancestry. They speak either Arabic or Berber, and follow Islam; however, the dialects of the Sahara (Arabic and Berber) are in general notably more conservative than those of the coast. These two languages are related, both being members of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The Maghreb (Northwest Africa) is believed to have been inhabited by Berbers since the beginning of recorded history. However, Berbers were influenced by other cultures that came in contact with them: Nubians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and lately Europeans. In the Sahara, the distinction between sedentary oasis inhabitants and nomadic Bedouin and Tuareg is particularly marked.

The Nile Valley, tracing its heritage back to the Pharaohs, has more recently been inhabited by Arabic-speakers, most of them Muslims, though some - the Copts - are Christians. In Nubia, straddling Egypt and Sudan, a significant population retains the Nubian language. Further down the Nile Valley, in the southern Sudan, the culturally entirely distinct world of the largely non-Muslim Nilotic and Nuba peoples begins.

North Africa formerly had a large Jewish population, a large portion of which 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 North Africa, including both Sfardīm (immigrants from France, Spain and Portugal from the Renaissance era) as well as indigenous Mizrāḥîm. Today, less than fifteen thousand remain in the region, and are mostly part of a French-speaking urban elite. (See Jewish exodus from Arab lands.)


Originally, most of the Sahara was inhabited by indigenous black Africans, as was Egypt, as demonstrated by Saharan rock art throughout the region. Afro-Asiatic languages dominated the region.

After the Middle Ages the area was loosely under the control of the Ottoman Empire, except Morocco. After the 19th century, it was colonized by France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. During the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s, all of the North African states gained independence, except for a few small Spanish colonies on the far northern tip of Morocco, and the Western Sahara, which went from Spanish to Moroccan rule.

See also

History of North Africa

Regions of the World
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