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North Africa or Northern Africa is the northernmost region of Africa. Geopolitically, the United Nations definition of Northern Africa includes seven countries or territories; Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara. Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and often Mauritania and Western Sahara are the Maghreb, while Egypt and Sudan comprise the Nile Valley (so named after the Nile River, which has two tributaries; the White Nile and Blue Nile). Egypt is a transcontinental country because of the Sinai Peninsula, which geographically lies in West Asia. North Africa also includes a number of Spanish possessions (Ceuta and Melilla and tiny Spanish islets off the coast of Morocco). The Canary Islands and the Portuguese Madeira Islands, in the North Atlantic Ocean northwest of the African mainland, are sometimes included in considerations of the region.
The distinction between North Africa and much of Sub-Saharan Africa is historically and ecologically significant because of the effective barrier created by the Sahara Desert for much of modern history. From 3500 BCE, following the abrupt desertification of the Sahara due to gradual changes in the Earth's orbit, this barrier has culturally separated the North from the rest of the continent. As the seafaring civilizations of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims and others facilitated communication and migration across the Mediterranean Sea, the cultures of North Africa became much more closely tied to Southwestern Asia and Europe than Sub-Saharan Africa. The Islamic influence in the area is also significant, and North Africa is a major part of the Islamic world.
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 Atlas Mountains, which extend across much of Morocco, northern Algeria and Tunisia, 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 sediments of the Sahara overlie an ancient plateau of crystalline rock, some of which is more than four billion years old.
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 and Sudan live close to the river. Elsewhere, irrigation is essential to improve crop yields on the desert margins.
Territories and regions
|Countries and territories||Area
|Capital||GDP (Total)||GDP per capita||Currency||Government||Official languages|
|Algeria||2,381,741|| 37,100,000||14.5||Algiers||$254.7 billion (2010 est.)||$7,400 (2010 est.)||Algerian dinar||Presidential republic||Arabic (official), Berber (national)|
|Egypt||1,001,450||80,471,869||80.4||Cairo||$500.9 billion (2010)||$6,200 (2010)||Egyptian pound||Semi-presidential republic||Arabic|
|Libya||1,759,540||6,461,455||3.7||Tripoli||$89.03 billion (2010)||$13,800 (2010)||Libyan dinar||Provisional authority||Arabic|
or 710,850 (including the disputed Western Sahara)
| 32,226,056 (2010)||70.8||Rabat||$153.8 billion (2010)||$4,900 (2010)||Moroccan dirham||Constitutional monarchy||Arabic and Berber (both official)|
|Sudan||1,886,068||30,894,000||16.4||Khartoum||$85.272 billion (2013) ||$2,984 (2013)||Sudanese pound||Federal republic (Authoritarian)||Arabic|
|64.7||Tunis||$125.1 billion (2014)||$11,400 (2014)||Tunisian dinar||Parliamentary republic||Arabic|
| Western Sahara
(mostly under Moroccan administration)
|266,000|| 350,000 (most carrying Moroccan passports)||1.2||El-Aaiún (controlled by Morocco)||$900 million (2007)||$2,500 (2007)||Moroccan dirham||Constitutional monarchy||Arabic and Berber (official under Moroccan authority);
|Total, North Africa||8,935,659||198,996,526||22.3||$1.189 trillion||$5,974|
The inhabitants of North Africa are generally divided in a manner roughly corresponding to the principal geographic regions of North Africa: the Maghreb, the Nile Valley, and the Sahara. The Maghreb or western North Africa on the whole is believed to have been inhabited by Berbers since from at least 10,000 B.C., while the eastern part of North Africa or the Nile Valley has been home to the Egyptians and Nubians. Ancient Egyptians record extensive contact in their Western desert with people that appear to have been Berber or proto-Berber, as well as Nubians from the south. 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 invade the North African plains and plateaus, but not the mountains (Rif, Kabylie or Aures) and bring with them the Hilalians dialects, which over the centuries has been mixed with other languages, especially European. They have contributed to Arabized Berber populations.
The official language or one of the official languages in all of the countries in North Africa is Arabic. Today the largest ethnic groups in North Africa are Berbers, Arabs and Africans, and is predominantly Muslim, with Jewish minority in Morocco and Tunisia and significant Christian minority in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
The people of the Maghreb and the Sahara regions speak various dialects of Berber and Arabic and almost exclusively follow Islam. The Arabic and Berber groups of languages are distantly related, both being members of the Afro-Asiatic family. The Sahara dialects are notably more conservative than those of coastal cities (see Tuareg languages). Over the years, Berber peoples have been influenced by contact with other cultures. Nubians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and lately Europeans. 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 and Tuareg is particularly marked.
The diverse peoples of the Sahara 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 (see also Arabized Berber).
The Nile Valley through Sudan traces its origins to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Kush. The Egyptians over the centuries have shifted their language from Egyptian 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 or a significant minority of Copts. In Nubia, straddling Egypt and Sudan, a significant population retains the ancient Nubian language but has adopted Islam. The Republic of the Sudan is home to a predominately Arab Muslim population, although there remains significant non-Arab (though Muslim) populations in the far north (Nubians), far west (Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa) and far south (Nuba) of Sudan.
North Africa 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 Sfardīm (refugees from France, Spain and Portugal from the Renaissance era) as well as indigenous Mizrāḥîm. 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 lands.)
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. 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 BC.
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 BC, just before the rapid desertification of the Sahara around 3500 B.C. due to a tilt in the Earth's orbit.
While Egypt and Sudan due to the early civilizations of Ancient Egypt and Nubia entered historicity by the Bronze Age, the Maghreb remained in the prehistoric period longer. Some Phoenician and Greek colonies were established along the Mediterranean coast during the 7th century BC.
Antiquity and ancient Rome
The most notable nations of antiquity in western North Africa are Carthage and Numidia. The Phoenicians colonized much of North Africa including Carthage and parts of present-day Morocco (including Chellah, Mogador and Volubilis). The Carthaginians were of Phoenician origin, with the Roman myth of their origin being that Queen 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 prince Aeneas according to Virgil, thus creating a historical enmity between Carthage and Rome, as Aeneas would eventually lay the foundations for Rome. The Carthaginians were 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 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 between Numidia 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 leader Jugurtha.
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 barbarian tribe, 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 general Odoacer. Trade routes between Europe and North Africa remained intact until the coming of Islam. Some Berbers were Christians (but evolved their own Donatist doctrine), some were Jewish, and some adhered to their traditional polytheist religion. African pope Victor I served during the reign of Roman emperor Septimius Severus, of Roman/Berber ancestry. The Byzantine reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals began in 533 AD, as Justinian I sent his general Belisarius to reclaim the former Roman province of Africa.
Arab conquest to modern times
The Arab Islamic conquest reached North Africa in 640 AD. By 670, most of North Africa had fallen to Muslim rule. Indigenous Berbers subsequently started to form their own polities in response in places such as Fez, Morocco, and Sijilimasa. In the eleventh century, a reformist movement made up of members that called themselves Almoravids, 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 Bedouin tribes of 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 the area was loosely under the control of the Ottoman Empire, except Morocco. After the 19th century, the imperial and colonial presence of France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy 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 between Morocco and the Algerian-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.
Transport and industry
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The economies of Algeria, Libya, and Sudan were transformed by the discovery of oil and natural gas reserves in the deserts. Morocco's major exports are phosphates and agricultural produce, and as in Egypt and Tunisia, 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, Algeria and Sudan. Libyan oil is especially prized because of its low sulphur content, which means it produces much less pollution than other fuel oils.
In 2010, Chad, Niger and Sudan all recorded their hottest all-time temperatures on record. In Chad, the temperature reached 47.6 °C (117.7 °F) on June 22 in Faya-Largeau, breaking a record set in 1961 at the same location. Niger tied its highest temperature record set in 1998, on also June 22, at 47.1 °C (116.78 °F) in Bilma. That record was broken the next day, on June 23 when Bilma hit 48.2 °C (118.8 °F). The hottest temperature recorded in Sudan was reached on June 25, at 49.6 °C (121.3 °F) in Dongola, breaking a record set in 1987.
- According to UN country classification here: http://millenniumindicators.un.org/unsd/methods/m49/m49regin.htm. The disputed territory of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) is mostly administered by Morocco; the Polisario Front claims the territory in militating for the establishment of an independent republic, and exercises limited control over rump border territories.
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