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The Igawawen or Gawawa (masculine singular: Agawaw, alternatively: Agawa; Berber languages: ⵉⴳⴰⵡⴰⵡⵏ) were a confederation of Kabyle Berber tribes in Algeria. The Arabs called them Zwāwa (Maghrebi Arabic زواوة, also written Zouaoua from French transliteration; the masculine singular is زواوي, i.e. Zwāwi/Zouaoui). The Arabic term Zwāwa had been previously used to refer to Kabyle fighters rather than the Igawawen in particular, and it is unclear if the original meaning of the term was ethnic.

The tribes which made up the confederation inhabit the highland areas of the Kabylie, from Djurdjura to the sea, which is the area of Tizi Ouzou Province and parts of Bouïra Province and Boumerdès Province. In French this area is called Grande Kabylie to distinguish it from the other parts of Kabylie, the Petite Kabylie

Arabic name[edit]

The Arabic term Zwāwa appears to be of Berber origin, but its original meaning is unclear. It may or may not be an Arab version of the Berber word Gawawa, an alternative form of Igawawen. Zwāwa is in fact used in an early case as a (singular) name: the historian ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) referred to a Berber chief he calls Zwāwa ibn Na'm al-Halfa leading a Berber contingent in the Muslim conquest of Sicily (827-902). However Ibn Khaldun was born over four centuries after the events he was describing and there may be some confusion.

In early Arabic sources, the term Zwāwa is used to refer to Kabyle fighters rather than the Igawawen in particular. While the meaning always indicates Berbers, it is unclear if the original meaning was one ethnic group in itself, or had some other ethnic-social implication such as "Berber warriors", "Kabyle men", "Kabyle bandits", etc.


The exact tribal composition of the Igawawen varied over the centuries. There were a much larger number of Igawawen tribes in the fourteenth century than in the nineteenth, suggesting that tribes were merged or subsumed into larger ones over the centuries. In the nineteenth century, the Igawawen were a confederation of eight tribes of Kabyle Berber ethnicity.[1][2]

By time of the French conquest in the nineteenth century, the Igawawen were a confederation of two federations of four tribes each:

  • The Ait Betrun federation
    • The Ait Yanni tribe
    • The Ait Wasif tribe
    • The Ait Bu Akkash tribe
    • The Ait Budrar tribe
  • The Ait Mangellat federation
    • The Ait Mengallat tribe
    • The Ait 'Ettaf tribe
    • The Ait Weqbil (or Akbil) tribe
    • The Ait Bu Yussef tribe

In 1868 it was estimated by a French official named Hanoteau that the Ait Betrun federation's settlements had 19,749 inhabitants, and the Ait Mangellat federation's settlements had 14,429 inhabitants, giving the entire territory of the Igawawan a total population of 34,178.

Ibn Khaldun, writing five centuries earlier, refers to twenty-five Zwawa tribes. This includes the Beni Mengellat and Beni Batrun (i.e. Ait Mangellat and Ait Betrun) as well as others of the eight tribes above, but also includes other groups such as the Beni Bu Sha'ib, the Medjesta, the Mesheddala, and a group called the Melikish which he suggests have Sanhaja and not Kabyle roots.


The Zwawa gave their name to the Zouaves, since it was intended that the first Zouave units would be raised from this group of tribes, although in the end they were raised from a much wider pool of recruits and eventually became specifically European units. The term Zouave already existed in French, and in its oldest known use from the seventeenth century was a reference to Kabyle soldiers in general.

See also[edit]