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(see also North Africa, Arab Maghreb Union , Mashreq )

The Maghreb (or Moghreb), meaning "west" in Arabic, is the region of the continent of Africa north of the Sahara desert and west of the Nile - specifically, the modern countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and to a lesser extent Libya and Mauritania. Its mixed Arab-Berber inhabitants were traditionally called Moors by Europeans.

From the end of the Ice Age, when the Sahara Desert dried up, contact between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa was extremely limited by the difficulty in crossing the desert. This remained the case until after the time of the Arabic expansion and the spread of Islam; even then, trade was restricted to costly (but often profitable) caravan expeditions, trading such goods as salt, gold, ivory, and slaves.

Though Maghreb culture as well as its people have both African and Middle Eastern roots, most Maghrebis are either Arabic- or Berber-speaking Muslims of predominantly Middle Eastern ancestry, while a few are of predominantly African ancestry, and the corsairs brought in significant amounts of Italian, Spanish, and Turkish ancestry in the big coastal cities. The Arabic dialects of the Maghreb share many common characteristics (like a first person singular present with n-) that set them apart from the dialects of the Middle East and most of Egypt; Berber languages, of course, are almost exclusively spoken in the Maghreb, and were originally spoken throughout it. It largely shares a common culinary tradition; indeed, the Maghreb was jocularly defined by Habib Bourguiba as the part of North Africa where couscous is the staple food.

The Arab Maghreb Union (Union du Maghreb Arabe) is an effort to coordinate political and economic policies across this region; disagreements among its members and security problems in Algeria have posed it serious setbacks.


Modern territories of the Maghreb

Medieval regions of the Maghreb


Originally, the Sahara was inhabited by black Africans, as demonstrated by Saharan rock art throughout the region; however, the Maghreb proper seems to have been inhabited mainly by "white" speakers of northern Afro-Asiatic languages such as Berber at least since the Capsian culture (about 8000 BC).

Many ports along the Maghreb coast were occupied by Phoenicians, particularly Carthaginians; with the defeat of Carthage, many of these ports naturally passed to Rome, and ultimately it took control of the entire Maghreb north of the Atlas Mountains, apart from some of the most mountainous regions like the Moroccan Rif .

The Arabs reached the Maghreb in early Umayyad times, but their control over it was quite weak, and various Islamic "heresies" such as the Ibadhi s and the Shia, enthusiastically adopted by some Berbers, quickly threw off Caliphal control in the name of their interpretations of Islam. The Arabic language became widespread only later, as a result of the invasion of the Banu Hilal (unleashed, ironically, by the Berber Fatimids in punishment for their Zirid clients' defection) in the 1100's. Throughout this period, the Maghreb fluctuated between occasional unity (as under the Almohads, and briefly under the Hafsid s) and more commonly division into three states roughly corresponding to modern Morocco, western Algeria, and eastern Algeria + Tunisia.

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, Spain and later Italy.

See also

North Africa, Berber, Barbary Coast, Maghreb toponymy, History of Algeria

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45