The Barbary Coast of North Africa was named after the Berbers, the nomadic people who inhabited the region west of the Nile Valley in north Africa. Called the Amazigh or Imazighen in antiquity (meaning "free humans" or "free men"), they are among the oldest inhabitants of North Africa. Their rich mythology endured for thousands of years, eventually coming to influence the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.
The history of the Berber people in northern Africa is extensive and diverse. The Berbers are a large group of non-Arabic tribes, related by language and culture, inhabiting areas stretching from Egypt to the Canary Islands as well as regions south of the Sahara such as Niger and Mali. Archaeologists have traced their origins to the Caspian culture, a North African civilization that dates back more than 10,000 years. Berber-speaking people have lived in North Africa since the earliest times and are first referenced by the Egyptians in 3,000 BC under the name Temehu. Phoenician, Greeks and Roman texts also make reference to them. Since prehistoric times, Berber lands have been a crossroad of peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Spaniards, French, and Italians have invaded and ruled portions of the Berber homeland. The Berbers have never experienced a unified political identity. There have been many Berber kingdoms and cultures existing alongside one another in various regions of North Africa and Spain, but never a unified "Berber empire". Throughout the centuries, Berbers have mixed with many ethnic groups, including Arabs, and because of this, they have come to be identified more by linguistics instead race. Their language is one of the oldest in the world and belongs to the African branch of the Afro-Asian language family, along with ancient Egyptian.
A beautiful young Berber woman of Tunisia, with tattoo and traditional jewelry (early 1900s). Photo by Rudolf Lehnert. 1905. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Although never formalized beyond local cults, the Berbers had a rich mythology and belief system structured around a pantheon of gods. Many of their beliefs were developed locally while some were imported or later influenced by contact with other African mythologies, such as the Egyptian religion along with Phoenician mythology, Judaism, Iberian mythology, and the Hellenistic religion during antiquity. The most recent influence came from Arab mythology, when the Berbers were converted to Islam during the ninth century. Today, some of the traditional, ancient, pagan Berber beliefs still exist within the culture and tradition, especially in Algeria, where older cults survive to varying extents.
Many prehistoric peoples considered rocks to be holy, including the Berbers. Second century Latin writer Apuleius, along with Saint Augustine, bishop of the Hippo Regius (ancient name of the modern city of Annaba, in Algeria), both remarked on rock-worship among North Africans. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of their sacrifices:
They begin with the ear of the victim, which they cut off and throw over their house: this done, they kill the animal by twisting the neck. They sacrifice to the Sun and Moon, but not to any other god.
The megalithic culture may have been part of a cult of the dead or of star-worship. The best known rock monument in Northwest Africa is Mzora (or Msoura). It is composed of a circle of megaliths surrounding a tumulus. The highest megalith is longer than 5 meters (16 feet). According to legend, it is the resting place of the mythic Berber king Antaeus. Another megalithic monument was discovered in 1926, south of Casablanca and was engraved with funerary inscriptions in the Libyco-Berber script known as Tifinagh.
The Cromlech of Msoura or Mzora. Photo by Christophe Chenevier. ( www.flickr.com)
The tombs of the early Berbers and their ancestors (the Caspian’s and Ibero-Mauresians) indicate that they believed in the afterlife. The prehistoric men of the region of northwest Africa buried their bodies in the ground. Later, they buried the dead in caves, tumuli (burial mounds), and tombs cut into rock. These tombs evolved from primitive structures to more elaborate ones, such as the pyramidal tombs that spread throughout North Africa. The best known Berber pyramids are the 19 meter (62 ft) pre-Roman Numidian pyramid of Medracen and the 30-meter (98 ft) ancient Mauritanian pyramid located in modern-day Algeria.