North Africa – Overview

A damp Sahara: 8000 – 3000 BC

The Sahara at this time supports not only elephant, giraffe and rhinoceros but hippopotamus and even fishes. It is a friendly landscape in which neolithic communities progress from hunting and gathering into a partly settled way of life, with the herding of cattle. Their paintings show that dogs have been domesticated and are sometimes used in the hunt – and that hunting methods include the pursuit of hippopotamus from boats made of reeds.The paintings also suggest that these people wear woven materials as well as animal skins. The remains from their settlements reveal that they are skilful potters.

Around 3000 BC a climatic change gradually turns the Sahara to a desert (over the millennia it seems to have gone through a succession of humid and dry periods). The change brings to an end the first settled culture of Africa. The Sahara becomes the almost impenetrable barrier which throughout recorded history has separated the Mediterranean coast and north Africa from the rest of the continent.

At much the same time north Africa becomes the site of one of the world's first great civilizations, Egypt. There may perhaps be a link, in the migration eastwards of the Sahara people, but archaeology has found no evidence of it.

Africa's first civilizations: from 3000 BC

Egypt's natural links are in a northeasterly direction, following the Fertile Crescent into western Asia. Similarly Ethiopia, the other early civilization of northeast Africa, is most influenced by Arabia, just across the Red Sea. So these two regions, Egypt and Ethiopia, flanked by desert to the west and equatorial jungle to the south, evolve at first in isolation from the rest of Africa

But the development of maritime trade along the Mediterranean coast, pioneered by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, does increasingly bring Egypt into a specifically north African context.  From the 8th century onwards the dominant power in north Africa is one of Phoenicia's colonies, Carthage. The empire of Carthage involves many other Phoenician settlements along the African coast, but does not penetrate far into the interior. This is occupied by the Berbers, nomadic tribes whose origin is not known but who are believed to have been in the region from at least 2000 BC.  From about 300 BC the north African coast has, in Alexandra, one of the most brilliant cities of the Mediterranean world. But the entire region soon falls under the control of Rome, which destroys Carthage in 146 BC and annexes Egypt in 30 BC.


Byzantine Africa: 6th – 7th century
 

The expansionist energy of Justinian in Constantinople, and of his great general Belisarius in the field, brings the whole of the North African coast back under Roman rule for one final century. In 533 Belisarius defeats the Vandals in battle, captures their king and enters Carthage unopposed.

The authority of the emperor is restored, though the northwest tip of the continent is never again brought fully under control (in spite of pioneering efforts by Belisarius in the building of castle). Carthage rejoins Alexandria as a great imperial city on this important coast, rich in grain. But in the next century they both fall, in turn, to an entirely unexpected new power – the Arabs.


The Arab conquests: 7th century

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.

When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and Muslim armies have moved up into the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia.

 
Muslim North Africa: from 642
 

The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in 640 in front of the Byzantine fortified town of Babylon (in the area which is now Old Cairo). The Arabs capture it after a siege and establish their own garrison town just to the east, calling it Al Fustat.

The army then moves on to Alexandria, but here the defences are sufficient to keep them at bay for fourteen months. At the end of that time a surprising treaty is signed. The Greeks of Alexandria agree to leave peacefully; the Arabs give them a year in which to do so. In the autumn of 642, the handover duly occurs. One of the richest of Byzantine provinces has been lost to the Arabs without a fight.

The Arabs continue rapidly westwards along the coast of North Africa, capturing Cyrenaica in 642 and Tripoli in 643. But these remain largely ineffective outposts. For nearly three decades the Arabs make little progress in subduing the indigenous Berber inhabitants of this coastal strip.

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