Chapter 8 Early African Civilizations: 1800 B.C.-1235 A.D.

Section 3 North Africa and the Sahara

North Africa was part of a wider world, the Mediterranean basin, which included Asia and Europe.  In this world, ideas spread and people interacted a great deal.  The region added to the progress of the early years made in Egypt and elsewhere, notably in the areas of agriculture, urbanization and trade. The use of iron became widespread, agriculture improved, and two animals, the horse and the camel, contributed to the building of better armies and trade. Advances in civilizations and interactions within a wider world are the two themes that dominated the history of this region.

Metal, Agriculture and Trade

As civilization had developed early on in the Nile Valley, by 1800 B.C. many parts of North Africa knew about agriculture, urbanization, and centralized political authorities.  After this date, enormous improvements were made in civilized life as cities and trade expanded, and great changes occurred in the political systems.

The Iron Age in the north. One of the most decisive changes was the spread of iron technology. Beginning about 650 B.C. North Africa entered the Iron Age. As elsewhere, iron accelerated the development of both agriculture and pastoralism. Replacing copper, iron was more plentiful and could be used to forge harder, cheaper and more durable weapons and tools to produce more food, build better houses, and master the environment. Iron became a source of military power, allowing stronger people to control weaker ones. States and organized governments emerged, partly to meet the challenges of growing population and urbanization.

            Farming and pastoralism became established ways of life for the majority of the population. Among the Berbers and others in the Maghrib, the area from the Atlantic to the western borders of Egypt, pastoralists sold milk and meat to sedentary farmers in exchange for grain and oil. Sedentary farmers contributed to greater food production and urban cultures. Pastoralists took care of the countryside: wandering and hunting enabled them to develop better mobility and fighting techniques.  Whether as sedentarists or pastoralists, community life among the Berbers was organized around an ethnic group and loyalty to a strong leader who must protect his people, their land and means of livelihood.[22]

Horses and camels. As in southwest Asia, the introduction of the horse sometime after about 1700 B.C., along with the new war chariot first pioneered by the Indo-European peoples, caused significant changes in northern Africa. Before then, people relied on donkeys for transportation, and fought wars on foot.  By 1235 B.C., however, chariots had become popular: the Berbers used them in their wars and to cross the Sahara desert.[23]  After about 900 B.C. war chariots gave way to cavalry, with enormous social and political consequences: cavalry increased mobility; techniques of horse training improved; new breeds of horses were raised to transport people over long distances; and the art of warfare reached a new level.

            Perhaps even more important than the use of the horse was the introduction of the domesticated camel from Arabia. The camel was able to withstand heavier loads than a donkey. In addition, it could go long periods without water, and withstood the heat of the desert better than either horses or donkeys. After about 1000 B.C., the camel improved communications between the Nile Valley and its Arabian neighbors as it was used on the routes between the Nile and the Red Sea.  By the 1st century A.D. camel culture had spread to North Africa, with consequent improvements in travel and trade.

The trans-Saharan trade. The trans-Saharan trade between North and West Africa was also improved by the use of the camel.  The Berbers in the Atlas Mountains and the northern Sahara served as intermediaries to carry goods across the desert. The trade brought the goods of West Africa—gold, ivory, and slaves—to the north in exchange for salt, cloth, beads and metal. This was an international trade that connected Africa with the Middle East and Europe. The Saharan Berbers sold West African goods to traders from the north who in turn sold them to Asians and Europeans. West African gold and ivory were highly sought in North Africa. West Africa was the leading supplier of gold to Europe until the 1500s.

            The trans-Saharan trade contributed enormously to building the glory and splendor of such towns as Carthage, Sabratha, and Leptis well before 400 AD. Trading cities also grew among the Berbers: those such as Audoghast and Sijilmasa have disappeared; some like Oualata and Tichitt still exist although they are no longer important; and others like Agades, Ghat, and Murzuk are alive and doing well.           

            While the trade was profitable, crossing the Sahara was difficult, risky, and long.  One person who crossed it and left a first hand account was an Arab traveler named Ibn Batuta. From Fez, the leading trade center of northern Morocco, he traveled south, first to the trading city of Sijilmasa, where he had to purchase enough food to last four months for his camels, and then on to Tagazha, a salt-producing town in the desert. On reaching Taghaza, obtaining water was difficult, and after leaving this town, one would not come across an oasis for ten days. Many people died without completing the journey.

Trans-Saharan Trade routes of Northwest Africa, from

North Africa and the Sahara

North Africa was in many ways the crossroads of the continent. As peoples from beyond Africa’s shores settled or traded there they interacted with local peoples and contributed to the spread of technology, ideas, and even population. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans all took control of the local Berber peoples of North Africa at one time or another. With them they brought the stimulus needed to foster both trade and the development of cities.

The Carthaginian Period. From about 1000 B.C. seafaring Phoenicians in search of gold, copper, silver, lead and other metals had established trading stations along the North African coast.[24]  By 800 B.C., these trading stations had grown into colonies. With the fall of Phoenicia to the Assyrians these colonies became largely independent. Carthage, in present-day Tunisia, the most famous of these colonies, was established among the Berbers of North Africa. Along the coastal strip, Carthage grew into an empire in its own right.

Ruins of Carthage, from

            Under the Carthaginians, the use of iron spread rapidly. Phoenicians inter-married with the Berbers, agriculture developed further as the countryside supplied the cities with food, and trade expanded to the Atlantic coast of North Africa.  By 600 B.C. Carthage had become a leading city and the wealthiest in the Western Mediterranean. This power was built on the trans-Saharan trade: with cheap manufactured goods, Carthage obtained metals. In search of further wealth, the Carthaginians even established their own colonies in Spain and Sicily, and on other islands in the western Mediterranean.


            In Sicily, however, the Carthaginians clashed with the local Greek city-states. After a major defeat by the Greeks of Sicily in the late 400s, Carthage was for a time isolated. During this period the kingship gave way to a ruling oligarchy. Although, like Rome, Carthage had an assembly of the people and a Senate, the real rulers were the wealthiest merchant families. These families controlled elections and generally determined who would be the magistrates and generals of the republic.

            Carthage became a great urban culture. Like other cities in the Mediterranean, it too became largely Hellenized during the Hellenistic period. Unlike the Greeks, however, the Carthaginians did not give up their original Phoenician religion—the worship of the god Molok, complete with periodic sacrifices of the sons of leading families to appease the god in times of trouble or danger. (In later years these sacrifices were usually slave children adopted by the leading families to take the place of their own.)

            As Carthage rose to power in North Africa, surrounding Berbers also began to develop states of their own in self-defense—notably the kingdoms of Numidia and Mauretania. Meanwhile, Carthaginian interest revived in both Sicily and Spain. The imperial interest of Carthage in Spain and Sicily brought it into struggles with the Romans. Despite the efforts of the Barca family, particularly its most famous member, Hannibal, eventually Carthage was destroyed by Rome in the late 200s B.C.. Thereafter the Maghrib fell under Roman domination.

The Graeco-Roman Period. By the first century A.D., Greek and Phoenician rule in North Africa had given way fully to that of Rome. North Africa became a source of raw materials, as the Romans exploited the area for olive oil and grain, which was carried to the imperial city of Rome. Indeed, Egypt and the Maghreb became the granary of Rome. Taxation was high, and so intense was the exploitation of the peasantry that many took to banditry and rebellion.

            Roman North Africa was divided along class lines.  A ruling class and wealthy merchants lived in the coastal cities. They had large estates, cultivated by slaves of Berber origin. Outside the cities and large estates were the tax-paying Berbers who kept their language and culture and often resented Roman rule. The Roman wars of conquest, and on-going resistance to Roman rule, helped the Berbers to improve their own military skills. In some places like Numidia, although Roman armies conquered local kings, the defeated were allowed for a time to remain semi-independent as Roman allies.

            Roman civilization became even more urban and sophisticated than that of Carthage. Not less than 500 cities developed in North Africa, with close to 2 million people living in them.  Many great buildings were constructed for religious, living and entertainment purposes. A road network connected them with each other and with the major ports along the coast.

The Spread of Christianity.  Under Roman rule, Christianity spread to many parts of North Africa. Alexandria, the commercial capital of Egypt, was one of the most important centers of Christendom during the first century.  Many early Christian scholars lived in Alexandria, and they left works that defined the theology of the religion. In Egypt, a monastic tradition developed: religious people lived in isolation to devote their entire time to spiritual upliftment.

            Even after the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity, in Egypt the ‘Coptic’ church emerged that remained distinct from the Roman Church. Based in Alexandria, the Coptic Church used a local Coptic language for worship and denied that Jesus Christ, while divine, could also have been an ordinary human being.  Between 500 and 600 AD Coptic Christians carried their religion southwards into Nubia, where they converted many and left a Christian legacy still in existence.

            From Egypt, Christianity also spread westwards to the Berbers where it found a mass appeal. Priests and Bishops were appointed among the Berbers, including the notable Aurelius Augustinus (354-430 A.D.), a Christian convert of Numidia who was to become Saint Augustine of Hippo. Saint Augustine is today recognized as one of the founding fathers of Roman Catholic Christian doctrine.