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All you need to know about berbers in Morocco


Who are the Berbers in Morocco? Where do they come from?


The Berbers in Morocco as well as in the rest of North Africa are considered to be the natives of this part of the continent, although no source is eminently verifiable. Some theories reveal that the original Africans mixed with the Vikings from Northern Europe, creating a unique mixed DNA. Ancient rock carvings testify to the historical omnipresence of the Berber peoples throughout the Maghreb and even into the central Sahara, which is the modern-day equivalent of northern Mali, Chad and Niger.


The Romans, in their epic colonization, invaded all of North Africa as far as the Atlantic coast. In Morocco, they pursued the Berber rebels by driving them from the fertile lands. Therefore, they were displaced to the mountains – in particular the Atlas Mountains and the Moroccan Rif – but also to the interior, in particular to the desert. With the decline of the Roman Empire came the Arabs from the Arabian Gulf. They offered the Berbers in Morocco more freedom than the previous invaders in exchange for the recognition of Islam, the one God Allah and his prophet Muhammad. Previously, each Berber tribe, ethnic group or region had its own pagan beliefs, often marked by mysticism and mostly polytheistic.


Despite numerous attempts to unify the populations of North Africa, the Berbers or “free men” as they call themselves have continued to defend a strong identity and independent culture over the centuries. For example, the Tuaregs we know today are also Berbers, who have remained nomadic and wandering in the desert. Their name comes from the Arabic “taouarek” which means “looters”. In fact, during periods of drought, they had no choice but to move north to escape climatic hostilities. Arriving in isolated villages, they soon got into the habit of temporarily settling down and plundering the resources of the villagers; that’s why they were called “Tuaregs”. The Kabyles, in northern Algeria, or the Zenagas (formerly called “Moors”) of Mauritania, are examples of Berber peoples living according to their own traditions, with their own convictions and perception of the world around them.



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Moroccan berber in Sahara desert

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The Berbers in Morocco nowadays


Today, it is said that Berbers represent 65% of the Moroccan population. There are still many Berber tribes, which are so different that it is almost impossible to talk about them in a uniform way.

Among the best known tribes are the Rifains in northern Morocco, the Chleuhs in the southwestern High Atlas, the Anti-Atlas, the Souss Valley, the Kabyle in northern Algeria and the Tuaregs in the Sahara. Despite its undeniable demographic presence, recognition of Berber culture is very recent, and stems from Morocco’s desire to internationalise and modernise by accepting the cultural influences that now make it up. For example, the Berber flag was adopted at the first Amazigh congress in 1998 in Paris. It is composed of three horizontal bands symbolizing respectively blue for the sea, green for the mountains and yellow for the desert. Painted with red blood, Amazigh, a free man circulates freely in these three colored bands. This symbol of the free man is omnipresent in the Berber culture and has three branches that mean the land, the language and the man. Originally this symbol is the letter “Z” and is called “Yaz”.


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Berber flag


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The Berber alphabet is called Tifinagh and is globally universal. It was very present until around the 12th century, then it was gradually replaced by the Arabic alphabet according to the Muslim religion. The Tuaregs, because of their geographical isolation, have continued to use it and more and more people are learning to read and write in Berber, in particular thanks to His Majesty King Mohammed VI, who in 2004 granted the teaching of Amazigh in schools. The new Constitution adopted in 2011 also officially recognized Berber as Morocco’s second official language.


Berber speakers in Morocco

It is estimated that around 60% of the population of Morocco are speakers of some variant of Berber. Currently, Amazigh has become the official language of the country, together with traditional Arabic. The Berber languages mainly spoken in Morocco are the following:


Chilha (also known as Tachelhit or Tashelhiyt or Shilha) is the language with the highest number of speakers of Berber languages in Morocco. It is estimated that the number of speakers is between 3 and 9 million and because of the extension of its area. Chilha is spoken in the southern part of Morocco. From the slopes of the High Atlas to the southern slopes of the Anti-Atlas bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean. The eastern limits of the chilha are difficult to define because of the smooth transition to the Atlantic.


The Riffian (Tamazight Tarifit) . The Riffian or Tarifit or Chelja is a variety of Berber languages spoken by the Rif people, inhabitants of the Rif region. This variant is also spoken by Rif communities in Algeria, in cities near the border, in Rif cities in Algeria such as Bethioua or Azrew, and in Melilla. The number of speakers of this language is estimated at 6 or 7 million. It has not had an official status until 2011 due to the protests that occurred in the context of the Arab Spring.

As with other Berber languages, its speakers often refer to it by the generic name of Berber, which serves to designate all of them. It should be pointed out that in Morocco many scholars and activists of Berber culture deny that the three great varieties of Berber language that exist in the country are different languages.


Tamazight is a variant of the Berber language belonging to the Afro-Asian language family and spoken mainly in Morocco in the Middle Atlas area by some 3 600 000 speakers, plus a few in Algeria and France. Originally Tamazight, like other Berber languages, was written very little. However, today there are three writing systems for the language: Tifinagh, Arabic alphabet and Latin alphabet. In September 2003, Tifinagh began to be taught to children in Moroccan schools, while the Latin alphabet is preferred by Amazigh linguists and researchers. Aliphate or Arabic alphabet predominates in Moroccan Berber literature.


Tamazight is one of the four most widely spoken Berber languages, being quite close to Tachelhit, another Berber variant, so that speakers of both dialects can communicate without major problems; Rifin is more distant. Differentiating these dialects can be complicated by the fact that speakers of other languages can also refer to their own language as Tamazight. Additionally, the difference between these three dialects is mostly phonological and lexical rather than syntactical.





Most of the Berbers were originally nomads who moved their location camps according to the pastures for their cattle and the climate. Historically, Berber traders were responsible for the transportation of goods by camel caravans. There were basically five trans-Saharan trade routes that stretched across the Sahara from the northern Mediterranean coast of Africa to the large cities, which are located on the southern edge of the Sahara, such as Timbouctou in Mali. From there the goods were distributed all over the world.


Even today the Berbers are often portrayed as a nomadic people who cross the desert on camels, but the reality is that most are farmers and herders in the mountains and valleys throughout North Africa. Some trade throughout the region. Some Berbers work in the flour mills and in handicrafts. The women usually cook and take care of
house and children, weaving and pottery. In addition, many Berbers today work in the big cities or even Spain or France as migrant workers and send money to their family home.


Also, in tourist areas like the Sahara desert in Morocco, the small Berber villages have grown a lot and have become richer thanks to tourism.

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Berber culture and traditions


The traditions of the Berbers in Morocco are still very present today, whether for traditional festivals, weddings or births, or even in everyday life. Especially in the South, where it is common to see women still dressed in traditional clothes, or wearing festive make-up with henna or saffron. Traditional songs resound in the streets of the ksours, carpets are still made in traditional patterns, jewelry stores are becoming lighter and adapting to modern life while maintaining their sumptuous decorations.


Berber craftsmanship

Craftsmanship occupies an important place among Berber populations. It is one of the most widespread trades:

Ceramics for the manufacture of plates, jugs and jars necessary for daily life. Weaving wool for carpets, clothes or blankets and khaimas (nomadic tents). Metal and silver work for the magnificent Berber jewellery and the famous Azlag daggers, named after this douar situated at the exit of Kelaat El M’Gouna and the Valley of the Roses.



Carpet styles and symbols


Traditional Berber carpets contain distinctive patterns and colours and are woven from sheep’s wool or camel hair (you can also find them made from nylon and olefin material). The materials are hand washed and naturally dyed from saffron yellow, to wild mint green, and from pomegranate and henna. These rugs are known for their strong geometric designs, and have been dated dating back to the Marinid era (Berber dynasty). Carpets in the Middle Atlas generally have at the diamond grid.

– Amazigh textiles, due to the relative isolation of the tribes in rural areas, have preserved ancient weaving techniques and mystical symbolism. In this society even the wool itself has special protective powers.
– Berber tribes developed a variety of textiles to be adaptable to different climates. Carpets in the mountains have larger loops, they are looser to provide protection from the cold. In warmer climates the carpets are made of a finer weave.
– Berber weaving is highly dependent on women and is traditionally passed on within the home. The young apprentice is expected to learn the different looping techniques, patterns, colour ranges and motifs. Historically, women wove carpets for their families, and men traditionally produced carpets that were more specialized as professional master weavers.

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Berber rug

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As mentioned above, there are several groups of Berbers in Morocco. This explains the difference in the way they dress from one group to another. The Berber men of the Sahara for example the traditional dress is the deraa, a kind of tunic usually blue or white on special occasions with openings on the sides to keep the body ventilated. They also wear turbans to protect themselves from the sun and sand. Nowadays this is not the daily dress, the general rule is to find the older ones wearing djelabas and the young ones dressed in western style clothes. Berber women, however, keep more of the traditional dress. Typical of the Sahara Berbers is a large embroided veil of about 4 by 2 meters that they place covering themselves from head to toe. This has traditionally protected them from the wind and in general it is they who weave these fabrics on a black background with coloured motifs.


Berber music

The Berbers have music very much embedded in their culture. Especially the percussion is learned by children from a very young age at weddings and other festivities. Berber music, the traditional music of North Africa, has a wide variety of regional styles. The best known are Moroccan music, the popular Gasba, Kabyle and Chawi music of Algeria, and the widespread Tuareg music of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. The instruments used are the bendir (large drum) and the gambra (lute), which accompany the songs and dances. Traditional Kabyle music is composed of vocalists accompanied by a rhythm section, composed of e’ṯbel (tambourine) and bendir (frame drum), and a melodic section, composed of a ghaita (bagpipe) and an ajouag (flute). Kabyle music has been popular in France since the 1930s, when it was played in cafés.


As it evolved, Western string instruments and Arab musical conventions were added, such as large accompanying orchestras. When raï, a style of Algerian popular music, became popular in France and elsewhere in Europe, Kabyle artists began to use less traditional instruments and formats. Hassen Zermani’s all-electric Takfarinas and Abdelli’s work with Peter Gabriel’s Peter Gabriel helped bring Kabyle music to new audiences, while the murder of Matoub Lounes inspired many Kabyles to unite around their folk musicians. There are three varieties of Berber folk music: village music, ritual music, and music played by professional musicians. Village music is performed collectively for dance, including ahidus and ahouach dances. Instruments include flutes and drums. These dances begin with a sung prayer. Ritual music is performed in regular ceremonies to celebrate marriages and other important life events. Ritual music is also used as protection against evil spirits.

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 Our most popular Morocco Sahara Tours . The trip from Marrakech is rich in scenery and includes an unforgettable stay in a Desert Camp. 

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A great experience starting from Fes including camel trekking and at least one night in a tented desert camp in the Merzouga Desert.

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Our experts can create exceptional tailor-made experiences for our clients. Contact us and we´ll plan your perfect trip in Morocco. 

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Morocco Desert Tours – Sahara Tourism

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