9.1: North Africa and the African Transition Zone

North Africa and the African Transition Zone
North Africa and the African Transition Zone

North Africa’s primary connection with the Middle East and Central Asia is that Islam diffused to North Africa from the Middle East and Central Asia. Northwest Africa has been inhabited by Berbers since the beginning of recorded history, while the eastern part of North Africa has been home to the Egyptians. 

WatchinGeo: Who are the Berber people?

Between the A.D. 600s and 1000s, Arabs from the Middle East swept across the region in a wave of Muslim conquest. These peoples, physically quite similar, formed a single population in many areas, as Berbers and Egyptians merged into Arabic and Muslim culture. This process of Arabization and Islamization has defined the cultural landscape of North Africa ever since.

Modern Egypt has become the cornerstone of the Arab world; more Arabs live in Cairo than in any other city on Earth. The three main areas of interest are the Maghreb of the northwest; the Nile River valley in the east; and the African Transition Zone, where the Sahara Desert transitions into the tropical type A climates of Central Africa’s equatorial region.

The Maghreb is also known as Northwest Africa and Barbary. It's mostly Muslim and includes Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. These countries are member states of the Arab Maghreb Union.
The Maghreb is also known as Northwest Africa and Barbary. It’s mostly Muslim and includes Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. These countries are member states of the Arab Maghreb Union.

Islam diffused through North Africa to the Berber people of the Maghreb and entered Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Iberian Peninsula. The Arab-Berber alliance, called the Moors, invaded Spain in 711 CE. The Islamic influence thrived in Iberia and would have continued into mainland Europe if not stopped by Christian forces such as Charles Martel’s army in the famous Battle of Tours. Islam was eventually pushed out of the Iberian Peninsula and held south of the Strait of Gibraltar. Islamic architecture and influence remain part of the heritage of Iberia.

Optional: The History Guy: History Deserves to Be Remembered: The Battle of Tours: a turning point in European History

The historical geography of North Africa is not complete without an understanding of the European influences that have dominated or controlled this region for centuries. The Roman Empire controlled much of the coastal area of the Mediterranean during its zenith. The Romans built ports, aqueducts, roads, and valuable infrastructure. After the fall of the Roman Empire, common bonds of religion and language were created for the people through the invasion of the Arabs, who introduced the Islamic faith. North Africa was later dominated by European colonialism. France controlled and colonized the region of the Barbary Coast along North Africa’s western waterfront, including Algeria, Tunisia, and parts of Morocco. Italians colonized the region that is now Libya. The Barbary Coast of the Mediterranean was once a haven for pirates and a danger to shipping during the colonial era. Even the United States involved itself with wars against the pirates off the coast of the Berber states of North Africa during the early 1800s. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Britain controlled Egypt and parts of the Sudan. The Spanish colonized parts of Morocco and Western Sahara. In due time, resistance movements were successful in defeating the colonial powers and declaring independence for all the countries of North Africa. However, the European influence remains through the region’s dependence on trade and economic partnerships with Europe.

The Atlas Mountains of the Maghreb extend to the east and west of the main ranges.
The Atlas Mountains of the Maghreb extend to the east and west of the main ranges.

The Maghreb is a region extending from Morocco to Libya that is distinguished by the main ranges of the Atlas Mountains, which reach elevations of near thirteen thousand feet.

The Atlas Mountains
The Atlas Mountains

The main Atlas range is often snow-covered at higher elevations.

Snow-capped Atlas Mountains
Snow-capped Atlas Mountains

The name Maghreb, which in Arabic means “Isle of the West,” receives between ten and thirty inches of rainfall per year. This is substantially more rainfall than what is received in the Sahara Desert to the south. The Atlas Mountains extract precipitation from the air in the form of rain or snow, which allows fruits and vegetables to be grown in the fertile mountain valleys of the Maghreb.

A fertile valley in the Atlas Mountains
A fertile valley in the Atlas Mountains

To the south of this region is the vast Sahara Desert with lower precipitation and warmer temperatures.

Sahara Desert ec0-regions
Sahara Desert ec0-regions: Map showing major Dune seas (ergs) and Mountain ranges of the Sahara. Red dashed line shows the approximate limit of the Sahara. National borders in grey. Dune seas in yellow.
Camels enjoying some water in the Guelta d'Archei (in the Sahara). Gueltas are pockets of water that form in drainage canals or wadis (valleys) in the Sahara. They may last year-round if fed by a spring.
Camels enjoying some water in the Guelta d’Archei (in the Sahara). Gueltas are pockets of water that form in drainage canals or wadis (valleys) in the Sahara. They may last year-round if fed by a spring.

Libya is actually outside the range of the Atlas Mountains but is associated with the Maghreb by most local inhabitants. North Africa is separated from Subsaharan Africa by the African Transition Zone (see the map at the top of the page), a transitional area between Islamic-dominated North Africa and animist- and Christian-dominated Subsaharan Africa. It is also a transition between the Sahara Desert and the tropical type A climates of Africa’s equatorial region. This is a zone subject to shifting boundaries. The region was once a major trade route between the Mali Empire of the west and the trade centers of Ethiopia in the east. Camel caravans have crossed this sector of Africa for centuries, and camel caravans from Mecca might have traveled across this zone. Many nomadic groups continue to herd their livestock across the region in search of grazing.

Aided by a moderate type C climate, the northern coastal region of the Maghreb and the mountain valleys are a center for agricultural production, including grapes, dates, oranges, olives, and other food products. Think about how geography affects population: Which climate type do most human groups gravitate toward? What conditions will you find when you combine this climate type and generous quantities of water and food? As you fit the pieces of the geographic puzzle together, you can understand why populations centralize in some places and not in others. The Maghreb is an attractive place for human habitation, but it borders on the inhospitable vastness of the Sahara Desert. Most of the Maghreb’s residents live in cities along the Mediterranean coast. There are few people in the vast desert interior of these countries. The exceptions are groups such as the Tuareg that are found in the Sahara.

Al Jazeera English: Maintaining way of life, Tuareg resist cultural changes

The Maghreb is an expansive region with countries of size. Algeria, Libya, and Morocco are large countries in terms of physical area. Algeria is Africa’s largest country as of 2011. Algeria is similar in area to the entire United States east of the Mississippi River, Libya is larger than the state of Alaska, and Morocco is the size of the state of California. A large percentage of Algeria south of the Maghreb and a large percentage of the area south of the Mediterranean coastline in Libya fit the classification of desert conditions. The largest cities of Libya are along the coast, but other Libyan cities are positioned in the desert region. Tunisia, the smallest of the countries on the Mediterranean, is about the same size as the US state of Wisconsin and has mountains in its north and desert areas to the southwest.

All the countries of the Maghreb have former connections to Europe. These ties have strengthened in recent years because of an increase in trade and the economic dependencies that have been created between Europe and the Mediterranean. North Africa can grow fruit and vegetable crops that are not as plentiful in the colder northern latitudes. In the last half of the twentieth century, an enormous amount of oil was discovered in the Maghreb, and Europe has a growing need for energy. The discovery of oil changed the trade equation: oil and natural gas revenues subsequently advanced past agricultural goods as the main export products. Oil and natural gas exports now make up 95 percent of the export income for Algeria and Libya.

Economic Geography of the Maghreb

Europe, which is in the higher stages of the index of economic development, has small families with fewer young people to fill entry-level service jobs, and North Africa has a burgeoning population of young people seeking employment. Many people from North Africa speak the languages of their former colonial masters, and when they leave North Africa seeking employment, they find the transition to a European lifestyle relatively straightforward. Migration from the shores of North Africa to Europe is not difficult; the Strait of Gibraltar, for example, is only about nine miles across from Morocco to Spain.

European countries have attempted to implement measures to halt the tide of illegal immigration into their continent from North Africa.

Vice News: Here’s What The European Union Did To Stop Migrants From Coming

The need for cheap labor in European countries is a major economic factor in this equation. Europe needs cheap labor and more energy, provides employment opportunities, and has an advantage in its higher standards of living: these forces attract immigration and pull people toward Europe. North Africa can supply labor and oil, has high levels of unemployment, and suffers from poor economic conditions: these factors push people to emigrate from North Africa to places where conditions are more attractive.

The African Transition Zone

Stretching across the widest part of Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert is the African Transition Zone. Known as the Sahel, meaning “border or margin,” this zone is where the dry arid conditions of the desert north meet up with the moister region of the tropics.

This is a map illustrating the Sahel region of Africa.
This is a map illustrating the Sahel region of Africa.

For thousands of years, the seasonal grazing lands of the Sahel have been home to nomadic groups herding their livestock across the zone and eking out a living held together by tradition and heritage. Changing climate conditions and overgrazing has enhanced the desertification process, and the region is slowly turning into desert.

CGTN Africa: The Desert: Sahel – a region under threat

The Sahara Desert is shifting southward, altering the economic activities of the millions of people who live in its path. Ten thousand years ago, North Africa and the Sahara Desert were tropical environments filled with all the biodiversity and wildlife now found in Subsaharan Africa. This desertification process has been occurring for centuries; it is not a new process. Human factors and climate change may be accelerating this process, but they did not create it.

Political stability is complicated to achieve in the African Transition Zone. The political borders established by European colonialism during the Berlin Conference of 1884 remain basically intact and create barriers that hamper the nomadic groups from traveling through the Sahel in search of grazing land for their livestock. Political boundaries now restrict movement and keep people divided and separated into national identities. The African Transition Zone is also in transition from a rural, traditional agrarian culture to a society confronting the information age and modern technology. Camel caravans that once transported goods and materials across wide expanses of desert terrain are being replaced with motor vehicles and aircraft. The many traditional groups across this zone are adapting to the conditions of the modern world but work to retain their values and the traditions of their heritage.

The colonial political borders have impeded progress in the region’s effort to establish stable governments and control the land and resources within its borders. Postindependence governments have thus far been unable to establish stable economic conditions within many of the countries in the Sahel. Natural resources are being exploited for economic profit, which is changing the natural environment. Security and safety have become significant issues. Today this region is unstable, with political and cultural conflicts between the local groups and governments. The conflicts in Sudan are examples of the instability of the area.

TRT World: Summit in Paris to discuss security in the African Sahel
Note: Violence is discussed.

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Next: The Nile River and Egypt, Sudan

Additional information and image credits:

North Africa map Map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries. https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/8-3-north-africa-and-the-african-transition-zone/
Atlas Mountains Wikimedia Commons – public domain.
Maghreb By Connormah – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8986151
Atlas Mountains By Tola Akindipe – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40308123
Atlas Mountains with snow By Kobersky (talk · contribs) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326513
Atlas valley By Melintir at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23215254
Sahara ecoregions By T L Miles – Own work by uploader Derived from Blank map Image:Africa_topography_map_with_borders.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4438190
Guelta By Dario Menasce, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3235298
Sahel By Munion – Natural Earth Data –> ArcMap –> Illustrator & Photoshop, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42808152