North African Nomads – Explained

By Mohamed El-Gasmi | August 8th, 2019   4 Comments
camel racing Walking with Nomads

Known as “the Tuareg”, “The Blue Men,” “The Leaders of the Sahara,” and “The Scarfed Men of the Sahara “

However, nowadays, with the phenomenon of multiculturalism, the Sahara Desert (or any large geographical part of the world) can be the home of several distinct cultures. This makes it such a big challenge for people to distinguish between the cultural components of each place. So usually it is easier to use generic terms to describe ethnic groups and sometimes those terms can be misrepresentations.


nomad face Walking with nomads

But, the questions raised here are;

  • Are those descriptions enough to satisfy people’s curiosity about understanding nomads and their origins?
  • Do those names apply to all nomads?
  • Is it fair to come to Morocco and ask a Saharan Nomad, “are you a Tuareg?” Especially as, in reality, there are no Tuareg in Morocco.

This blog is set out to provide you with a general overview of the origin of North African Sahara Nomads and to try to answer some questions like;

  • Who are the Nomads of the Sahara?
  • How can we define them?
  • What is their relationship with the very well known Tuareg?
  • What is their history?
  • What are the actual cultural fusion differences, in the desert?

Before we talk about the history of Saharan Nomads, it is necessary to lay out a general historical definition of nomads:

Ibn Khaldon, an early North Africa historian of the late 13th and early 14 century, defined nomads as, “the nations that rely on agriculture and herding animals to  fulfil their needs. Those nations use only what they require in their eating and dressing habits especially the things that nature can offer. Their homes are either tents made from animal hair and skins, or caves.”

nomad image 2


Ibn Khaldon’s Nomadic Categories

  1. The first category is Settled Nomads : these are nomads but they are more likely to farm than to roam because they rely on farming and agriculture to survive. They usually settle and live inside oases and nearby river banks because such locations provide them with water.
  1. The second category is Semi-Stable Nomads: these practice nomadism inside a limited zone. Most of the time they herd in relation to what their cattle and goats need of water and sustenance. This type do not go far away into the furthest Sahara with their herds, as they always need to return to their settlements.
  1. The third category is Bedouin Nomads: these are the kind of nomads who live wild and they practice long nomadic movements of a seasonal migration because their lives are related only to camels which demand from them to move deeply into the nowhere of the Sahara desert for diversification of food.

This third and last category of free nomads is the major one that characterises and represents nomads of the Sahara in the great desert of Africa. 

North Africa Sahara Nomads in history:

Here we are going to shed light on the history of Sahara Nomads and what other nations, like the Romans and the Arabs, said about them.

Greeks and Romans have talked in their writings about the  Berber Nomads who lived inside the mountains in North African regions. They also didn’t forget to mention desert nomads who lived in the oases of the Sahara. They spoke about the Gitolians, the Ethiopians, the Nets and the Farzians, and thought that these were the ancestors of the Tuareg who still live in some parts of the Sahara and are known as the leaders of the Sahara. They are a large nation of scarfed men.

Picture 3

The Arab historians have talked, during the middle ages, about desert Berbers (The Amazigh) and they divided them into two – The  “Al Boutr” and The “Al Baranis”:

The civilised ones are the ones who were called Al Boutr.  However, Al Baranis are the nomads who lived inside the endless Sahara Desert in their tents.

Throughout history, nomads of the Sahara have been discussed by using different descriptions by Arab historians. One of the most ancient texts where Sahara Desert Nomads were mentioned, can be found by “Al Yaakobi,” an Arab historian of the 9th century who described the Berbers of the Sahara ” as the nation that lives in the desert and never leaves it.”  He said of them, “they don’t know how to farm and they have no food other than what they get from their camels. They never settle in one place because their entire life knows no stability.”

nomad carrying firewood


Those nomads who have been described like this by the Arab historians are the Amazigh nomadic tribes. They have inhabited the Sahara Desert for centuries. Their land starts west at the Atlantic ocean to the far east of South Libya. It was assumed that some of these ancient Berber tribes moved to the Sahara after the pressure of Roman attacks upon them. They escaped to the desert and mingled with the Ethiopians who inhabited the oases of the Sahara Desert at that time and this gave birth to the Tuareg. Therefore, Sanhajic (Berber) tribes acquired a way of living based on camels and travelling, whereabouts they roamed the great desert and they practised commerce with both people from the north and the land of South Sudan.

The Arab influence on the Tuareg.

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During the 13th century, the desert witnessed the arrival of the Arab tribes of the Bani Maakil from Yemen and the upper part of Egypt. Characteristically, they are nomads like the Tuareg who have Berber origins. They practice the same lifestyle as Sanhajic Berber tribes. But their differences caused the two races to fight. But at the beginning, the Bani Maakil tribes were capable of  defeating the original people due to their war tactical capabilities and also because the Sanhajic Berber tribes were embroiled in interior disagreements between their tribes, which destroyed them from the inside.

But It was only a matter of time for both the Berber and the Arab to intertwine together and give birth to one unified tribal community. In fact, it becomes hard to individually distinguish between each one of them and as time goes on, their customs and traditions enjoyed a high interaction. The Sanhajic adopted the Arabic tradition and the Arab tribes of Bani Maakil, diversified with aspects of the Sanhajic local Berber culture.

The hierarchy of Sahara Desert Nomads after the interference from Arab Tribes

This interaction between the Berbers and the Arabs has helped to produce a new nomadic social hierarchy based on non-racial social functional standards.

1: At the top, we find the Arab fighters. Their means of production was invasion and the imposition of taxes on the lower nomadic classes.

2: In 2nd place, we find the category of Zawaya being tribes that care deeply about religion and teach religious sciences. They derive their power and authority from their religious position and often clash with Bani Hassan Arab warriors. Those tribes mostly have a religious centre on the big trade caravan roads.

3: Then they are followed by a Znaga Unity, weak indigenous tribes that have no military or religious authority. They were protected by the Hassan Arab tribal fighters who fined them periodically and arbitrarily in exchange for protecting them from their oppression.

4: Followed by groups of Haratin, a race believed to be originated from an interference between black (Ethiopian) and desert whites (Berbers), They were called the second free and they were often in the ownership of the above-mentioned categories. They toiled in arduous work and they also practised jobs considered inferior, such as craftsmen, singers and magicians.

Nomad crafts Walking with Nomads

To make reference only, this division was not a static one, as it was possible for a fighting tribe to lose its strength and be defeated, becoming a class of  Znaga unity and vice versa.

In our present, this hierarchy does not exist anymore but it is important to know about it as it played a big role in shaping Sahara Nomad communities and its traces are still alive.

Some of the major present ethnic groups of the Sahara

Cultural components people struggle to differentiate

Note: today, many people mistakenly think that all nomads are Tuareg or all nomads speak Berber. But as historically mentioned, earlier in the blog, there was an interference between the Berber and the Arab, between those who are descendants of the Bedouins Mâaquil (Arab roots), coming from Arab land in the 13th century, and the Berbers (the Tuareg) then inhabiting the Sahara. The difference caused is essentially in the oral culture that characterises nomadic life. The language of those who have both Sanhajic and Arabic culture is Hassanya, which is the result of the interaction of Arabic and the Tuareg Berber language like Tamasheq. The language of the remaining majority is Tamasheq or any other Berber dialect.

The Hassanie, or the white Bedouin language, covers an important geographical area, from the Algerian desert to northern Mali, from the Moroccan Sahara to Mauritania, to Senegal and northern Niger, and is used by a large number of Saharan Nomads. Whereas, the Tuareg language covers parts of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso by the Tuareg people, and by some Kinnin people in Chad.

Other differences might be found in the traditional dress. The Hassanie Nomad men wear only blue and white but the Tuareg people wear many different colours. The difference can be found as well in some aesthetic aspects like the camel saddles and the tie of the turban.

Toureg and Hassanie (right) Camel Saddle

However,  they have more similarities than differences because they share one home which is the Sahara desert and it is difficult to set them culturally apart.

To cut a long story short, specifying which nations are nomads and which ones are not, can never be objective. Being a nomad is a characteristic given to a certain people due to their style of living that is paradoxical to the urban style. Defining nomads in general and the great Sahara Nomads in particular, is not an easy task as it is very confusing and extremely complicated. There have been hundreds of nomadic tribes all around the Sahara with different roots, living and sharing different geographical locations but with no doubt the Berber origins maintain a very strong element to all of them.

nomad collage walking with Nomads

We would welcome any comment or questions on this subject and are here, ready to answer you.
Thanks for reading and supporting this nomadic community.


4 thoughts on “North African Nomads – Explained

  1. I came to this site by accident looking how to spell a word, and uncovered a fascinating world beautifully described. I leave this site better educated than just thinking Tuareg live in the Sahara and shall be back to read more of your blogs. Although I often castigate the internet for it’s sometime evil influence I also rejoice at finding such gems as this site. Thank you.

  2. It vastly oversimplifies the concept of nomad in Africa as to only being those originating in the last 2,000 years. When the truth is that humans have been nomadic for most of their history in Africa, long before any interaction with other groups. And in North Africa a large factor in the rise of pastoral nomadism has been due to the desertification of the Sahara since the last wet phase. The only difference is that over the last 10,000 years came the introduction of first various wild animal dromedaries and then domesticated dromedaries, such as the donkey which was domesticated first in Africa. Camels were introduced into Africa in the 1st millenium BC and gradually migrated across the Sahara becoming very dominant in trading networks during the Roman era. Also, since that adoption of camels there have been numerous African specific traditions in terms of saddles and other implements not found elsewhere.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting on our blog. The blog did not aim to be an expert account on nomads throughout the entire history of Africa and so we are satisfied that 2000 years was a long enough period to be covered here. The blog was written by a nomad who had done his best to research and understand the issue and re-tell it as well as was possible for him with the help of my editing and translation. Thanks again for your thoughts.

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