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HISTORY OF NORTH AFRICA
 
 


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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 up 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 Alexandria, 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.
 






Colonia Julia Carthago: from 122 BC

A first attempt to establish a Roman colony on the site of Carthage is made within a quarter of a century, in 122 BC. The place is considered ill-omened from the start. Macabre tales circulate in Rome of wolves tearing up the boundary markers. Within thirty years the scheme is abandoned. But a new colony is proposed by Julius Caesar. After his death it develops into a thriving Roman city, known as Colonia Julia Carthago.

By the middle of the 1st century AD Carthage is the second largest city (after Rome) in the western half of the empire and is the hub of the prosperous Roman provinces of north Africa.
 









These provinces, rich from agriculture, run in a continuous coastal strip along the northern parts of present-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya before linking with the province of Egypt, where the Nile allows Roman penetration further south into the continent.

Carthage also plays an important part in Christian history. The most poignant martyrdom of early Christians is that of a young Carthaginian woman, Saint Perpetua. In 313 the city provides the emperor Constantine with his first Christian dispute. In 439 Carthage falls to an Arian Christian - Gaiseric, king of the Vandals.
 






The Vandals in Carthage: AD 439-533

With Carthage as his base, Gaiseric dominates the western Mediterranean - much as the Carthaginians once did. He annexes Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic islands. In 455 he even invades Italy, reaching and capturing Rome. His troops plunder systematically for two weeks, carrying off many treasures (including those which Titus, in this game of imperial plunder, has taken four centuries previously from the Temple in Jerusalem). The empress and her two daughters are taken as hostages.

The independent Vandal kingdom, a thorn in the side of Rome, lasts almost a century - until destroyed by a Byzantine expedition in 533.
 








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 castles). 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.
 








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