At Mzab - An Amazigh society by Hammou Dabouz - part 1

At Mzab

An Amazigh society in Algeria

confronting a crisis

Part 1

by Hammou Dabouz




The At Mzab (with emphasis on the z) are part of the Amazigh and constitute an ancient civilisation for which evidence dates from prehistoric times. Their history has left the At Mzab in possession of a traditional architecture of world-wide reputation. Since 1982 the Mzab has been listed among UNESCO’s world heritage sites. Its palm groves and its technically sophisticated irrigation systems, its celebrated skill in tapestry, its social structures - these have sustained and inspired this oasis society through the last twelve centuries.

Whilst the focus of this article is to bring factual information, it will also succinctly show the viable relationship between a harsh natural environment and an Amazigh society still deeply attached to its own values, but which it would be wrong to assume inflexible. In this society, the Amazigh language is the necessary bedrock for its existence; religious practices are followed, often more profoundly than many might imagine: and younger generations are exhorted to live in the world of humanity which progresses at a dizzying pace, yet learn from and apply the lessons of the past.

Prehistoric stone-age sites have been located in the region, and the evidence points to the presence of early troglodyte communities with their dwellings carved out of the limestone hillsides. Letters belonging to the Lybico-Berber alphabet have been confirmed throughout the Mzab. Yet an enormous amount of work remains, from exploration and discovery to collecting and deciphering these symbols. Whilst the several dozen uninhabited towns of the Mzab indicate the presence of Amazigh prior to the arrival of the Ibadi movement (we know the Ibadi rite was developed in the area among the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, some thousand years ago) it remains true however that knowledge of the early people groups living in this area before the arrival of Islam is still very limited.


Geography, climate and demography

The Mzab is a very arid region of Algeria, characterised by a dry atmosphere and intense evaporation - enemies of natural vegetation. It is situated in the northern Sahara, 600 kilometres south of Algiers, in the Wilaya de Ghardaia (Tagherdayt 2 , in Amazigh). The region is a geomorphological entity stretching over a dry rocky blackish-brown plateau where the average altitude is about 500 metres. The plateau had been subject to strong river erosion at the beginning of the Quaternary period which fashioned in its southern part great flat-topped outcrops and gouged valleys around Iyzer 3 Mzab (Oued Mzab / Mzab Valley). The tight interplay of these valleys has led to the region being referred to as a net.In terms of rainfall, it must be stated that for certain exceptional years, as at the beginning of 1991, in Autumn 1994 and recently at the beginning of October 2008, flash floods bore down on Iyzer Mzab with loss of life and great material destruction.

In the absence of any reliable census figures, yet without straying into the realm of unreality, we can say that the Amazighs of Mzab are currently 55% - plus or minus 5% - of the population of Wilaya (181,500 - plus or minus 16,500). By virtue of its assets, the region of the Mzab has experienced over more than a century now a consistent influx of Arab-speakers, especially nomads of Melkite persuasion . Furthermore, since independence there has been an inflow of Amazigh and Arabic speakers working in the various sectors of the economy.

Ethnic origins of the At Mzab people

The scenario is far from being simple. We need to acknowledge that the increase in population of the Mzab was not only as a result of the collapse of the Rustumid state and the permanent exodus of the peoples of Warejlen (Ouargla) and Isedraten (Amazighs who had absorbed Ibadi culture). It was also caused by the previous migration of families from the Aurès region, from eastern Algeria, from part of Libya and from what is present-day Tunisia. If the geographical origins of Amazigh Tamazgha evident in Mzab society do indeed overlap on any level, the current culture is blissfully unaware of the fact.

All the substantial evidence leads one to embrace Ibn Kheldoun’s theory: the ancestral line of the At Mzab goes back to the eponymous Zenete people. According to this the At Mzab are the brothers of the At Toujin, At zerdal and At Abdelway. Moreover, these three branches are descended from the At Badin tribe, brothers of the At Rached, whose ancestry dates back to Udjana, the presumed ancestor of the Zenete people (izenten, in Tamazight). This eponymous family line goes back to Imedyasen via the Getules during the pre-Christian period, some of whom joined the Garamantes. The linguistic evidence for the At Mzab belonging to the Zenete branch is incontrovertible. There is plenty to suggest that the Amazigh variant used these days by the Mzab Amazighs is a close relation to those Zenete variants such as Tacawit in the Aures, Tazennatit in the Adrar region, Tunisian Matmata … and Tarifit from northern Morocco. Regarding the establishing of the black and Métis community in the Mzab, it is largely the product of trans-Saharan trade links, which in the old days was flourishing, but which was stopped around 1848 when slave labour was outlawed. The matter of the existence of the At Mzab community is self-evident, since it clusters together clans and homogeneous families. The underlying principles defining the At Mzab can be grouped under four criteria:

  1. Linguistic criterion (the use of an Amazigh variant called Tumzabt).

  2. Historical criterion (the At Mzab have a pre-history and a social history stretching over thousands of years).

  3. Cultural criterion (the At Mzab participate in Ibadi Muslim rituals).

  4. Cultural criterion (lifestyle, arts and crafts, practical knowledge, traditions…).

Move on to Part 2

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