North Africa is a relatively thin strip of land between the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean, stretching from Moroccan Atlantic coast to Egypt. Currently, the region comprises five countries, from west to east: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The region has been influenced by many diverse cultures. The development of sea travel firmly brought the region into the Mediterranean world, especially during the classical period. In the 1st millennium AD, the Sahara became an equally important area for trade as camel caravans brought goods and people from the south. The region also has a small but crucial land link to the Middle East, and that area has also played a key role in the history of North Africa.
The earliest known humans lived in North Africa around 260,000 BC. Through most of the Stone Age the climate in the region was very different from today, the Sahara being far more moist and savanna like. Home to herds of large mammals, this area could support a large hunter-gatherer population and the Aterian culture that developed was one of the most advanced paleolithic societies.
In the Mesolithic period, Capsian culture dominated the eastern part of North Africa with Neolithic farmers becoming predominant by 6000 BC. Over this period, the Sahara region was steadily drying, creating a barrier between North Africa and the rest of Africa.
Various populations of pastoralists have left paintings of abundant wildlife, domesticated animals, chariots, and a complex culture that dates back to at least 10,000 BCE in northern Niger and neighboring parts of Algeria and Libya. Several former northern Nigerian villages and archaeological sites date from the Green Sahara period of 7,500-7,000 to 3,500-3,000 BCE
The Nile Valley on the eastern edge of North Africa is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. The desiccation of the Sahara is believed to have increased the population density in the Nile Valley and large cities developed. Eventually Ancient Egypt unified in one of the world's first civilizations.
The expanse of the Libyan Desert cut Egypt off from the rest of North Africa. Egyptian boats, while well suited to the Nile, were not usable in the open Mediterranean. Moreover, the Egyptian merchant had far more prosperous destinations on Crete, Cyprus and the Levant.
Greeks from Europe and the Phoenicians from Asia also settled along the coast of Northern Africa. Both societies drew their prosperity from the sea and from ocean-born trade. They found only limited trading opportunities with the native inhabitants, and instead turned to colonization. The Greek trade was based mainly in the Aegean, Adriatic, Black, and Red Seas and they only established major cities in Cyrenaica, directly to the south of Greece. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and for the next three centuries it was ruled by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.
The Phoenicians developed an even larger presence in North Africa with colonies from Tripoli to the Atlantic. One of the most important Phoenician cities was Carthage, which grew into one of the greatest powers in the region. At the height of its power, Carthage controlled the Western Mediterranean and most of North Africa outside of Egypt. However, Rome, Carthage's major rival to the north, defeated it in a series of wars known as the Punic Wars, resulting in Carthage's destruction in 146 BC and the annexation of its empire by the Romans. In 30 BC, Roman Emperor Octavian conquered Egypt, officially annexing it to the Empire and, for the first time, unifying the North African coast under a single ruler.
The Carthaginian power had penetrated deep into the Sahara ensuring the quiescence of the nomadic tribes in the region. The Roman Empire was more confined to the coast, yet routinely expropriated Berber land for Roman farmers. They thus faced a constant threat from the south. A network of forts and walls were established on the southern frontier, eventually securing the region well enough for local garrisons to control it without broader Imperial support.
When the Roman Empire began to collapse, North Africa was spared much of the disruption until the Vandal invasion of 429 AD. The Vandals ruled in North Africa until the territories were regained by Justinian of the Eastern Empire in the 6th century. Egypt was never invaded by the Vandals because there was a thousand-mile buffer of desert and because the Eastern Roman Empire was better defended.
The Arab invasion of the Maghrib began in 642 CE when Amr ibn al-As, the governor of Egypt, invaded Cyrenaica, advancing as far as Tripoli by 645 CE. Further expansion into North Africa waited another twenty years, due to the First Islamic civil war. In 670 CE, Uqba ibn Nafi al-Fihiri invaded what is now Tunisia in an attempt to take the region from the Byzantine Empire, but was only partially successful. He founded the town of Kairouan but was replaced by Abul-Muhajir Dinar in 674 CE. Abul-Muhajir successfully advanced into what is now eastern Algeria incorporating the Berber confederation ruled by Kusaila into the Islamic sphere of influence.
In 681 CE Uqba was given command of the Arab forces again and advanced westward again in 682 CE, holding Kusaya as a hostage. He advanced to the Atlantic Ocean in the west and penetrated the Draa River Valley and the Sus region in what is now Morocco. However, Kusaila escaped during the campaign and attacked Uqba on his return and killed him near Biskra in what is now Algeria. After Uqba's death, the Arab armies retreated from Kairouan, which Kusaila took as his capital. He ruled there until he was defeated by an Arab army under Zuhair ibn Kays. Zuhair himself was killed in 688 CE while fighting against the Byzantine Empire which had reoccupied Cyrenaica while he was busy in Tunisia.
In 693 CE, Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan sent an army of 40,000 men, commanded by Hasan ibn al-Nu'man, into Cyrenaica and Tripolitania to remove the Byzantine threat to the Umayyads advance in North Africa. They met no resistance until they reached Tunisia where they captured Carthage and defeated the Byzantines and Berbers around Bizerte.
Soon afterwards, al-Nu'man's forces came into conflict with the indigenous Berbers of the Jr?wa tribe under the leadership of their queen, Al-Kahina. The Berbers defeated al-Nu'man in two engagements, the first on the river Nini and the second near Gabis, upon which al-Nu'man's forces retreated to Cyrenaica to wait for reinforcements. Reinforcements arrived in 697 CE and al-Nu'man advanced into what is now Tunisia, again meeting Al-Kahina near Gabis. This time he was successful and Al-Kahina retreated to Tubna where her forces were defeated and she was killed.
al-Nu'man next recaptured Carthage from the Byzantines, who had retaken it when he retreated from Tunisia. He founded the city of Tunis nearby and used it as the base for the Ummayad navy in the Mediterranean Sea. The Byzantines were forced to abandon the Maghreb and retreat to the islands of the Mediterranean Sea. However, in 705 CE he was replaced by Musa bin Nusair, a protégé of then governor of Egypt, Abdul-Aziz ibn Marwan. Nusair attacked what is now Morocco, captured Tangier, and advanced to the Sus river and the Tafilalt oasis in a three-year campaign.
In the 11th century, Berbers of the Sahara began a jihad to reform Islam in North Africa and remove any trace of cultural or religious pluralism. This movement created an empire encompassing parts of Spain and North Africa. At its greatest extent, it appears to have included southern and eastern Iberia and roughly all of present-day Morocco. This movement seems to have assisted the southern penetration of Africa, one that was continued by later groups. In addition, the Almoravids are traditionally believed to have attacked and brought about the destruction of the West African Ghana Empire.
However, this interpretation has been questioned. Conrad and Fisher (1982) argued that the notion of any Almoravid military conquest at its core is merely perpetuated folklore, derived from a misinterpretation or naive reliance on Arabic sources while Dierke Lange agrees but argues that this doesn't preclude Almoravid political agitation, claiming that Ghana's demise owed much to the latter.
The Almohads (or Almohadis) were similar to the Almoravids, in that they similarly attacked any alternative beliefs that they saw as corruptions of Islam. They managed to conquer southern Spain, and their North African empire extended further than that of the Almoravids, reaching to Egypt.
The Hafsids were a Masmuda-Berber dynasty ruling Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) from 1229 to 1574. Their territories were stretched from east of modern Algeria to west of modern Libya during their zenith.
The dynasty was named after Muhammad bin Abu Hafs a Berber from the Masmuda tribe of Morocco. He was appointed governor of Ifriqiya (present day Tunisia) by Muhammad an-Nasir, Caliph of the Almohad empire between 1198-1213. The Banu Hafs, were a powerful group amongst the Almohads; their ancestor is Omar Abu Hafs al-Hentati, a member of the council of ten and a close companion of Ibn Tumart. His original name was "Fesga Oumzal", which later changed to "Abu Hafs Omar ibn Yahya al-Hentati" (also known as "Omar Inti") since it was a tradition of Ibn Tumart to rename his close companions once they had adhered to his religious teachings. The Hafsids as governors on behalf of the Almohads faced constant threats from Banu Ghaniya who were descendants of Almoravid princes which the Almohads had defeated and replaced as a ruling dynasty.
Hafsids were Ifriqiya governors of Almohads until 1229, when they declared independence. After the split of the Hafsids from the Almohads under Abu Zakariya (1229-1249), Abu Zakariya organised the administration in Ifriqiya (the Roman province of Africa in modern Maghreb; today's Tunisia, eastern Algeria and western Libya) and built Tunis up as the economic and cultural centre of the empire. At the same time, many Muslims from Al-Andalus fleeing the Spanish Reconquista of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal were absorbed. He also conquered Tlemcen in 1242 and took Abdalwadids as his vassal. His successor Muhammad I al-Mustansir (1249-1277) took the title of Caliph.
In the 14th century the empire underwent a temporary decline. Although the Hafsids succeeded for a time in subjugating the Kingdom of Tlemcen of the Abdalwadids, between 1347 and 1357 they were twice conquered by the Merinids of Morocco. The Abdalwadids however could not defeat the Bedouin; ultimately, the Hafsids were able to regain their empire. During the same period plague epidemics caused a considerable fall in population, further weakening the empire. Under the Hafsids, commerce with Christian Europe grew significantly, however piracy against Christian shipping grew as well, particularly during the rule of Abd al-Aziz II (1394-1434). The profits were used for a great building programme and to support art and culture. However, piracy also provoked retaliation from Aragon and Venice, which several times attacked Tunisian coastal cities. Under Utman (1435-1488) the Hafsids reached their zenith, as the caravan trade through the Sahara and with Egypt was developed, as well as sea trade with Venice and Aragon. The Bedouins and the cities of the empire became largely independent, leaving the Hafsids in control of only Tunis and Constantine.
In the 16th century the Hafsids became increasingly caught up in the power struggle between Spain and the Ottoman Empire-supported Corsairs. Ottomans conquered Tunis in 1534 and held one year. Due to Ottoman threat, Hafsids were vassal of Spain after 1535. Ottomans again conquered Tunis in 1569 and held it for 4 years. Don Juan of Austria recaptured it in 1573. The latter conquered Tunis in 1574 and the Hafsids accepted becoming a Spanish vassal state to offset the Ottoman threat. Muhammad IV, the last Caliph of the Hafsids was brought to Constantinople and was subsequently executed due to his collaboration with Spain and the desire of the Ottoman Sultan to take the title of Caliph as he now controlled Mecca and Medina. The Hafsid lineage survived the Ottoman massacre by a branch of the family being taken to the Canary Island of Tenerife by the Spanish.
During the 18th and 19th century, North Africa was colonized by France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. During the 1950s and 1960s, and into the 1970s, all of the North African states gained independence from their colonial European rulers, except for a few small Spanish colonies on the far northern tip of Morocco, and parts of the Sahara region, which went from Spanish to Moroccan rule.
In modern times the Suez canal in Egypt (constructed in 1869) has caused a great deal of controversy. The Convention of Constantinople in 1888 declared the canal a neutral zone under the protection of the British, after British troops had moved in to protect it in 1882. Under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the United Kingdom insisted on retaining control over the canal. In 1951 Egypt repudiated the treaty, and by 1954 Great Britain had agreed to pull out.
After the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew their pledge to support the construction of the Aswan Dam, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, which led Britain, France and Israel to invade in the week-long Suez War. As a result of damage and sunken ships, the canal was closed until April 1957, after it had been cleaned up with UN assistance. A United Nations force (UNEF) was established to maintain the neutrality of the canal and the Sinai Peninsula.