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Introduction :  

The name Berber originates from the ancient Greek word meaning 'Barbarian' due to an aggressive nature in defending their territories which pretty much continued for centuries and even, it could be argued, up to the present day. 

The Berbers are the original native people of North Africa and by far the largest numbers exist in Morocco and Algeria, with half of the 36 million population of Morocco being Berber in origin. 


The Berber people have a long and ancient history, but as they had no written language in antiquity, it is difficult for historians to study, much of the evidence coming from rather marvelous cave paintings, the oldest of which may be found in Libya and Algeria and date back 12,000 years.

These often depict agricultural activities and domesticated animals. As they sometimes had red or blonde hair, and judging from DNA evidence, it has been assumed they had at least in part a Caucasian origin. 

When visited by the Phoenicians, Romans and other early civilizations, they often reacted violently, but also engaged in trade on occasion. 


Prior to the arrival of the Arabs during the 7th century, the Berbers of Morocco were animist, Christian or Jewish. The Arabs were surprised to find all three groups living in harmony in the ancient town of Volubilis, for example. It is often thought that the Moroccan Berbers were forced to convert to Islam, but this seems not to have been the case at all, and that the Berber people readily accepted Islam, but weren't so happy with the Arab people who considered themselves superior to the locals. The fighting seems to have been due to attempts to reclaim their territory and a dislike of Arab arrogance. 

A large number of Jewish Berbers existed in Morocco up until the 1950s/60s when most of them emigrated to the newly formed Israel so that there are only a small number left today, mostly in Casablanca. Likewise, most of the Christian Berbers have left for Europe, thus most Moroccan Berbers today are of the Sunni Muslims, though they have often incorporated some old beliefs into their faith, such as the use of tattoos for women ( tattoos are forbidden in Islam) the use of magic and the pilgrimage to tombs of the 'saints' to ask for guidance or medical assistance, as happens still at the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss . 

Berber Society : 

Each tribe has a clearly defined hierarchical structure but how that operates varies enormously from region to region. Every tribe has a single leader, now always a man, but up until the Late Middle Ages was often a woman. (up until the late 19th C in Algeria). 

Men are allowed to choose their own wives in most instances, but in some tribes the family makes the decision for them. The exception is the nomadic Tuareg tribe, the 'Blue People', who inhabit vast swathes of the Sahara Desert, and where the woman chooses her husband. It also varies from tribe to tribe whether the family structure is matriarchal or patriarchal.

The Berber people are quite strict and defensive of their cultural traditions and this is largely why their customs, language and unity still persist.

Fantasia :  

Many of these famous Fantasias are now performed for the benefit of tourists and they are a great spectacle to behold, but the Berber tradition of Fantasia is ancient and important to the people. Until very recently the Berbers fought on horseback and their skill as horsemen was a vital asset in the battles that they engaged in. This quality of horsemanship continues today and is often seen during or after Berber wedding celebrations.  They are also performed at some religious of cultural occasions. There are lots of Berber Fantasia groups in Morocco; also known as Serba groups, you shouldn't miss the opportunity to watch one if you can, the skill of the riders is extraordinary. 

Each performance is an amazing, colourful and exciting display of unrivalled horsemanship. A line of the men on horseback, each carrying a rifle and dressed in traditional garb, rushes forward for a few hundred metres and then simultaneously discharge their ancient gunpowder weapons into the air, creating both a synchronized sight and sound for the onlookers.  Can you imagine how difficult this is for the horsemen to keep their steeds in a strict formation riding at full tilt and then additionally to fire a shot in unison with their fellows? Incredible. 

The equines are called Fantasia Horses and exhibits the close bond that exists between each man and his mount. Also known as the Festival of Gunpowder, the Fantasia has its roots in the ancient wartime strategy of the Berber clans as they charged their foes in the open expanses of the Sahara. Today it is a cultural and martial artform. Some Moroccan hotels and restaurants will often show small scale Fantasias as a part of their guests' dinner entertainment! 

Berber Cuisine : 

Difficult to pin down as every region seems to have its own recipes, ingredients and way of preparing the food. Various other cultures have influenced regional trends and traditions have also been passed on from generation to generation, while some basics, like couscous are nationwide, each tribe or area will have its own favourite way of embellishing it. Sweet tea seems to be drunk everywhere.

Traditional Berber Music:

The Berbers, as well as other Moroccans, all adore music which is represented in some form or other at nearly all social or cultural gatherings or celebration. 

Drums and flutes are very popular, the music has a steady beat or tempo and is thus often accompanied by dancers. In some areas men and women dance together, in others they are segregated and in a few only the men will dance. It's very much a rural tradition so is rarely heard in the big cities. 

Spiritual, ritualistic music will be played at some ceremonies or to ward off evil spirits.  

Art and Culture : 

Berber art, culture and traditions are guided by tribal heritage and tradition so vary from place to place. Also, Berbers who live in mountain villages have a different lifestyle to nomadic Berbers. Nomadic Berbers move from one locality to another in order to be able to provide fresh grazing, water and shelter for their animals and families, often depending on the time of year. The men take care of the livestock while the women stay home to do the handicrafts, housework and look after the children. In addition, the women are able to gather different herbs and other plants for medicine and for dyeing clothes and wool. Sheep provide the wool that is used to weave carpets and rugs as well as clothing. The tapestry-like woven carpets, or kilims, are used within the family home but also sold in local souks/markets and each tribe and region has its own unique styles. Moroccan Berbers often use sequins and fringes, while other Berber women prefer to use squares, triangles and other geometric designs. 

Most Berber art is also functional and practical, so the art consists of pottery, jewellery, woven goods, clothing and furniture, though their artistry will also be seen represented in their architechture.  

Imilchil Betrothal Festival  

The Imilchil Betrothal Festival occurs once a year, over three days, in the Berber village of Imilchil in the Atlas mountains of Central Morocco.

It is a happy occasion of much feasting, music and dancing filled with the many bright colours of traditional Berber attire. 

It's origins lie in an old legend that tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, whom, in much the same fashion as Romeo and Juliet, are unable to marry because they come from rival families and tribes. A young woman and a young man meet and fall in love at first sight. Their love was forbidden however, because of unbreakable, strict, tribal social etiquette that instructed that men and women from different tribes could not wed.   Being forced to stay apart, the heartbroken cried themselves to death and the tears that each one of them produced led to the formation of two lakes, Isli and Tislit, which are still in the area today. Isli was named after the grief-stricken man and Tislet bears the name of his inconsolable lover. (geological evidence actually shows that this is actually the site of the first dual impact meteorite craters to be found in Morocco, just as wonderful an explanation in my opinion.) 

Anyway, the legend goes on to say that the two families concerned were so bereaved and horrified by what had happened that they agreed to instigate a festival, to be held once every year from then on, when men and women from different tribes would be permitted to meet, fall in love and marry one another. 

The men dress entirely in white and are adorned with a big, curved, shiny daggers hanging at their waists to show off their wealth, while the young ladies wear beautiful, often intricately embroidered dresses of many colours, as well as their most expensive and exquisite jewellery. But it is the women who choose from the long line of eligible bachelors. Once she has picked out her man, she takes his hand and leads him away. They will chat and barter and when and if they are both happy with what they have negotiated, they will take their new partner to be introduced formally to their families. Next they will attend the scribe's tent where the legalities are formalized and they are declared legally married. The festival lasts for three days to ensure that nobody is rushed into anything. 

The Betrothal Festival isn't just about weddings; it's also a place where goods are bought, sold and traded, where old friends and family members meet up again, and also where terrirorial disputes can be sorted out. On the last evening there is an enormous feast in which everyone joins in, including the singletons who failed to find the spouse of their dreams on this occasion. There's always next year. 

Tourists and visitors are always made very welcome at the Festival of Betrothal, and it is a very popular attraction for tour groups but we at Fes Desert Trips would like to gently urge folks to respect the traditions and not to join in or interfere in any way so the cultural integrity of the proceedings are protected and preserved for prosperity.