The Berbers are the ethnicity indigenous to North Africa west of the Nile Valley. They are distributed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River.
Historically they spoke Berber languages, which together form the “Berber branch” of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Since the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the seventh century, a large portion of Berbers have spoken varieties of Maghrebi Arabic, either by choice or obligation. Foreign languages like French and Spanish, inherited from former European colonial powers, are used by most educated Berbers in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in some formal contexts such as higher education or business.
Today, most of the Berber people live in Northern African countries such as Algeria and Morocco; a large Berber population is also found in Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, as well as large migrant communities living in France, Turkey and other countries of Europe.
The Berber identity is usually wider than language and ethnicity, and encompasses the entire history and geography of North Africa. Berbers are not a homogeneous ethnicity and they encompass a range of phenotypes, societies and ancestries. The unifying forces for the Berber people could be their Berber language, belonging to the Berber homeland, or a collective identification with the Berber heritage and history.
Linguistically speaking, there are some twenty-five to thirty million Berber speakers in North Africa. The number of ethnic Berbers (including non-Berber speakers) is far greater, as it is known that a large part of the Berbers have acquired other languages, over the course of many decades or centuries, and no longer speak Berber today.
Berbers call themselves some variant of the word i-Mazigh-en (singular: a-Mazigh), possibly meaning “free people” or “free and noble men”. The word has probably an ancient parallel in the Roman and Greek names for some of the Berbers, “Mazices”.
Some of the best known of the ancient Berbers are the Numidian king Masinissa, king Jugurtha, the Berber-Roman author Apuleius, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and the Berber-Roman general Lusius Quietus, who was instrumental in defeating the major wave of Jewish revolts of 115–117. Dihya or Kahina was a female Berber religious and military leader who led a fierce Berber resistance against the Arab-Muslim expansion in North-West Africa. Kusaila was a seventh-century leader of the Awraba tribe of the Berber people and head of the Sanhadja confederation.
Famous Berbers of the Middle Ages include Yusuf ibn Tashfin, king of the Berber Almoravid empire; Tariq ibn Ziyad the general who conquered Hispania; Abbas Ibn Firnas, a prolific inventor and early pioneer in aviation; Ibn Battuta, a medieval explorer who traveled the longest known distances in antiquity; and Estevanico, an early explorer of the Americas. Well-known modern Berbers in Europe include Zinedine Zidane, a French-born international football star of Algerian Kabyle descent, Loreen the Swedish-born winner of Eurovision 2012 and Ibrahim Afellay, a Dutch-born football player of Moroccan Riffian descent