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Antiquity to Nationalist Movement

Djemila
Djemila

Contents

The Coming of Islam
French Colonial Era
Nationalist Movement

Algeria has been inhabited by modern humans for at least 40,000 years (and probably for 2 million years by earlier humans). Stone carvings and rock paintings in the Saharan area of Tassili n’Ajjer, near Djanet, date back at least six thousand years. Profound changes in the climate, which became drier and hotter, led to a shrinking of the population of what is now the Sahara. About 300 BCE, the northern Mediterranean plains were part of the Berber empire of Numidia, which included much of North Africa. Its rulers became involved in a complicated game of alliances with the Mediterranean superpowers of the era, Carthage and Rome. Part of what is now Algerian territory was incorporated into the Phoenician and Cathaginian empires that were based in present-day Tunisia, before being conquered by the Romans. Although many Numidians had served in the Cathaginian army, the Numidian king Masinissa (ca. 240-148 BCE) struck an alliance with the Roman Empire. This led to the establishment of a large Berber state, essentially a federation of sedentary communities. Masinissa’s grandson Jughurtha (ca. 160-104 BCE) wanted more independence from Rome, which sparked a conflict that led to the Berber king’s death. Even today, Berber cultural activists refer to this era as an historic example of its former power.
For the Romans, the lands of present-day northern Algeria were an important part of the empire, because of its strategic location and its role as supplier of foodstuffs for the empire. Ruins such as those at Timgad, Djémila, and Tipaza still testify to the Roman era. Many communities further south and in mountainous regions remained, however, largely outside the empire’s control, a situation that continued through the Arab and Ottoman periods and some decades into the French colonial era. The town of Constantine, which has existed for at least 2,500 years, was the birthplace of the Christian theologian Augustine (354-430).

Coin with the image of King Massinissa
Coin with the image of King Massinissa
Massinissa's tomb in Cirta, near Constantine
Massinissa’s tomb in Cirta, near Constantine

 

Remains of the Roman city of TipisaPhoto Shutterstock
Remains of the Roman city of TipisaPhoto Shutterstock

The Coming of Islam

Interior of the Great Mosque of Algiers, the second oldest in Algeria, built in 1097
Interior of the Great Mosque of Algiers, the second oldest in Algeria, built in 1097
At the turn of the 8th century, Arab forces under the banner of the new religion of Islam conquered large parts of present-day Algeria. It was only in the 10th century, after a second wave of migrants from the east, that the Arab culture became dominant and their language and culture made a lasting imprint on the country. The Arab conquests led to conflicts with the Berbers. Later, the Arabs, who had always been few, mixed with the Berber population, which had probably arrived in an earlier migration from the Middle East.

In the following centuries, the country was part of various Arab and Berber Muslim empires. In the 10th century, the Zirid dynasty founded the city of Algiers. Originally allied to the Shiite Fatimid rulers who were based in Egypt, the Zirids returned to Sunni Islam and sought to rule large parts of North Africa. A period of confrontations ensued, with rival Arab armies coming from the east and the rise of the Almoravid Empire that took control of Algiers in the 11th century. This Berber dynasty, based in Marrakech, in turn lost control of their territories to the Almohads, whose leader, Abd al-Mumin, was a native of western Algeria and founder of Nedroma. As a result of these conquests, Algeria has been closely connected to the neighbouring territories of the Maghreb, including al-Andalus, in present-day Iberia.

European and Ottoman influence

The demise of the Almohads beginning in the 13th century was followed by a period of relative calm under the Zayyanids, a dynasty ruling western Algeria from their capital, Tlemcen. North Africa returned more or less to the political situation that had prevailed in Roman times, with three Berber empires ruling parts of present-day Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia respectively. Without a strong Islamic empire to oppose them, however, the rising European powers sought to strengthen their influence in the Mediterranean. This coincided with a chaotic period of invasions of the Maghreb by Europeans and the rule of local leaders who made their living raiding ships on the Mediterranean trade routes. Spain, in particular, sought to expand its rule in North Africa and became involved in a power struggle with the emerging Ottoman Empire. Originating in Turkey, the Ottomans gradually came to control large parts of the Arab world (Morocco being a major exception) and the Mediterranean region.

The inhabitants of Algiers called on the Ottoman sultan to maintain order, and Algeria thus became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. In practice, this meant that local representatives of the empire based in Algiers had considerable autonomy. These Turkish rulers dominated mainly the coastal cities and were far less effective in the interior, which was the scene of local uprisings by tribal groups. Regional divisions thus remained in place, there being, at the time, no widespread Algerian identity.

French Colonial Era

Oran, ca. 1900
Oran, ca. 1900

In 1830 a French expeditionary force invaded Algiers, on the pretext of an insult to the French ambassador by the local Ottoman ruler (dey). In fact, however, the military gamble was designed to cover up domestic economic mismanagement by the government in Paris by stirring nationalist feelings. In line with the imperialist mood in Europe, the French held on to the territory when they saw some important economic and political opportunities arising from the colonization of Algeria. The coastal plains were not only fertile and thus economically attractive but also proved to be a useful political ‘safety valve’, by providing land on which poor peasants from the French mainland could settle. In general, however, the Algerian territory came to be dominated by large-scale agricultural enterprises, particularly the wine industry.

From the beginning, the continuing colonization led to fierce resistance by local rulers and the population. The most important resistance leader was emir (commander) Abdelkader (Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi), who managed for some time to maintain control over much of Algeria. Abdelkader’s forces were, however, defeated by overwhelming French military force. (After 1962 the emir acquired an important place in official history of the independent state, as he was considered the founder of the first Algerian state and thus the precursor of the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN).) Rebellions occurred regularly in Kabylia, including the uprising led by sheikh Mokrani in 1871. In the southern Sahara, Tuareg forces, too, resisted the French army, which was unable to control the desert regions until the Tuareg were defeated in 1902.

The colonial territories became home to hundred of thousands of settlers from France and other southern European countries. In 1848 Algeria was annexed to France and divided into three departments. European colonists and their descendants automatically became French citizens. The same was true for the Jewish community, which had, however, been part of Algeria for two thousand years. As stipulated in the Decret Crémieux in 1870, all Algerian Jews automatically became French citizens.

Most colons, also called pieds noirs (lit., black feet) started agricultural enterprises for the production of wine grapes, oranges, or grain. The main cities grew to resemble French provincial towns – which they were, in the mind of the colonial population and the political leadership in Paris, because Algeria was regarded not as a colony but as part of France itself. French domination meant that the Algerians themselves became second-class citizens in their own country. Only in 1958, after the outbreak of the war of independence, did they gain the right to French citizenship. Their status as ‘Muslims within France’ brought them far fewer rights than attained by Europeans who had only recently arrived. If they were integrated into the economic system at all, they served as labourers on the colonial estates. Opportunities for education were limited to a tiny minority of the original population.

Algiers under attack, by Morel Fatio, 1830(Palace of Versailles)
Algiers under attack, by Morel Fatio, 1830(Palace of Versailles)

Nationalist Movement

Demonstration of supporters of Étoile Nord-Africaine and Messali Hadj, in the 1940s / Photo HH
Demonstration of supporters of Étoile Nord-Africaine and Messali Hadj, in the 1940s / Photo HH

In response to colonialism, new resistance movements emerged, beginning in the 1920s. These movements comprised a diversity of ideological currents and emerged from different social classes. Their ideas on how to improve the position of the Algerian population ranged from reforms within the French order to complete independence as a new nation. In contrast to the earlier uprisings that had taken place mostly in rural areas, these were urban movements. This had much to do with the paradox of the operation of the colonial system: while many Algerian Muslims were excluded, conscription in the French army, partial access to education, and employment opportunities in mainland France by a minority helped create a new sense of nationalism. This led to the emergence of social groups that were highly critical of colonial rule and became the core of the independence movement.

A significant part of the movement was formed by Algerian labourers who worked in France, where they came into contact with socialist and communist ideas and exchanged their views with French and other activists. This lay the foundation of the ultimately socialist orientation of the independent Algerian state after 1962. The North African Star (Étoile Nord-Africaine, ENA) was the first organized expression of the migrant labour movement. Inspired by socialism, the ENA was founded in 1926 by Hadj Ali Abdelkader, grandson of the 19th-century resistance leader; one of its prominent members was Messali Hadj. As is clear from its name, the movement originally aimed to unify Algeria with the French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia. Because of differences with the situations in these countries, where the French had never settled on a scale comparable to the Algerian case, a movement encompassing all of North Africa did not survive in later years.

Hadj Ali Abdelkader
Hadj Ali Abdelkader
Messali Hadj
Messali Hadj

From the beginning, Algerian nationalism was also shaped by its relationship to Islam, which was not only the religion of the majority but also a sort of badge distinguishing them from the European colonizers. Indeed the French themselves described the Algerian native population as ‘Muslims’. As elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic world, a group of forerunners became convinced that Islam could be a counterforce to colonialism only if it devised responses to colonialism’s social and cultural impacts. In the 1940s they created the Association of Algerian Ulama (Association des Oulémas Algériens; the ulama were experts in Islamic doctrine). The association did not claim independence but sought to strengthen the Arab-Islamic identity. Apart from the ‘moral decay’ that they considered the result of European norms and practices, they aimed to counter the widespread traditional practice of venerating local ‘holy men’ (marabouts) and their tombs. In contrast, the ulama promoted a return to the Islamic origins set out in the Koran and the Hadith (traditions of the life of the Prophet Muhammad). Given the fact that most Algerians were illiterate and thus had no access to these sources, they invested heavily in education. Instead of simply maintaining Koran schools, the ulama promoted modern forms of education, including subjects such as languages and mathematics. Although the ulama did not call for an independent state, these activities laid the foundation for growing political awareness among broader social groups.

Ferhat Abbas
Ferhat Abbas

The formation of the Algerian People’s Party (Parti du Peuple Algerien, PPA) by Messali Hadj in 1937 became the clearest expression of the demand for total independence from France. This party was the successor of the banned Étoile Nord-Africaine, also founded by Messali Hadj. But also less radical demands for autonomy were made, as expressed by Ferhat Abbas. During the war of independence, he headed the provisional government in Tunis and was, for some months, the first President of independent Algeria. His Islamic middle-class constituency ran into strong opposition from the colons. In May 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close, the situation in Algeria came to a boil. Anti-French riots broke out, to which the colonial army responded with the massacre of thousands of Algerians in Sétif and other cities. Paris subsequently tried to relieve the pressure by promising reforms, but, at the same time, the colonial authorities made it practically impossible for Algerians to advance their claims to political expression. Elections were manipulated through fraud and intimidation in order to preserve the existing order, and the plea for armed resistance gained ground.

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