The Sahara at this time supports not only elephant, giraffe and rhinoceros but hippopotamus and even fishes. It is a friendly landscape in which neolithic communities progress from hunting and gathering into a partly settled way of life, with the herding of cattle. Their paintings show that dogs have been domesticated and are sometimes used in the hunt – and that hunting methods include the pursuit of hippopotamus from boats made of reeds.
The paintings also suggest that these people wear woven materials as well as animal skins. The remains from their settlements reveal that they are skilful potters.
Around 3000 BC a climatic change gradually turns the Sahara to a desert (over the millennia it seems to have gone through a succession of humid and dry periods). The change brings to an end the first settled culture of Africa. The Sahara becomes the almost impenetrable barrier which throughout recorded history has separated the Mediterranean coast and north Africa from the rest of the continent.
At much the same time north Africa becomes the site of one of the world’s first great civilizations, Egypt. There may perhaps be a link, in the migration eastwards of the Sahara people, but archaeology has found no evidence of it.
Africa’s first civilizations: from 3000 BC
Egypt’s natural links are in a northeasterly direction, following the Fertile Crescent up into western Asia. Similarly Ethiopia, the other early civilization of northeast Africa, is most influenced by Arabia, just across the Red Sea. So these two regions, Egypt and Ethiopia, flanked by desert to the west and equatorial jungle to the south, evolve at first in isolation from the rest of Africa.
But the development of maritime trade along the Mediterranean coast, pioneered by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, does increasingly bring Egypt into a specifically north African context.
From the 8th century onwards the dominant power in north Africa is one of Phoenicia’s colonies, Carthage. The empire of Carthage involves many other Phoenician settlements along the African coast, but does not penetrate far into the interior. This is occupied by the Berbers, nomadic tribes whose origin is not known but who are believed to have been in the region from at least 2000 BC.
From about 300 BC the north African coast has, in Alexandria, one of the most brilliant cities of the Mediterranean world. But the entire region soon falls under the control of Rome, which destroys Carthage in 146 BC and annexes Egypt in 30 BC.
Colonia Julia Carthago: from 122 BC
A first attempt to establish a Roman colony on the site of Carthage is made within a quarter of a century, in 122 BC. The place is considered ill-omened from the start. Macabre tales circulate in Rome of wolves tearing up the boundary markers. Within thirty years the scheme is abandoned. But a new colony is proposed by Julius Caesar. After his death it develops into a thriving Roman city, known as Colonia Julia Carthago.
By the middle of the 1st century AD Carthage is the second largest city (after Rome) in the western half of the empire and is the hub of the prosperous Roman provinces of north Africa.
These provinces, rich from agriculture, run in a continuous coastal strip along the northern parts of present-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya before linking with the province of Egypt, where the Nile allows Roman penetration further south into the continent.
Carthage also plays an important part in Christian history. The most poignant martyrdom of early Christians is that of a young Carthaginian woman, Saint Perpetua. In 313 the city provides the emperor Constantine with his first Christian dispute. In 439 Carthage falls to an Arian Christian – Gaiseric, king of the Vandals.
The Vandals in Carthage: AD 439-533
With Carthage as his base, Gaiseric dominates the western Mediterranean – much as the Carthaginians once did. He annexes Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic islands. In 455 he even invades Italy, reaching and capturing Rome. His troops plunder systematically for two weeks, carrying off many treasures (including those which Titus, in this game of imperial plunder, has taken four centuries previously from the Temple in Jerusalem). The empress and her two daughters are taken as hostages.
The independent Vandal kingdom, a thorn in the side of Rome, lasts almost a century – until destroyed by a Byzantine expedition in 533.
Byzantine Africa: 6th – 7th century AD
The expansionist energy of Justinian in Constantinople, and of his great general Belisarius in the field, brings the whole of the North African coast back under Roman rule for one final century. In 533 Belisarius defeats the Vandals in battle, captures their king and enters Carthage unopposed.
The authority of the emperor is restored, though the northwest tip of the continent is never again brought fully under control (in spite of pioneering efforts by Belisarius in the building of castles). Carthage rejoins Alexandria as a great imperial city on this important coast, rich in grain. But in the next century they both fall, in turn, to an entirely unexpected new power – the Arabs.
The Arab conquests: 7th century AD
One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.
When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and Muslim armies have moved up into the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia.
Muslim North Africa: from AD 642
The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in AD 640 in front of the Byzantine fortified town of Babylon (in the area which is now Old Cairo). The Arabs capture it after a siege and establish their own garrison town just to the east, calling it Al Fustat.
The army then moves on to Alexandria, but here the defences are sufficient to keep them at bay for fourteen months. At the end of that time a surprising treaty is signed. The Greeks of Alexandria agree to leave peacefully; the Arabs give them a year in which to do so. In the autumn of 642, the handover duly occurs. One of the richest of Byzantine provinces has been lost to the Arabs without a fight.
The Arabs continue rapidly westwards along the coast of North Africa, capturing Cyrenaica in 642 and Tripoli in 643. But these remain largely ineffective outposts. For nearly three decades the Arabs make little progress in subduing the indigenous Berber inhabitants of this coastal strip.
The turning point comes in 670 with the founding of a new Arab garrison town at Kairouan, about sixty miles south of the Byzantine city of Carthage. From this secure base military control becomes possible. Carthage is destroyed (yet again) in 698. By the early 8th century northwest Africa is firmly in Arab hands. In 711 an Arab general takes the next expansionist step. With a Berber army he crosses the straits of Gibraltar and enters Spain.
The north African coast remains from now on in Muslim hands, but it proves impossible to exercise effective control over it from the centre of the caliphate – whether in Damascus or Baghdad. Instead various local Berber dynasties win power.
These include the Idrisids (established from 790 in Fez) and the Aghlabids (ruling from 800 in Kairouan). But by far the most powerful are the Fatimids, of the Ismaili sect. Early in the 10th century they organize an uprising against the Aghlabid dynasty in Kairouan.
The Fatimid dynasty: AD 909-1171
An Ismaili leader, Ubaydulla, conquers in 909 a stretch of north Africa, displacing the Aghlabids in Kairouan. He founds there a dynasty known as Fatimid – for he claims to be a caliph in the Shi’a line of descent from Ali and Fatima his wife, the daughter of Muhammad.
Sixty years later, in 969, a Fatimid army conquers Egypt, which now becomes the centre of a kingdom stretching the length of the north African coast. A new capital city is founded, adjoining a Muslim garrison town on the Nile. It is called Al Kahira (‘the victorious’), known in its western form as Cairo. In the following year, 970, the Fatimids establish in Cairo the university mosque of Al Azhar which has remained ever since a centre of Islamic learning.
At the height of Fatimid power, in the early 11th century, Cairo is the capital of an empire which includes Sicily, the western part of the Arabian peninsula (with the holy places of Mecca and Medina) and the Mediterranean coast up to Syria.
A century later the authority of the Ismaili caliphs has crumbled. There is little opposition in 1171 when Saladin, subsequently leader of the Islamic world against the intruding crusaders, deposes the last of the Fatimid line. And there is no protest when Saladin has the name of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad included in the Friday prayers in Cairo’s mosques. After a Shi’a interlude, Egypt is back in the Sunni fold.