Culture of Libya: The Berbers

Culture of Libya: The Berbers Last updated on Thursday 22nd April 2010

The Berbers are an indigenous North African tribe, who originally inhabited the lands of the Jafara plain in north-western Libya, with Zuara as their main centre. During various Arab invasions, however, they were gradually driven back into the Jabal Nafusa area, where they now remain in comparative isolation. Their language has survived intact, together with an individuality of cultural style, particularly in the field of architecture (see below).

The Berbers are Muslim, but follow a specialized branch of Islam, known as the Ibadite branch; many Sunnite Muslims look upon this as heresy.

Berber relationships with the Arab invaders have been hostile throughout history, with many revolts against Arab rule. In more recent times, however, the Berbers have sought to create a semi-autonomous province. When Libya became independent in 1951, the Berbers hoped for recognition of their language on an equal status with Arabic, as well as some official acknowledgment of the distinctness of their culture. These aspirations were forestalled by the rise in Arab nationalism at this time, and a further setback took place at the time of the 1969 coup.

Today's Berbers continue to live a completely separate life from the rest of the Libyan population, and maintain their very different culture with a sense of pride.

Berber architecture is essentially troglodyte. Houses and mosques are constructed by digging down into the earth and rock, so that most of the accommodation is underground, with only a small area built up on the surface. The advantage of this type of building is twofold; namely, protection from the Jabal's biting winter winds, and also from the fierce summer heat. The soft rock of this area permits easy digging, and the underground rooms remain at a constantly pleasant temperature of 17°C.

The plan of the troglodyte houses is fairly uniform, with a steeply sloping tunnel leading to a large courtyard at a depth of about 8 metres. From this courtyard several rooms are cut into the surrounding sandy rock; these can be used as living accommodation, stables and storage areas. Fodder for the animals or human food supplies, such as grain, can be dropped through holes in the ceiling into the rooms below. Living quarters have whitewashed walls, with shelves cut for storing possessions. Water is stored in cisterns. Oil lamps were originally used for lighting, although many of these dwellings today are supplied with electricity.

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