Enduring Culture of the Mozabites

Situated about 500 kilometers south of the city of Algiers, in the northern Sahara, the M’zab Valley of Central Algeria is home to the Berber ethnic group known as the Mozabites. Living in five oasis towns in an area that is considered to be one of the hottest in the world, the Mozabites are a thriving community with strong family ties. Of the five oases that are home to the Mozabites, Ghardaia is the largest and serves as the capital city of Ghardaia Province. The other oases are Beni-Isguen, Melika, El-Ateuf and Bounoura.

Although most of the Mozabites read and write Arabic, they speak the Zenata dialect of the Berber language, for which there is no written form. The majority of the Mozabites are Ibadi Muslims. The Ibadi form of Islam evolved from the 7th century Islamic sect known as the Kharijites of Khawarij. Yet, having rejected some of the Kharijites beliefs, the Ibadis see their form of Islam to be quite different from the Kharijites. Ibadis also have a number of doctrinal differences with orthodox Sunni Islam, as well as Shia Islam.

Fleeing from persecution centuries ago, the Mozabites eventually settled in the M’zab Valley in the early 11th century where they established settlements and remained virtually undisturbed until the French occupation of the area. However, an agreement was reached with the French in 1853 that, in return for a contribution of 1,800 francs annually, the Mozabites would be independent of French rule. This changed in November 1882 when the M’zab Valley as annexed to French Algeria. Despite political changes in Algeria over the years, Mozabites continue to peacefully resist interference in the affairs of their community and strive to preserve their unique religious and cultural identity.

French rule proved to yield some benefits for the Mozabites. For example, French engineers laid out an irrigation system that made the oases more fertile, as well as using Beni-Isguen as a depot for the import and marketing of European merchandise. Many Mozabites are still involved in the importing business, with a significant number running their own shops and trading stores in towns around the Sahara Desert. The Mozabites have a reputation of being honest and astute businessmen. They also continue to be productive farmers in the M’zab Valley, supplying the fresh produce needs for their own communities and for marketing elsewhere.

The beautiful M’zab Valley of Algeria was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1982, as a superb example of a traditional human habitat that has been adapted to the environment. This is confirmation that although values in the rest of the world are constantly changing, the Mozabites have retained their identity intact throughout the centuries.