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FEAR OF BLACKNESS: APPEARANCE OF THE MOORS AND BERBERS IN ANTIQUITY

"The Mauri possess bodies black as night, while the skins of the Gauls are white" Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 6th c A.D.


" Moorish calvalry of the Roman army under the Emperor Trajan in a fight against the Dacians.
Before the Islamic slave trade the area of North Africa in its entirety was occupied by people who are now located mainly in the Sahel, northern Sudan and Saharan areas. The nomadic warriors and agriculturalists in the region were called Mauri. They once stretched along the coastal regions of North Africa between Libya and Morocco. Today the terms "Berber" and "Moor" mean different things to different people - including academics. In ancient times and through most of the medieval period in Europe the people designated as Moors in Europe were not always related by either blood, culture, religion or dialect. All populations referred to as "Mauri", Moro" or "Moor" in Europe until the 15th century did share one thing in common though - a near black to extremely black complexion. In this era, Berber tribes were generally and almost exclusively referred to as black in the texts of Near Easterners and were considered to have obtained their color from a curse on their presumed ancestors Canaan or Ham

The name "Berber" or "Beriberi" is in fact an African word used originally for and by the inhabitants of the region of Somalia who extended into the Sahara from a very early time period and is still the indigenous name used by various peoples of Chad and Sudan for themselves. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (circa 1st century A.D.) by an unknown Greek author mentions the region as the country of the Berbers.

1st century A.D. - The Greek historian,“Diodorus Siculus speaks in reference to the expedition of Agathocles, a Sardinian general, of three Libyan tribes on the coast of Tunisia, the Micatani and Zufoni who were nomads and the Asfodelodi, who by the color of their skin resembled the Ethiopians” Book XX, 38, 57. See p. 50 of The Mediterranean Race by Guiseppe Sergi 1901. The Micatani are known later as the KITAMA Berbers, or as they are now called - Imakitan (a Tuareg tribe).The Ukutameni once occupied the Kabyle mountain region of Northern Africa. The early Moors were described as having woolly or crisped hair, which they often curled with hot irons or wore in braided plaits. Mauri also frequently wore bands around their heads and rings through their ears. By the 1st century Silius Italicus uses the term "Nigra" the Latin word for black with reference to the Moors.

1st c. A.D.– Marcus Valerian Martial was one of the earliest Europeans to use the phrase “woolly hair like a Moor” also translated "a Moor with his crisp hair" in Book 6 of "The Epigrams", and the phrase was used up until the Middle Ages.

Ancient "Mauri" in Sculpture from Tunisian Museum


2nd century A.D--the Historia Augusta: The life of Marcus Aurelius Part 2:21 mentions the attacks by the "Mauri" who had engaged the Romans in battle in the Iberian Peninsula and who had "wasted almost the whole of Spain" . The peoples of early Iberia, like Isidore of Seville, were thus quite familiar with what Mauri looked like.

3rd c. A.D.--by this period derivatives of the word Mori or Mauri had come to signify black things. Morum had come to mean blackberry or Mulberry tree. Roman dramatist Platus or Plautus used the word morulus (blackberry-colored) for a black man or "Nigri".

4th c. A.D.--the document Expositio Totius Mundi says a barbarous population lived in the desert south of Tripoli known both as “Mazices and Ethiopians”(Carocopino, 1940, p. 391-393; Gsell, 1927, p. 2).The Mazikes or Mazikha were a people extending from North Africa into the eastern Desert and across the Red Sea into the Yemen, it is originally the name of the Tuareg peoples. Today the name "Amazigh" is a generic and nationalist name for people who speak Berber, but was originally exclusively used by Shluh and Tuareg "the veiled men of Sahara". Herbert Wendt asserts that, in Rome “every other slave was called Amasix, Maxyx, Maxitanus or simply Max” and that "the negroes" luxury slaves on Greek or Hellenic vases were named Amaseos or "folk of Amasis", an ancient ruler of Libyan ethnicity in Egypt whom he refers to as a Berber king. Herodotus refers to these "Libyans" as the "Maxyes". (Wendt, 1962, p. 66).

4th c. A.D.--the Roman Claudius complained of the chief of the “Mauri Bavares” in North Africa taking noble Roman women of the Levant. It was written of the chief, “when tired of each noblest matron, Gildo hands her over to the Moors.” And these, “Sidonian mothers, married in Carthage city must needs mate with barbarians. He thrusts upon me an Ethiopian as a son-in law, a Berber as a husband. The hideous hybrid affrights its cradle” (Platnauer, 1922, p.113

5th c. A.D.--“The Moors have bodies black as night, while the skin of the Gauls is white..." written by Isidore of Seville in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, translation by Steven A. Barney, published 2007. p. 386. St. Isidore also “underlines the fact that Moors are so named because they are black, and their blackness comes from the heat of the sun." St. Isidore (9.2.121-23)” (Ramey, L., Monstrous Alterity in Early Modern Travel Accounts. Esprit Createur, (48)1, pp. 81-952008).

6th c. A.D.--Corippus, a Byzantine in Book I, 245 of Johannidus, Book 1, 245, speaking of Moors in the area of North Africa who he felt had "faces of a horrible black color" stated, “Maura videbatur facies, nigro colore horrida” (Michell, G.B. (1903, Jan.). The Berbers. Journal of the Royal African Society, 2(6), (pp. 161-194). He also refers to some Moorish captives as "black as crows".

6th c. A.D.--Procopius, a Byzantine in his History of the Wars book IV contrasting a white peoples who had settled in North Africa claimed they were not “black skinned like the Mauri...” The Mauri he knew lived in the area stretching from Leptis Magna to the Aures and Kabyle Mountains. The history books today call them "Berbers".

9th c. A.D.--A Norse saga translated into Gaelic speaks of the Moors of the 9th c. reads, "After this the Lochlanns (Danes) passed over the whole country, and they plundered and burnt the whole country and they carried off a great host of them as captives to Erin and these are the blue men of Erin, for Mauri is the same as black (Nigri) man and Mauritania is the same as blackness. Long indeed were these blue men in Erin…’ Howorth, H.H. (1884). Early Intercourse Between the Franks and Danes, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1, pp. 18-61

9th c. A.D.--Saedulius Scotus, a Celtic monk in a letter to an Italian ruler refers to the horrible "black faces" of "the Saracen" invaders of southern Italy.

"Moors wearing traditional headbanda of the Mauri"
"Moors" wearing traditional headbands of the "Mauri", noted by the Romans, fend off enemies from a medieval castle. Arrows shoot out of the windows. Interestingly, the men of the Mauri since ancient times are mentioned as wearing headbands and rings in their ears. Later medieval "Moors" in heraldry and elsewhere are frequently depicted as black men wearing bands around their heads.

"Coat of Arms of Sardinia"
Coat of Arms of Sardinia. As with the heraldry of families named with variants of Mori or Moor, several countries in Europe have flags and coat of arms with the heads of Moors on them. Military historian, Yaacov Lev in the article , “Army Regime and Society in Fatimid Egypt” (1987) wrote of Nasir Khusroes of the 11th century who speaks of the "20,000" Masmuda men that made up part of the Fatimid troops in Egypt in his time saying, “Masamida were Berbers from the Western Maghreb. Nasir-i Khusrau, however, says that they were blacks and characterized them as infantry who used lances and swords” (from International Journal of Middle East Studies, 19(3), 337-365).

They once occupied the Moroccan coast and a large part of the Atlas until the 10th century. The Masmuda were also the largest of the Berber tribes in Spain in the earlier centuries of Muslim rule there.

11th c. A.D.--The text, Akhbar al Zaman, compiled between the 10th and 11th centuries based on writings of the Syrian al-Masudi reads, “among the descendants of Sudan, son of Kan’an, are many nations, among them the Ishban, the Zanj, and many peoples that mutiplied in the Maghrib, about 70 of them”, while the Mukhtasar al Aja’ib (ca. 1000) also says similarly (Hopkins and Levtzion, p. 35; Salzman and 1997, p. 45; Goldenberg, p.107).
Masmuda Berbers of the Upper Atlas--also known as Shluh
11th c. A.D.--Ibn Butlan, Byzantine Christian physician of Iraq wrote, “The Berber women are from the Island of Barbara, which is between the west and the south. Their color is mostly black though some pale ones can be found among them. If you can find one whose mother is of Kutama, whose father is of Sanhaja, and whose origin is Masmuda, then you will find her naturally inclined to obedience and loyalty in all matters, active in service, suited both to motherhood and to pleasure, for they are the most solicitous in caring for their children.” Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages by Martha A. Brozyna, 2005 p. 303.

13th c. A.D.--Abu Shama refers to the Masmuda as "blacks" in his Kitab al-Ravdatayn (B. Lewis, Islam: Religion and Society, 2; 1974, p. 217).

The Masmuda or Masamida Berbers controlled the entirety of the western part of Maghreb or North West Africa between western Algeria and Morocco until the coming of another black population known as the Zanata Berbers of Botr, or El Abter stock. They also maintained power in many towns of Spain.
"Kel Owey girl of the Imakitan Tuareg"
A Kel Owey girl, member of the Imakitan Tuaregs (formerly called Ikitamen) now located in Niger and are known in Arab texts as the KITAMA or KUTAMA Berbers and anciently as the "Mauri" or "Ethiopian" colored people called Uacutameni, Micatateni or Mactunia manus. Centuries ago, the "Kutama branch of the Berbers inhabited the region of Little Kabylia" in Northern Algeria. See UNESCO's Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century, Ivan Hrbek et al., 1992, p. 164.

Little Kabylia in northeastern Algeria was also settled by the Romans and other early Europeans. St. Augustine's mother was a Berber while his father was a Roman. Kutama also dwelt in Mauretania between the Aures mountains and the seaboard where Germanic Vandals also settled. Similar to their Sanhaja brethren called Tuareg, early Kutama laimed descent from the Canaanites/Himyarites who came under Ifrikush, a descendant of Suwar. Their eponymic ancestor was "Katam" who may be the Kathim or Cathim of early Arabian legend and the Kha'tham of Arabian ethnology. (See Berbers as Canaanites posting on this blog)

14th c. A.D.--Many authors between the 5th and 15th century referred to Berbers as cursed and black due to their presumed descendancy from Cana'an and Ham. The Syrian, Al Dimashqi, (d.1327) wrote the Nukhbat al Dahr fi ajaib al barr wa’l – bahr, in which one section has the heading - “The Fifth Secton [of the Ninth Chapter] Concerning the Sons of Ham, Son of Nuh (peace be upon him!) Namely the Copts, the Nabateans, the Berbers and the Sudan with their Numerous Divisions”. He outlines some of the reasons commonly held for what he calls “the cause of the black complexion of the sons of Ham” - i.e. of the Copts, Kinanah, Berbers and Sudan. He stated, “It is said that Ham begat three sons Qift, Kan’an, and Kush. Qift is the ancestor of the Copts, Kush of the Sudan, and Kan’an of the Berbers…) (Hopkins, J. F. P., & Levtzion, N. (2000). Corpus of early Arabic sources for West African history. Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner Publishers, p. 213)
Tuareg of the Kel Essouk and Kel Iforas or Banu Ifren tribes of Mali were called ZANATA Berbers
14h c. A.D.--Ibn Khaldun whose family was from Andalusia also gave a telling explanation of why some people of his time believed Berbers had come to possess the black complexions they did. He writes, “Ham, having become black because of a curse pronounced against him by his father, fled to the Maghrib to hide in shame.... Berber, son of Kesloudjim [Casluhim], one of his descendants, left numerous posterity in the Maghrib” (Smith, R. (2003). “What happened to the ancient Libyans? Chasing sources across the Sahara from Herodotus to Ibn Khaldun,” Journal of World History 14:4, p. 482).

According to Ibn Khaldunm the largest of the Berber group in his time were the ZANATA Berbers--a "huge" proportion of which were the Jarawa, Garawan or Ghuara, a people of Zaghai or Songhai stock--also known as Wangara in the West African area south of the Sahara. Other Zanata Berbers were Tuareg groups, ancestors of the modern Kel Ifuras (called Banu Ifren in Arab texts), anciently called Pharusii and Ifuraces by the Greeks and Romans. A third were the Kel Imaqqoren or Imaghuran known as Maghrewat-es Sudan by Idrisi and known in ancient Nubia as Makhuria or Makharoba.

The Sanhaja Berbers were also among the 5 major Berber confederations that occupied north Africa the others being Masmuda, Zanata, Kitama and Ghumara. (The Ghumara still claim Masmuda/Shluh origins although no longer dark in color.) The Sanhaja were a mixture of Tuareg whose men wear the veil, the Wangara or Zaghai who founded several Songhai dynasties in the Sudan, and the Fulani or Fellata stock. They led the Almoravid movement which brought many Berbers and other Africans from Sudan into North Africa and Spain in one of the last of the Moorish conquests. This took place nearly 1000 years ago. They ruled between the 11th and 13th centuries in an area stretching from Spain to West Africa.

"19th century painting of Kabyle Berber"
"The Kabyles or Kabaily of Algerian and Tunisian territorys besides tillage, they work the mines contained in their mountains. They live in huts made of branches of trees and covered with clay which resemble the Magalia of the old Numidians. They are of middle stature, their complexion brown and sometimes nearly black.” from The Encyclopedia Britannica: Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and General Literature Henry G. Allen Company p. 261 Volume I 1890. According to James Prichard, Kabylia was a name of the mountainous areas of the north of Tunisia and Algeria and included those speaking the dialects called Showia. (See Researches into the Physical history of Mankind. Vol. II, 1851, p. 20) Colonial observers actually mention two distinct peoples of Kabylia, plus those who were a mixture between these. The ones described as dark brown and near black were said to live in Numidian type huts of the ancient Berbers called "Magalia". Others were of a different culture and appearance, quite fair in color, and according to recent scholars dress themselves and make jewelry and pottery like that of the early and modern inhabitants of the Balkans, Greeks and ancient Vandals. These fair skinned populations of the Algerian Kabyle area who speak the Berber dialects have palm prints and blood groupings which link them directly to the European peoples of the southern Mediterranean and are thus largely descendants of ancient and modern Europeans and Turks who have absorbed Berber or Kutama blood. Unlike the early matrifocal Berbers and modern Tuareg, they have also been documented as the most patrifocal people in Africa. (Algeria: A Country Study, 1985) The darker-skinned Kabyle groups mentioned above - "their complexion brown and sometimes nearly black" - are those whose origins belong to the ancient Berbers but, are almost never spoken of by modern observers. As stated by the colonialists, their culture is very different. Their dancing, for example, with rapid shoulder movement resembles that of modern Ethiopians and Eritraeans.

"Early photograph of Berber man of Kabylia"
In the 19th century Francisco Simonet who wrote "Historia de los Mozárabes de España" (History of the Mozarabs of Spain) found the way the Christians under Muslim rule (called Mozarabs) used the word "moro" "corresponded to the Castillian usage of which the term moro was applied to horses whose color is negro". In the 15th century, a book was written entitled, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and in it appears the phrase - "And men of Nubia be Christian, but they be as the Moors for great heat of the sun". In Europe through much of medieval history the term "black-e-moor", "blackamoor" or "black-ye moor" was also used for blacks who were not necessarily Muslim, but 'black as a Moor'. By the 16th and 17th century, the meaning of the word Moor came to include "tannimoors" or "tawny Moors" "black Moors" and "white Moors" often terms used to signify people of North Africa, Andalusia and Africa in general of any color who had mixed with or been Islamized by Arabians - Arabized peoples of Turkey the Caucasus, the Near East and Central Asia. However, the early 20th century Grafton Elliot Smith, a British anatomist, noted not long ago that in Morocco "the word Moor is often used to suggest Negro influence..." Human History,(p. 124, 1919).



Goldenberg, D. M. (2003). The curse of Ham: Race and slavery in eary Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Princeton Unviersity Press.

Hopkins, J. F. P., & Levtzion, N. (2000). Corpus of early Arabic sources for West African history. Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner Publishers.

Salzman, J., & West, C. (1997) Struggles in the promised land: Toward a history of Black-Jewish relations in the United States. NY: Oxford University Press.


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