Introduction / History
The Amazigh, also known as Berbers, are the indigenous people of North Africa. They are a strong and proud people. The very name Amazigh is often translated to mean "free or noble men". There were people from North Africa present in Jerusalem at the day of Pentecost. The church was established among Berbers in the early centuries of Christianity, and some of the great North African church fathers were of Berber heritage.
When Islam swept through North Africa in the 7th century, many pockets of the Amazigh tried to fight the invasion. They resisted Islam's advance ten different times in history, outwardly saying they would become Muslims, but then returning to their villages and refusing to practice the religion. They intentionally built conspicuous white mosques at the top of the mountains to deceive Muslim invaders. As they passed, seeing the mosque in the distance, they would assume the village had already converted and continue on their way.
Early generations kept their Christian heritage in secret and outwardly submitted to Islamic rule. The symbolism of the cross can still be found throughout Amazigh architecture, designs on handmade carpets, and even tattoos on women's faces. Today, however, they have no understanding of their Christian heritage.
Tunisia's first president following French colonization, Habib Bourguiba (1957) worked hard to unify the country. Amazigh villages were traditionally fortified in strong mountain areas. Bourguiba incentivized the Amazigh to abandon their cultural identity in exchange for one "Tunisian Arab" identity. At first, he tried to build cities and communities down in the plains to force integration and to draw the Amazigh out of their strong mountain fortifications. When the Amazigh refused to comply, he burned their books, removed their language from schools, and worked to erase much of the culture.
The 2011 Revolution that ousted the country's second president (Zine El- Abidine Ben Ali) from power sparked a renewal of the Amazigh culture and identity. Renewed pride and freedom to identify as Amazigh has resulted in many clubs, cultural centers, and organizations focused on retaining and building the Amazigh language and culture.
Where are they located?
The Amazigh of Siliana live in the mountainous city of Kisra Elaalia in north-central Tunisia. There are about 800 Amazigh in this town of approximately 3000 people.
What are their lives like?
The differences between the Amazigh and the rest of the inhabitants of Kisra are not visible to the casual observer. The greatest differences about this group can only be observed in the customs and traditions they observe in their homes. Their public life looks very similar to their Arab neighbors.
The Amazigh of Kisra have a good relationship with their Arab neighbors. As a result, their language has been disappearing. Today, it is mostly the elderly who still speak the Chilha dialect. They number around 80 people. The rest speak Arabic at home and learn French in school.
The Amazigh of Kisra in Siliana have a good relationship with the other ethnic groups in Tunisia. However, their exposure is almost entirely limited to their Tunisian Arab neighbors who share the town with them.
Their primary livelihood comes from farming and some possess cattle. Some work in private professions.
What are their beliefs?View Amazigh, Siliana in all countries.
The inhabitants of Kisra Elaalia are Muslims, following the Maliki school, which is the same denomination as their Tunisian Arab majority. This sets this Amazigh group apart from the rest of the Amazigh in Tunisia, who follow the Ibadi school.
Muslims follow the teaching of Muhammad, who lived in the 6-7th centuries in Saudi Arabia. They believe in one God, whom they call Allah (Arabic for "the God"). At judgment day, all people will be judged for their deeds and, if their good works outweigh their bad, then Allah will welcome them into paradise. If not, then they will be sentenced to eternal hell. In order to obtain salvation, they must follow the five pillars of Islam: prayer five times a day, fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan, giving to the poor, and, if possible, a pilgrimage to Mecca, to be done at least once in their lifetime (Hajj). Regarding Jesus, they believe that he was a prophet, but that his teachings are inferior to those of Muhammad.