The Natural Setting of Muslim North Africa
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The term North Africa, as a geographical area, is used to cover a region that differs among researchers. Abu-Lughod (1976, 1979) and Clarke (1973), for example, used the term to cover Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Others exclude Egypt (Blake, 1974) and a third group adds Sudan to the list. Lawless (1981), Valensi (1977) and most French researchers used North Africa to mean the Maghreb region, which extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Mediterranean Sea in the east, covering only the countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
The region, extending from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, covers an area of 2,996,000 km2 and has a population of more than 70 million people (Table 1). This vast land is marked by a variety of relief which runs from the west to the east in a succession of strips . The coastal area forms the first strip extending over 3000 km from the Atlantic coast in the west of Morocco to the eastern Mediterranean coast in the east of Tunisia. This band contains pockets of fertile plains namely in the Moroccan western coast, central coast of Algeria, and eastern coast of Tunisia. It is succeeded by a chain of mountains, the Tell Atlas Mountains which reach a height of 2,308 m (Djurdjura) in Algeria and 2,456 m in the Rif Mountains (Tidighin) in Morocco. Behind this chain lie the High Plains, extending from the east of Morocco to the east of Algeria near the Tunisian frontier. This area is famous for wheat production. To the south of the High Plains, a second chain of mountains, the Sahara Atlas, extends from the centre of Tunisia to Morocco where it joins with the Haut Atlas Mountains. The Sahara Atlas attains a height of 2,320 m in the Aures region (Chelia and Nememcha Mountains) in eastern Algeria, and 4,165 m in the Toubkal Mountains in the Haut Atlas in Morocco. To the south of these mountains lies the Sahara Desert.
North Africa falls under the Mediterranean climate but is also influenced by the subtropical weather conditions which dominate the Sahara. The Mediterranean influence results in a wet cold winter season mostly in the northern part. The effect of the sub-tropical climate appears in summer when the hot dry weather is predominant for a period extending from three to five months with temperatures reaching 28 and 30 degrees C in the coastal regions.
The characteristics of the land have had a great impact on the distribution of the population and thus urban settlements. Higher density settlements are found on the coastal plains along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. In the interior, towns are mainly located in the high plains, but only a few are found in the Sahara. Mountains are only occupied by villages and small hamlets. The role of the climate is visible in the concentration of towns in the northern region where the Mediterranean climate is predominant. In the south, the Sahara with its hot dry climate does not provide ideal conditions for the development of settlements, and only a handful of small towns are found there. Furthermore, the effects of climate also appear in settlement and building design and material. This is very noticeable in early towns such as the narrow covered streets of the medina which provide shelter from the summer hot sun and allow cool air to circulate. Similar provisions are used in the buildings such as those found in the south where particular forms and materials were introduced to escape the heat.
On the other hand, the geographic location of the North African region has ensured that it has remained close to successive Mediterranean civilisations and a gateway to Africa. Its plains, climate and wealth have played a major role in raising its strategic importance and attracted many civilisations which brought it prosperity and cultural richness, and established an advanced settlement system. It attracted the Romans for its wheat and animals while through it Islam reached Spain and Europe. The Spanish and Portuguese conquered parts of North Africa and still hold parts of northern Morocco. Finally, imperial France colonised it in late 18th century. Much of today's urban settlements carry the finger prints of these successive civilisations. However, the impact of Islam in its lasting and overwhelming influence is unique.
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Population in 2000
450,000 km 2
Table 1 General indicators on North Africa.
Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision, http://www.learnstuff.com/world-population-resources.
by: FSTC Limited. , Wed 05 May, 2004