History & Politics
The first wave of foreigners to dominate Algeria were the Phoenicians, who settled along the coast around 1,000BC. Their hold began to wane as the Roman empire gained in strength.
One of the most important collections of rock art can be found at Tassili N’Ajjer – see Map – where prehistoric paintings (dating from 6,000BC) depict early hunter-gatherers. While Europe was experiencing the Ice Age, the Sahara was a land of lakes, grasses and forests. Stone age culture and farming eventually spread into the region and the Berbers (indigenous people of North Africa) are believed to have descended from these early communities.
By 100BC, the Romans had set up around 500 colonies across North Africa. To the east, the local Berber populations fell into the Roman region of 'Numidia', to the west into 'Mauritania'. With its fertile agricultural land, this part of North Africa was known as ‘the granary of the empire’.
By AD429, the Vandals had arrived from over the water in Spain. Their stay was relatively brief. The Byzantine emperor Justinian (based in Constantinople/modern-day Istanbul) took back coastal territories into the eastern Roman empire.
Byzantine control ended when the Arabs began their conquest of North Africa from AD647. Christian Berbers were converted in large numbers to Islam.
Despite accepting the new religion, many tribes wanted to retain their own customs. So began a history of conflict between Berber cultures and ruling Arab dynasties.
The Pirate Barbarossa
In 1515, the pirate Barbarossa and his brother seized Algiers, which they offered to the Ottoman Turks. In return, he was appointed governor and later admiral of their fleet. Barbarossa was the most famous of many pirates (known as 'Barbary corsairs') who terrorised Mediterranean shipping in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In 1492, the Spanish set up strongholds in cities such as Oran, Tlemcen and Algiers. However, their influence was soon contested by the Ottoman Turks, who took control over much of North Africa in the 16th century. Algiers became the centre of Ottoman power, though inland Berber tribes such as the Kabylie (see People & Culture) enjoyed considerable freedom.
In 1830, the French attacked Algiers and took control of prime land. By 1871, all northern parts were under French control. The Tuareg of the south succumbed in the first decade of the 20th century.
Under French rule, European settlers – French, Italian, Maltese and Spanish – confiscated large tracts of land. Local Algerians were given no status or education.
In the run-up to World War II, an Algerian nationalist movement formed. After the war and severe civil unrest, the French gave Algerian Muslims the right to French citizenship in 1947. But it was not enough; the struggle for independence continued. After eight years of warfare, in which over a million Algerians died, Algeria finally won its independence in 1962.
Civil war and modern-day Algeria
Devastated by years of war and lack of investment, Algeria began rebuilding itself under one political party, which followed socialist and secular policies. Despite the discovery of oil and gas, severe economic times pushed many towards ultra-conservative and radical Islamic groups.
Multiparty elections in 1991 were won by the Islamic Salvation Front and the army stepped in to run the country. Civil war ensued and by 2000, an estimated 100,000 people had died.
Today, Algeria is peaceful once more under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has made great efforts to heal the recent scars. However, worries remain about high unemployment and the growth of militant Islamic groups.