North Africa: A History from the Mediterranean Shore to the Sahara By Barnaby Rogerson 432 pages. Gerald Duckworth & Co: 2012. Previously published as The Traveller’s History of North Africa (1998).
From ancient Carthage to modern day Casablanca, and covering nearly 3000 years, North Africa: A History from the Mediterranean Shore to the Sahara covers the history of the whole of North Africa, of what is now present day Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. Formerly of the The Traveller’s History series, it’s aimed at the traveller who wants a more historical background to their travels. The author, Barnaby Rogerson, is a writer of numerous travel guides, and familiar to some readers for his readable biography on Muhammad. He proves himself a warm and sympathetic guide to what is an immensely enjoyable history.
In focusing on the region as a whole, rather than on one country in isolation, as is usual, Rogerson provides a richer narrative detailing the intertwining connections and common heritage these countries share. Rogerson begins his story with the roots of ancient Carthage, its rise and eventual defeat in the Punic Wars, defeated by the region’s superpower, the Roman Empire. He charts its eventual decline, and the short flowering of African Christianity. With a brief excursion to Arabian Peninsula, recounting the birth of Islam, Rogerson follows its armies as they swiftly conquer the whole of North Africa. He writes sympathetically of the rise and fall of Berber armies, the conquest and loss of Spain, and the petty intrigues of medieval dynasties. He continues with the Ottoman influence over the region, and the plucky independence of Morocco.
He mourns the gradual ascendancy of Europe, culminating in the cruel and self-serving colonisation of the region by European powers, with France snatching Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, and Italy gulping down Libya. The bitterness of the wars of independence are told with especial verve and heart searing tragedy. He finishes with case studies of each country, as one by one they succumb to petty dictatorship or military junta. In the aftermath of independence, he doesn’t fail to point out the success stories amongst the easy corruption and stagnancy, ending with a slightly colourless post script updating the story until 2008. With plenty of maps throughout the book, there are useful appendices detailing all the rulers of North Africa, a gazetteer – handy as a quick reference for the many names mentioned. Even more useful is the detailed bibliography annotated with helpful commentary, perfect for the whetted appetite.
Rogerson gives satisfyingly even coverage between the classical period, Islamic period, and the modern period dominated by European ascendancy, the former often neglected by European historians. I found many favourite passages; on marauding Berber tribes, charismatic tribal leaders and pious emirs, and of course the swashbuckling exploits of Ottoman corsairs. Because of his deep affection, he manages to reverse many of the stereotypes that pervade European history. How different the Punic Wars seems from Carthage’s perspective?, and who would think that only because of an accidental absence of the right resources did the West colonise North Africa, and not the other way round? Or that in WW2 the liberation of Algeria from France by the German Afrikakorps, led to a decrease in human rights wrongs that was committed, which immediately increased once the war ended?
Rogerson is never afraid to tell a good story, or recount an anecdote, or point out a beautiful mosque or minaret or in recommending a dish. Saints and warriors, of scholars and kings sprinkle the narrative, and deft portraits are given of familiar names; of Hannibal, Augustine, Ibn Khaldun, or even De Gaulle, as well as many lesser known others. You may find yourself, as I often did, nodding and smiling as normally disconnected names, are seamlessly woven into the narrative, – ah yes Imam Sahnun, o there’s Imam Juzuli, and of course Barbarossa.
North Africa is brilliant for those who want an introductory history before they visit the region. It’s also an excellent gap ‘filler’ for those who want brush up on their general knowledge and almost a perfect history for those who don’t normally read history. This is history as it should be written, and I’m sure it will not be long, until you find yourself, as I did, longing to visit.