The Ancient Tuaregs

The Ancient Tuaregs, Lost Lords of the Sahara


The Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert in the world, and the third largest desert in the world (after Antarctica and the Arctic, which are classified as cold deserts). At 9.4 million square kilometres, this vast desert covers much of North Africa. As much of the desert receives less than 3 cm of rain a year, and its rivers (apart from the Nile) are irregular and seasonal, life is extremely harsh for its inhabitants. Yet, there are those who call the Sahara Desert home, one of them being the Tuaregs, a population who can trace their roots back thousands of years.

The Tuaregs live in one of the harshest environments in the world

The Tuaregs live in one of the harshest environments in the world ( Wikimedia Commons )

According to one source, the word ‘Tuareg’ has its origins in the Arabic language, and means ‘abandoned by the gods’. Other sources argue, however, that the word is derived from Targa, a city in the southern Libyan region of Fezzan, and that a Tuareg is an inhabitant of that city. The Tuaregs themselves do not particularly like this term, and prefer using the term ‘Imashaghen’ or Imohag, meaning ‘free men’.

The 5 th century Greek historian Herodotus recorded that during his time, the region of southern Libya was inhabited by a tribe known as the Garamantes. It has been speculated that these were the ancient people from whom the Tuaregs could trace their ancestry. According to Tuareg folklore, their tribe’s origins can be traced back to the legendary Queen Tin Hinan and her servant Takamet, believed to have lived during the 3 rd or 4 th century A.D. When the Arabs began their conquest of the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) during the 7 th century, the Tuaregs started their continuous migration south-west. By the 11 th century, the Tuaregs arrived in Niger, and were recorded to have even founded the city of Timbuktu. The arrival of the Tuaregs placed a great pressure on the indigenous tribes, who were eventually overrun and pushed southwards.


Tuareg men in traditional dress in the Saharan Desert of Mali.

Tuareg men in traditional dress in the Saharan Desert of Mali. Bradley Watson/ Flickr

By the 14 th century, the Tuaregs were converted to the Islamic faith, which has remained their religion ever since. From their new territory, the Tuaregs were able to engage in the Trans-Saharan trade, where gold, salt and black slaves passed their cities on their way to the North African coast. These resources, which would eventually end up in Europe and the Levant, brought them great wealth. By the 19 th century, a new power came to North Africa – France. Initially, the French had no interest in colonising the Saharan territories. Competition with Great Britain and other European powers during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries, however, caused them to extend their colonial rule across Tuareg territory.

French rule was not particularly welcome, and the Tuaregs despised many of their colonial master’s policies. These included the exploitation of Tuareg labour and resources, the conscription of Tuaregs as soldiers in the French Army, heavy taxes, and attempts to ban certain Tuareg traditions and practices, such as the owning of ancestral slaves and raids carried out on neighbouring tribes. As a result of this dissent, the Tuaregs began to revolt against the French colonialists in an attempt to regain their independence, though they were unsuccessful.

A Tuareg wearing the Tajelmust. French view of a Tuareg man from Timbuktu, c.1890s

A Tuareg wearing the Tajelmust. French view of a Tuareg man from Timbuktu, c.1890s. ( Wikimedia Commons )

In 1960, the French began granting independence to their West African colonies. As the emerging countries around the Sahara began building their own territories, the Tuaregs were left out. Discontented with the fact that they were not allowed autonomous rule, the Tuaregs rebelled in 1963, this time against the newly formed country of Mali. Although the rebellion was crushed by the end of 1964, it was revived again in the 1990s, as the grievances of the Tuareg had not been addressed by the Malian government in the previous decades. This rebellion was also underway in neighbouring Niger, where initial efforts to integrate Tuaregs into the new country had gone to waste with a change of regime in 1974. Whilst a peace was negotiated in 1995, it was an uneasy one, and not agreed upon by all Tuareg groups. As of today, the Tuareg fight for independence still goes on, and a permanent solution remains nowhere in sight.

Featured image: Queen Tin Hinan of the Tuaregs by Hocine Ziani ( Wikimedia Commons )

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By Ḏḥwty



rbflooringinstall's picture

Awesome article, but what were they before they were Islamic?


Peace and Love,


dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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