Information about the Tuareg

The Tuareg (sometimes spelled Touareg in French, or Twareg in English) are a Berber ethnic group or nation. Tuareg is a name that became applied to them by early explorers and historians, but they call themselves variously, Kel Tamasheq, Kel Tamajaq ("speakers of Tamasheq"), Imouhar, Imuhagh, Imazaghan, or Imashaghen ("the free"). The Tuareg people also identify themselves with the concept Tamust, 'The Nation'. The meaning of the word Tuareg has been long discussed. It may have come from a Libyan region known today as Fezzan, but once called Targa. The Arabic word "Targui", for Tuareg, may have derived from the Targa valley, the main city Ubari west of Sebha. Alternatively, Tuareg may have come from a Bedouin pronunciation of the Arabic Tawariq ("abandoned by God", singular Tarqi). The Tuareg today are found mostly in West Africa, but, like many in Northern Africa, were once nomads throughout the Sahara.


Descended from Berbers in the region that is now Libya, the Tuareg are descendants of ancient Saharan peoples described by Herodotus, who mentions the ancient Libyan people, the Garamantes. Archaeological testimony is the ruins of Germa, the modern Tuareg descended from the Garamantes. Later, they expanded southward, into the Sahel.

For over two millennia, the Tuareg operated the trans-Saharan caravan trade connecting the great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara via five desert trade routes to the northern (Mediterranean) coast of Africa.

The Tuareg adopted camel nomadism along with its distinctive form of social organization from camel-herding Arabs about two thousand years ago, when the camel was introduced to the Sahara from Saudi Arabia. Like numerous African and other groups in pre-modern times, the Tuareg once took captives, either for trade or for domestic purposes; those who were not sold became assimilated into the Tuareg community. Captive servants and herdsmen formed a component of the division of labor in camel nomadism. Among Tuareg, the work of pastoralism was specialized according to social class: warrior-aristocrats who organized group defense, livestock raids, and the long-distance caravan trade; vassal-herdsmen who pastured and tended most of the confederation's livestock; and blacksmith-clients who fabricated and repaired the saddles, tools, household equipment and other material needs of the community. After the adoption of Islam, a separate class of religious clerics also became integral to Tuareg social structure.

In the early nineteenth century, the Tuareg resisted the French invasion of their Central Saharan homelands for the purpose of colonization. Tuareg broadswords were no match for the cannons and automatic rifles of French squadrons, and after numerous massacres, the Tuareg were subdued and required to sign treaties in Mali 1905 and Niger 1917. In southern Algeria, the French met some of the strongest resistance from the Ahaggar Tuareg. Their Amenokal, traditional chief Moussa ag Amastan, fought numerous battles in defense of the region. Finally, Tuareg territories were taken under French governance and their confederations were largely dismantled and re-organized. Before French colonization, the Tuareg were organized into loose confederations, each consisting of a dozen or so tribes. Each of the main groups had a traditional leader called Amenokal, along with an assembly of tribal chiefs: Imgharan, singular Amghar. The groups were: Kel-Ahaggar, Ajjer, Kel-Ayr, Adrar N'Fughas, Iwellemidan, and Kel Gres. Following the independence of African countries in 1960s, Tuareg territory was artificially divided into modern nations: Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso.

Areas where significant numbers of Tuaregs liveLong-standing competition for resources in the Sahel has impacted Tuareg conflicts with neighboring African groups, especially after political disruption and economic constraints following French colonization, tight restrictions placed on nomadization, and desertification exacerbated by global warming and the increased firewood needs of growing cities. Today, some Tuareg are experimenting with farming; some have been forced to abandon herding, and seek jobs in towns and cities.

In Mali, a Tuareg uprising re-surfaced in the Adrar N'Fughas mountains in the 1960s, following Mali's independence. In May 1990, in the aftermath of a clash between government soldiers and Tuareg outside a prison in Tchin-Tabaraden, Niger, Tuaregs in both Mali and Niger claimed autonomy for their traditional homeland: (Tenere, capital Agadez, in Niger and the Azawad and Kidal regions of Mali). Deadly clashes between Tuareg freedom-fighters and the military of both countries followed, with deaths numbering well into the thousands. Negotiations initiated by France and Algeria led to peace agreements (January 11, 1992 in Mali and 1995 in Niger). Both agreements called for decentralization of national power and guaranteed the integration of Tuareg resistance fighters into the countries' respective national armies.

Major fighting between the Tuareg resistance and government security forces ended after the 1995 and 1996 agreements, but in 2004, sporadic fighting continued in Niger between government forces and groups struggling to obtain Tuareg independence.

Tuareg territory

The Tuareg people inhabit a large area covering almost all the middle and western Sahara and the north-central Sahel. In Tuareg terms, the Sahara is not one desert, but many. Thus they call it Tinariwen, meaning "the deserts". Among the many deserts in north-west Africa there is the true desert Tenere. Then we can cite numerous deserts more and less arid, flat and mountainous: Adrar, Tagant, Tawat (Touat) Tanezruft, Adghagh N'Fughas, Tamasna, Azawagh, Adar, Damargu, Tagama, Manga, Ayr, Tarramit (Termit), Kawar, Jado, Tadmait, Admer, Igharghar, Ahaggar, Tassili N'Ajjer, Tadrart, Idhan, Tanghart, Fezzan, Tibesti. Kalansho, Libyan Desert, etc.

Tuareg confederations, political centers, and leaders

At the turn of the 19th century the Tuareg country was organized into confederations, each ruled by a supreme Chief (Amenokal), along with a counsel of senior tribesmen elected to assist the chief.
  • Kel Azjar or Ajjer, center Aghat (Ghat).
  • Kel Ahaggar, in Ahaggar mountains
  • Kel Adagh, or Kel Assuk, Kidal, and Tin Buktu
  • Iwillimmidan Kel Ataram, Manaka, and Azawagh region
  • Iwillimmidan Kel Denneg, In Tibaraden, Abalagh, Teliya Azawagh.
  • Kel Gres, Zinder and Tanut (Tanout).
  • Kel Ayr, Asode, Agadez, In Gal, Timia and Ifrwan.
The most famous Tuareg leader was a woman, Tin Hinan, heroine and spiritual leader who founded a legendary kingdom in the Ahaggar mountains. Other confederation leaders followed under the title of Amenokal (Chief); among the famous:
  • Karidanna, of the Iwillimmidan
  • Musa Ag Amastan, of Kel Ahaggar
  • Ibrahim Ag Abakkada, of Kel Azjar
  • Amud, of Kel Azjar
  • Makhammad Ag Katami, of Iwillimmidan
  • Balkhu, of Kel Ayr
  • Wan Agoda, of Kel Fadey (Kel Ayr)
  • Ahit Aghal, of Kel Ahaggar
  • Akhakhokhan, of Kel Azjar
  • Khadakhada, of Iwillimidan
  • Alkhurer, of Iwillimidan
  • Bazu, Iwillimidan
  • Makhammad Wan Ag Alkhurer Iwillimidan

The Tuareg are matrilineal, though not matriarchal. Unlike many Muslim societies, the women do not traditionally wear the veil, whereas the men do. The most famous Tuareg symbol is the Tagelmust, their veil often blue indigo colored. The men's facial covering originates from the belief that such action wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well; in any event, it is a firmly established tradition (as is the wearing of amulets containing verses from the Qur'an). Men begin wearing a veil when they reach maturity which usually conceals their entire face excluding their eyes.

Traditionally, Tuareg society is hierarchal, with nobility and vassals; formerly, like most other Africans, they also held slaves ("Iklan"), often war prisoners, darker than the generally brown-skinned Tuareg. Traditionally, the traders had a higher status than all but the nobility among their more settled compatriots to the south. With time, that difference has eroded, corresponding to the economic fortunes of the two groups.

Many Tuareg today are either settled agriculturalists or nomadic cattle breeders; there are also still blacksmiths, camel breeders, and caravan leaders.

The Tuareg are sometimes called the "Blue People" because the indigo pigment in the cloth of their traditional robes and turbans stained the wearer's skin dark blue. Today, the traditional indigo turban is still preferred for celebrations, and generally Tuaregs wear clothing and turbans in a variety of colors.


The Tuareg speak Tamajaq/Tamasheq/Tamahaq, a southern Berber language having several dialects among the different regions. Berber is an Afro-Asiatic language closely related to Pharaohnic Egyptian and Semitic. The language is called Tamasheq by western Tuareg in Mali, Tamahaq among Algerian and Libyan Tuareg, and Tamajaq in the Azawagh and Ar regions, Niger. The Tamajaq writing system, Tifinagh (also called Shifinagh), descends directly from the original Berber script used by the Numidians in pre-Roman times.


The Tuareg have been predominantly Muslim since the 16th century, though some are lax in observance, more inclined to observe feasts than fasts. They combine Sunni Islam (specifically the Maliki madhhab, popular in North and West Africa) with certain pre-Islamic animistic beliefs, including spirits of nature (Kel Asuf) and such syncretic beliefs as divination through means of the Qur'an.


Much Tuareg art is in the form of jewellery, leather and metal saddle decorations called 'Trik', and finely crafted swords. The Inadan community makes traditional handicrafts. Among their products are: Tanaghilt or Zakkat (the 'Agadez Cross' or 'Croix d'Agadez'); the Tuareg Takoba, a nearly one meter long sword, with red leather cover; many beautiful gold and silver-made necklaces called 'Takaza'; and earrings called 'Tizabaten'.

Traditional Music

Traditional Tuareg music has two major components: the moncord violin Anzad played often during night parties and a small tambour covered with goatskin called Tende, perfomed during camel race and other festivities. Another popular Tuareg musical genre is Takamba, characteristic for its Afro-Berber percussions.

Tinariwen, a Tuareg band that fuses electric guitars and indigenous musical styles, was founded in the 1980s by rebel fighters. They released their first CD in 2000, and toured in Europe and the United States in 2004.

Many music groups emerged after the 1980s cultural revival. Among them Tartit, Imaran and known artists are: Abdallah Oumbadougou from Ayr, Baly Othmany of Djanet.

Ethnic Classification

The Tuareg are a Berber group, and are closely related to both Northwest African Berbers and West Africans , in terms of culture and race. At least some sources argue that the Tuareg are defined by language, not by race, and that predominantly Middle Eastern and/or Black African Tamasheq speakers qualify as "Tuareg" (and, presumably, by implication, individuals of Tuareg descent but who have assimilated into various countries and do not speak Tamasheq languages do not). (See, for example, [1]). This is probably part of the reason for the widely varying estimates of the number of Tuareg.

  • University of Iowa's Art and Life in Africa Online: Tuareg - http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Tuareg.html
  • Origin and History of the Tuaregs - http://tuaregs.free.fr/tuareg_e/pages/origin/origin-e_nsf.htm
  • The Massacres at Tchin Tarabaden: 10 years later!. This press release (7 May 2000), while polemical, is useful for a pro-Tuareg view of the conflicts in Mali and Niger. - http://membres.lycos.fr/temoust/press_release7500.htm
  • Rando et al. (1998) Mitochondrial DNA analysis of northwest African populations reveals genetic exchanges with European, near-eastern, and sub-Saharan populations. Annals of Human Genetics 62(6): 531-50; Watson et al. (1996) mtDNA sequence diversity in Africa. American Journal of Human Genetics 59(2): 437-44; Salas et al. (2002) The Making of the African mtDNA Landscape. American Journal of Human Genetics 71: 1082-1111. These are good sources for information on the genetic heritage of the Tuareg and their relatedness to other populations.
  • Ethnologue 14 pages for Niger, Mali, etc., used for population estimates. - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnologue
  • Tuareg is not an Ethnos, accessed 2 Feb 2004, available on Internet Archive at [2]. Cited for the low-end estimate of population. - http://wwwusers.imaginet.fr/~yusuf/introduction.html
External links

Maps of Niger, pictures of Agadez, Tuaregs, and handcraft from Niger; also a forum (in French) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuareg

The above includes excerpts from Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia:

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