The history of Northern Africa comes to the fore in both particular ingredients and dishes that are shared by most Maghrebi as well as in regional differentiation between specific dishes and ingredients. Islamization in the seventh century can, of course, be recognized in the prohibition of pork or wine, although flourishing vineyards can be found throughout North Africa. Arab influences that accompanied early Islamization, such as the consumption of rice, native east African vegetables such okra and mlûkhîa Jew’s mellow and the use of fliyu and mint in meat and vegetable dishes, are more pronounced in east Algeria and Tunisia than in regions further removed from the Levant, such as western Algeria and Morocco. All three countries have adopted the Arab preservation technique of drying meat, called gedîd, in which salt and spices are rubbed into the meat, which is then left to dry in the sun.
The distinction between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa is historically and ecologically significant because of the general barrier created by the Sahara Desert for much of modern history. The Sahara is the dominant feature of the North African landscape, and stretches across the southern part of the region. The Sahara serves as a geographical boundary between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa and marks a transition zone from the largely Arab identifying population of North Africa to black Africa of the south.
The Sahara desert has therefore played an important role in the history of North Africa. As the seafaring civilizations of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and others facilitated communication and migration across the Mediterranean Sea, the cultures of North Africa became much more closely tied to Southwestern Asia and Europe than Sub-Saharan Africa. The Islamic influence in the area is also significant, and North Africa is a major part of the Muslim world.
The mountains have been of the utmost importance in the historical development of the area. They run generally from east to west, parallel to the Mediterranean coast, with their highest elevations in the Atlas ranges. They are not continuous but constitute separate blocks, especially in the coastal areas. Although it was in the mountains that precipitation was highest, the forest there was intractable, and early settlements tended to choose the plains and valleys between or south of the mountains.
The Mediterranean coast—separated from Europe by only 8 miles (13 km) at the Strait of Gibraltar—is extremely inhospitable for much of its length, offering few natural harbours and still fewer natural lines of communication into the interior. Even the major rivers, such as the Majardah (Medjerda) and the Chelif, are unnavigable. Only in northeastern Tunisia is the coastline more favourable, and the main movement of culture and conquest has naturally been from there westward.
North Africa has three main geographic features: the Sahara desert in the south, the Atlas Mountains in the west, and the Nile River and delta in the east. The Atlas Mountains extend across much of northern Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. These mountains are part of the fold mountain system that also runs through much of Southern Europe. They recede to the south and east, becoming a steppe landscape before meeting the Sahara desert, which covers more than 75 percent of the region. The tallest peaks are in the High Atlas range in south-central Morocco, which has many snowcapped peaks. The coastal strip in the area of Tripoli (Ṭarābulus) in western Libya is an extension of Tunisia’s coastal plain. To the east some 800 miles (1,300 km) of the Surt Desert separates it from Cyrenaica at the eastern end of modern Libya. Settlement there was effectively confined to the Akhḍar Mountains and did not extend more than about 70 miles (110 km) south of the coast.
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