Berber calendar

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Seasons in North Africa: Atlas Mountains in January and April

The Berber calendar is the agricultural calendar traditionally used by Berbers. It is also known as the fellaḥi (ﻓﻼّﺣﻲ "rustic" or ﻋﺠﻤﻲ ʿajamī "foreign" calendar). The calendar is utilized to regulate the seasonal agricultural works. It is used in lieu of the Islamic calendar, a lunar calendar considered ill-adapted for agriculture because it does not relate to seasonal cycles.[1]

The current Berber calendar is a legacy of the Roman province of Mauretania Caesariensis, as it is a surviving form of the Julian calendar. The latter calendar was used in Europe before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, with month names derived from Latin. Berber populations previously used various indigenous calendars, such as that of the Guanche autochthones of the Canary Islands. However, relatively little is known of these ancient calendrical systems.

Older calendars

Not much is known about the division of time among the ancient Berbers. Some elements of a pre-Islamic, and almost certainly a pre-Roman calendar, emerge from some medieval writings, analyzed by Nico van den Boogert. Some correspondences with the traditional Tuareg calendar suggest that in antiquity there existed, with some degree of diffusion, a Berber time computation, organized on native bases.

Tab. 1 – The Berber months
drawn from medieval works

  (van den Boogert 2002)
  Name of the month "Meaning"
1 tayyuret tezwaret The first small moon
2 tayyuret teggwerat The last small moon
3 yardut  ?
4 sinwa  ?
5 tasra tezwaret The first herd
6 tasra teggwerat The last herd
7 awdayeɣet yezwaren The first antelope babies
8 awdayeɣet yeggweran The last antelope babies
9 awzimet yezwaren The first gazelle babies
10 awzimet yeggweran The last gazelle babies
11 ayssi / aysi  ?
12 nim  ?

There are not enough elements to reconstruct this calendar fully, but known characteristics include many month names' appearing in couples (in the Tuareg world, even in triplets), which suggests a time division different from the present one, made up of months of about 30 days.

Some further information, although difficult to specify and correlate with the situation in the rest of North Africa, may be deduced from what is known about time computation among the Guanches of the Canary Islands. According to a 17th-century manuscript by Tomás Marín de Cubas, they

computed their year, called Acano, by lunations of 29 days (suns) beginning from the new moon. It began in summer, when the sun enters in Cancer, on June 21: at the first conjunction (at the first new moon after the Summer solstice) they celebrated nine festival days for the crop.[2]

The same manuscript states (although somewhat obscurely) that graphical-pictorical records of such calendarial events (tara) were made on different supports, and on this basis some modern scholars identified alleged descriptions of astronomical events connected to annual cycles in a series of geometric paintings in some caves of Gran Canaria island, but the results of these studies are for now highly speculative.[3]

The name of only one month is known in the native language, handed down as Beñesmet. It seems it was the second month of the year, corresponding to August.[4] Such a name, in case it was made up by something like *wen "that of" + (e)smet (or (e)zmet?), may correspond, in the list of medieval Berber month names, with the ninth and tenth months, awzimet (properly aw "baby of" + zimet "gazelle"). But data are too scarce for this hypothesis to be deepened.[5]

Current Julian calendar

The agricultural Berber calendar still in use is almost certainly derived from the Julian calendar, introduced in the Roman province of Africa at the time of Roman domination. Evidence includes the following:

  • the names of the months of this calendar (both in Berber language and in Maghrebi Arabic), derive from the corresponding Latin names;
  • the beginning of the year (the first day of yennayer) corresponds to the 14th day of January in the Gregorian calendar, which coincides with the offset accumulated during the centuries between astronomical dates and the Julian calendar;
  • the length of the year and of the individual months is the same as in the Julian calendar: three years of 365 days followed by a leap year of 366, without exceptions, and 30- and 31-day months, except for the second one that has 28 days. The only slight discrepancy lies in that the extra day in leap years is not usually added at the end of February, but at the end of the year.

Jean Servier has doubted that the calendar descends directly from the Julian calendar of the Latin era, and has hypothesized that is came from a Coptic calendar brought into North Africa by Arabs.[6][page needed] However, the structure of the Copt calendar is extremely different from that of the Berber one: although both the Berber and Coptic calendars are synchronized with the Julian, Coptic months are all 30 days, with a five-day (six-day in leap years) intercalarary "month" to synchronize with the solar year, and the Coptic year begins in late summer (29 or 30 August according to the Julian calendar). Moreover, traces of the Roman calendar denominations of Kalends, Nones and Ides exist: El Qabisi, an Islamic jurisconsult by Kairawan who lived in the 11th century, condemned the custom of celebrating "pagans'" festivals and cited, among traditional habits of North Africa, that of observing January Qalandas ("Kalends").[7]


There are standard forms for the names of the Amazigh (Berber) calendar. The table below also provides the forms used in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. In some areas they may be different due to poor communication and manipulation by the government.[citation needed] Moreover, pronunciation differs according to the region.

Tab. 2 – The names of the months in various zones of Berber and Arab North Africa
Month Riffian (north Morocco) Shilha (south Morocco) Kabyle (Algeria) Berber of Djerba (Tunisia) Tunisian Arabic Libyan Arabic
January Yennayer innayr (ye)nnayer yennár yennayer yannayer
February Yebrayer brayr furar furár fura(ye)r febrayer
March Mares marṣ meghres mars mars mars
April Yebrir ibrir (ye)brir ibrír abril ibril
May May mayyu(h) maggu mayu mayu mayu
June Yunyu yunyu(h) yunyu yunyu yunyu yunyu
July Yulyuz yulyuz yulyu(z) yulyu yulyu yulyu
August Ɣuct ghusht ghusht ghusht aghusht aghustus
September Cutembir (c=sh) shutambir shtember shtámber shtamber september
October Ktuber kṭubr (k)tuber ktúber uktuber uktuber
November Nwambir nuwambir nu(ne)mber numbír nufember nuvamber
December Dujembir dujambir bu- (du-)jember dujámber dejember december

"Gates of the Year"

In addition to the subdivision by months, within the traditional agricultural calendar there are other partitions, by "seasons" or by "strong periods", characterized by particular festivals and celebrations. For the key moments of the year, Jean Servier uses the picturesque name of "Gates of the Year" (tibbura useggwas), even if, by rule, this term seems to be employed only in singular form to denote the Winter Solstice period.[citation needed]

Not all the four seasons have retained a Berber denomination: the words for spring and autumn are used almost everywhere, more sparingly the winter and, among northern Berbers, the Berber name for the autumn has been preserved only in Jebel Nafusa (Libya).

  • Spring tafsut (Ar. er-rbiʿ) – Begins on 15 furar (28 February)
  • Summer anebdu (Ar. es-sif) – Begins on 17 mayu (30 May)
  • Autumn amwal / aməwan[8] ( (Ar. le-xrif) – Begins on 17 ghusht (30 August)
  • Winter tagrest (Ar. esh-shita') - Begins on 16 numbír (29 November)

An interesting element is the existing opposition between two 40-day terms, one representing the allegedly coldest part of winter ("The nights", llyali) and one the hottest period of summer ("The Dog Days", ssmaym, awussu).[9]


A page from a Tunisian calendar, showing the correspondence of 1 Yennayer ʿajmi (in red on bottom) with the 14 January of the Gregorian calendar. The writing on the bottom signals that it is ʿajmi New Year's Day and that al-lyali al-sud ("the black nights") are beginning.

The coldest period is made up by 20 "white nights" (Berber: iḍan imellalen, Arabic: al-lyali al-biḍ), from 12 to 31 dujamber (Gregorian dates: 25 December - 13 January), and 20 "black nights" (Berber: iḍan tiberkanin/isṭṭafen, Arabic al-lyali al-sud), beginning on the first day of yennayer, corresponding to the Gregorian 14 January.


The first day of the year is celebrated in various ways in the different parts of North Africa. A widespread tradition is a meal with particular foods, which vary from region to region (for example a "couscous with seven vegetables"), but in many zones it is provided by the sacrifice of an animal (usually a chicken). In Algeria, such a holiday is celebrated even by many people who don't use the Berber calendar in daily life.

A characteristic trait of this festivity, which often blurs with the Islamic Day of Ashura (see below), is the presence, in many regions, of ritual invocations with formulas like bennayu, babiyyanu, bu-ini, etc. Such expressions, according to many scholars, may be the corrupted forms of the ancient bonus annus (happy new year) wishes.[10]

A curious aspect of the Yennayer celebrations concerns the date of New Year's Day. Though once this anniversary fell everywhere on 14 January,[11] because of a likely mistake introduced by some Berber cultural associations very active in recovering customs on the verge of extinction, at present in a wide part of Algeria it is common opinion that the date of "Berber New Year's Day" is 12 January and not the 14th. Previously the celebration at the 12, two days before the traditional one, it had been explicitly signaled in the city of Oran.[12]


Before the cold ends completely and spring begins fully, there is a period of the year that is very feared. It consists of ten days straddling the months of furar and mars (the last five of the former and the first five of the latter), and it is characterised by strong winds. It is said that, during this term, one should suspend many activities (agricultural and artisan), should not marry nor go out during the night, leaving instead full scope to mysterious powers, which in that period are particularly active and celebrate their weddings. Due to a linguistic taboo, in Djerba these creatures are called imbarken, i.e. "the blessed ones", whence this period takes its name.


Like the strong winter cold, the Dog Days also last 40 days, from 12 yulyuz (25 July) to 20 ghusht (2 September). The apical moment of the period is the first of ghusht "August" (also the name awussu, widespread in Tunisia and Libya, seems to date back to Latin augustus). On this date, particular rites are performed, which manifestly derive from pre-Islamic, and even pre-Christian, traditions. They consist, in particular, of bonfires (which in many locations take place around the summer solstice: a custom already condemned as Pagan by St. Augustine), or water rituals, like those, common in the coastal towns of Tunisia and Tripolitania, that provide to dive in the seawaters for three nights, in order to preserve one's health. In these ceremonies, whole families used to enter the water, bringing with them even their pets. Though the rite has been revisited in an Islamic frame (in those nights, the water of the Zamzam Well, in Mecca, would spill over, and in the sea there would be beneficial sweet water waves), many call this celebration "the nights of the error". It was in fact usual that, in order to achieve fertility and prosperity, men and women copulated among the flucts.


Another important period for the agricultural calendar is that of the ploughing. In this context, a date considered fundamental is the 17th of (k)tuber, in which one may start ploughing his fields. In Arabic, this period is called ḥertadem, that is "Adam's ploughing", because in that date the common ancestor of humanity is said to have begun his agricultural works.

Influences from the Islamic calendar

Iḍ n innayr

Following centuries-long contacts with the Arab-Islamic culture, the celebrations linked to the Julian calendar have been sometimes integrated into the Islamic calendar, leading to the suppression of some traditional holidays or to the creation of duplicates.

The most evident example are the celebrations for the new year, which in many cases have been transferred to the first Islamic month, i.e. Muḥarram, and more precisely to the ʿĀshūrā’, which falls on the 10th day of that month. This holiday has an important mournful meaning in the Shia Islam, but it is substantially ignored among Sunnis. Many studies have shown the relationships between the joyful celebration of this holiday in North Africa and the ancient New Year's Day celebrations.

Tab. 3 – Correspondencies between Arabic and Berber names of the Islamic months
  Arabic name Berber name
1 Muḥàrram  babiyannu (Ouargla)
 ʿashura' (Djerba)
2 Sàfar u deffer ʿashura'
3 Rabiʿ al-awwal elmilud
4 Rabiʿ al-thani u deffer elmilud
5 Jumada al-awwal melghes (Djerba)
6 Jumada al-thani asgenfu n twessarin "the rest (the waiting) of the old women" (Ouargla)
sh-shaher n Fadma (Djerba)
7 Rajab twessarin "the old women"
8 shaʿaban asgenfu n remdan "the rest (the waiting) of Ramadan" (Ouargla)
9 Ramadan sh-shaher n uzum' "the month of the fasting" (Djerba)
10 Shawwal tfaska tameshkunt "the little holiday" (Djerba)
11 dhu al-qaʿida u jar-asneth "that between the two (holidays)" (Djerba)
12 Dhu al-Hijjah tfaska tameqqart "the big holiday" (Djerba)

Tuareg calendar

The she-camel constellation (Ursa Major plus Arcturus), whose appearance in the sky marks the beginning of the Tuareg astronomical year

Tuaregs share many elements with northern Berbers concerning the subdivision of the year. Even they make reference to two different cycles, a solar one similar to the Julian calendar and a lunar one for religious purposes.

However the climatic, biological and socio-cultural differences between the desert and more temperate territories create some differences, especially in the subdivision of seasons.

Computation of the years

The traditional Berber calendar was not linked to an era with respect to which years were calculated. Where traditional ways to compute the years have been preserved (Tuareg civilization), years are not expressed with numbers but each of them has a name characterizing it.

Starting from the 1960s, however, on the initiative of the Académie Berbère of Paris, some Berbers have begun computing the years starting from 950 BC, the approximate date of the rising into power of the first Libyan Pharaoh in Egypt, Shoshenq I, whom they identified as the first prominent Berber in history (he is recorded as being of Libyan origin).[13] For example, the Gregorian year 2017 corresponds to the 2967th year of the Berber calendar.

This innovation has been adopted with conviction by many supporters of the Berber culture and is now a part of the cultural heritage of this people, fully integrated in the system of traditional customs related the North-African calendar.[citation needed]

Photo taken on 31 December 2007 near Tafraout (Morocco), with the writings aseggas ameggaz ("good year") in Tifinagh and bonne année 2959 ("good year 2959") in French. Note the 1-year mistake, as 2959 corresponds to the Gregorian year 2009.

Neologisms and false traditions

An interesting aspect from the anthropological point of view, concerning the birth of traditions, is the flourish of innovations that "restore" alleged forgotten customs. This phenomenon exists in the context of the rediscovery of a long-denied and hidden identity and is aimed at regaining a lost or endangered heritage. The calendar, perceived as particularly important due to its connection to the control of time, has been the object of many of these innovations, some of which have gained consensus and been adopted as a genuine part of Berber traditional heritage. Examples follow.

Names of the months

Since the names of the months used in pre-Roman era are unknown (those shown in Table 1 are known only in the academic community), some tried to reconstruct "authentically Berber" names. Beginning with the most known name, yennayer, some have considered it a Berber word composed of yan (the numeral "one" in various Berber dialects) and (a)yur, "moon/month", and on this basis reconstructed the other month names: 1. yenyur or yennayur, 2. sinyur, 3. krayur, 4. kuzyur, 5. semyur, 6. sedyur, 7. sayur, 8. tamyur, 9. tzayur 10. mrayur, 11. yamrayur 12. megyur.

Tab. 4 – The "Amazigh" week
Day Académie Berbère Compounds with numerals
Monday aram aynas
Tuesday arim asinas
Wednesday ahad akras
Thursday amhad akwas
Friday sem asemwas
Saturday sed asedyas
Sunday acer asamas


Even for the weekdays, the ancient native names are unknown, so some tried to "fill in the blanks" with new terms. Two series of them are currently widespread. The first and best known is of unclear origin, but probably dates to the circle of the Académie Berbère of Paris in the late 1960s; the second one simply repeats for the weekdays the same process used for the months, with the creation of a suffix -as ("day") in place of -yur.[14] The former series, which begins with Monday[15] and refers to the "European" denominations, is not prone to misunderstandings, while the latter, which refers to a numerical order of the days (beginning, too, with Monday), interferes with the Arabic system currently in use, which starts instead from Sunday, resulting sometimes with the new names being used to refer to different days.[16]

Days and people names

Often, calendars and almanacs published by Berber militants and cultural circles associate a personal name to each day of the year, in imitation of Western calendars. This also meets the need to reappropriate the traditional proper names, which the Arabization measures in Algeria and Morocco tend to substitute with strictly Arabic ones. Even in this field, it is not uncommon to find improvised lists of names, with nouns collected at random, as a result of casual readings and sometimes even of mistakes or typos.[citation needed]

Three Berber calendars. Among other things, it may be noticed that the names of the weekdays are different between the bottom-right calendar and the leftmost one. Even the month names have the traditional ones on the right and the new ones on the left. All of them refer to the Shoshenq era (Gregorian + 950).

See also


  1. ^ On this argument, see e.g.: Encyclopédie Berbère 11, p. 1713, Servier (1985: 365 ss.), Genevois (1975: 3 ss.).
  2. ^ Quote from Barrios García (1997: 53), original in Spanish; English text in Barrios García (1995: 4).
  3. ^ (See J. Barrios García 1995 and 1997)
  4. ^ See, e.g. Barrios García (2007: 331 and passim)
  5. ^ The meaning of the name of the medieval months awzimet yezwaren and awzimet yegg w were and their possible relationship with the Tuareg months ǎwžém yǎzzarǎn and ǎwžém as-eššin (Ahaggar ǎwhim wa yezzǎren and ǎwhim wa ylkemen ), cf. van den Boogert (2002: 144).
  6. ^ Servier, 1962
  7. ^ Idris, 1954
  8. ^ amwal is the form found in Jebel Nafusa (Jadu); aməwan is the corresponding word in tuareg. Cp. V. Brugnatelli, "Notes d’onomastique jerbienne et mozabite", in K. Naït-Zerrad, R. Voßen, D. Ibriszimow (éd.), Nouvelles études berbères. Le verbe et autres articles. Actes du "2. Bayreuth-Frankfurter Kolloquium zur Berberologie 2002", Köln, R. Köppe Verlag, 2004, pp. 29-39, in particular p. 33.
  9. ^ On this topic, see e.g. chapter "Llyali et Ssmaym" in Genevois (1975, pp. 21-22)
  10. ^ The etymology proposed for bu-ini of Aures from Masqueray (1886: 164), was welcomed and extended to other similar terms related to the start of the year festivities by several authors, including Doutté (1909: 550), Laoust (1920: 195), Delheure (1988: 156). Drouin (2000: 115) defines these etymological research as "unconvincing".
  11. ^ In fact, as remarked by Genevois (1975: 11), "the agricultural calendar (ancient Julian calendar) has therefore at present a 13-day delay".
  12. ^ "In Oran the Ennayer parties are made on 11 and 12 January of the Gregorian calendar, that is two days before the common agricultural calendar ..." Mohamed Benhadji Serradj, Fêtes d'Ennâyer aux Beni snus (tlemcénien folklore) in IBLA, vol. 1950, pp. 247-258.
  13. ^ Benbrahim, Malha. "La fête de Yennayer: pratiques et présages" (in French). Retrieved 2007-09-04. 
  14. ^ On this topic, see Achab (1995: 270), who points out how this procedure was proposed on the first number of the magazine Tifawt (April–May 1994), by Hsin Hda.
  15. ^ At least, in the calendars adopting this series, the order usually appears with Monday being the first day. Moreover, the names sem ("Friday") and sed ("Saturday") respectively contain abbreviations of the Berber numerals semmus, "5" and sedis, "6", which supports the previous assertion.
  16. ^ An example of such confusion among the very supporters of these neologisms: in Lahcen Oulhaj, Grammaire du tamazight: eléments pour une standardisation, Rabat, Centre Tarik ibn Zyad pour les études et la recherche, 2000, p. 151, the weekdays are presented in the "European" order: aynas, the "Day One", is put in correspondence with Monday and asamas ("Day Seven") with Sunday. Yet, in a sentence of the text (p. 113) one reads "Teddu s timzgida as n asedyas! 'Il faut aller à la mosquée le vendredi!'", with asedyas ("Day Six") corresponding to Friday (as in the "Arab" order), and not to Saturday as in the summary table of p. 151. The enumeration beginning from Monday seems to be the original, according to Achab (1995: 270); an example of use starting from Sunday (from Moroccan magazine Tifinagh of 1995) can be seen in the picture showing various Berber calendars, at the end of this article.


  • "Calendrier" [Calendar]. Encyclopédie Berbère (in French). 11. Aix-en-Provence: Editions Edisud. 1992. pp. 1713–1719. ISBN 9782857445814. 
  • "Il calendario degli uomini liberi", Africa, Epicentro (Ferrara), year V, no. 16 (January/February 2000), pp. 30–33 (in attachment: a Berber calendar for 2000)
  • Achab, Ramdane (1996). La néologie lexicale berbère: 1945-1995. M.S. — Ussun amazigh (in French). 9. Paris - Louvain: Peeters Publishers. ISBN 9068318101. 
  • José Barrios García, "Tara: A Study on the Canarian Astronomical Pictures. Part I. Towards an interpretation of the Gáldar Painted Cave", in: F. Stanescu (ed.) Proceedings of the III SEAC Conference, Sibiu (Romania), 1–3 September 1995, Sibiu, Lucian Blaga University from Sibiu, 1999, 15 pp. – ISBN 973-651-033-6
  • José Barrios García, "Tara: A Study on the Canarian Astronomical Pictures. Part II. The acano chessboard", in: C. Jaschek & F. Atrio Barandelas (eds.). Proceedings of the IV SEAC Meeting "Astronomy and Culture" (Salamanca, 2-6 Sep. 1996), Salamanca, Universidad de Salamanca, 1997, pp. 47–54 – ISBN 84-605-6954-3
  • José Barrios García, "Investigaciones sobre matemáticas y astronomía guanche. Parte III. El calendario", in: Francisco Morales Padrón (Coordinador), XVI Coloquio de historia canarioamericana (2004), Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Cabildo de Gran Canaria – Casa de Colón, 2006 ISBN 84-8103-407-X, pp. 329–344.
  • Nico van den Boogert, "The Names of the Months in Medieval Berber", in: K. Naït-Zerrad (ed.), Articles de linguistique berbère. Mémorial Vycichl, Parigi 2002, pp. 137–152 – ISBN 2-7475-2706-9
  • Saïd Bouterfa, Yannayer - Taburt u swgas, ou le symbole de Janus, Alger, El-Musk, 2002 – ISBN 9961-928-04-0
  • Gioia Chiauzzi, Cicli calendariali nel Magreb, 2 vols., Naples (Istituto Universitario Orientale), 1988
  • Jeannine Drouin, "Calendriers berbères", in: S. Chaker & A. Zaborski (eds.), Études berbères et chamito-sémitiques. Mélanges offerts à K.-G. Prasse, Paris-Louvain, Peeters, 2000, ISBN 90-429-0826-2, pp. 113–128
  • Henri Genevois, Le calendrier agraire et sa composition, "Le Fichier Périodique" no. 125, 1975
  • Henri Genevois, Le rituel agraire, "Le Fichier Périodique" 127, 1975, pp. 1–48
  • Mohand Akli Haddadou, Almanach berbère - assegwes Imazighen, Algiers (Editions INAS) 2002 – ISBN 9961-762-05-3
  • H. R. Idris, "Fêtes chrétiennes célébrées en Ifrîqiya à l'époque ziride", in Revue Africaine 98 (1954), pp. 261–276
  • Emile Laoust, Mots et choses berbères, Paris 1920
  • Umberto Paradisi, "I tre giorni di Awussu a Zuara (Tripolitania)", AION n.s. 14 (1964), pp. 415–9
  • Serra, Luigi (1990). "Awussu". Encyclopédie Berbère (in French). 8. Aix-en-Provence: Editions Edisud. pp. 1198–1200. ISBN 9782857444619. 
  • Jean Servier, Les portes de l'Année. Rites et symboles. L'Algérie dans la tradition méditerranéenne, Paris, R. Laffont, 1962 (new edition: Monaco, Le Rocher, 1985 ISBN 2268003698)

External links

  • (in French) An article about traditional customs in Berber New Year's Day
  • (in French) A page with a "Berber zodiac", a modern creation based upon traditional elements
  • (in Spanish) An essays on the calendars used by Guanches of Canaries (pdf)
  • Number Systems and Calendars of the Berber Populations of Grand Canaray and Tenerife, by Jose Barrios Garca
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