Algeria falls into two main geographical areas, the northern region and the much larger Saharan or southern region. The northern region, which is part of the Maghreb, is made up of four parallel east-west zones: a narrow lowland strip (interspersed with mountains) along the country's 600-mi (970-km) Mediterranean coastline; the Tell Atlas Mts. (highest point: c.7,570 ft/2,310 m), which have a Mediterranean climate and abundant fertile soil; the sparsely populated, semiarid Plateau of the Chotts (average elevation c.3,500 ft/1,070 m), containing a number of shallow salt lakes ( chotts ) and supporting mainly sheep and goat herders; and the Saharan Atlas Mts., a broken series of mountain ranges and massifs (highest point: 7,638 ft/2,330 m), also a semiarid area and used chiefly for pasturing livestock. The Chéliff River, which flows into the Mediterranean, is the largest of the country's few permanent streams. N Algeria is subject to earthquakes, which, as in 1954, 1980, and 2003, may be devastating, killing and injuring thousands.
The arid and very sparsely populated Saharan region has an average elevation of c.1,500 ft (460 m), but reaches greater heights in the Ahaggar Mts. in the south, where Algeria's loftiest point, Mt. Tahat (9,850 ft/3,002 m), is located. Most of the region is covered with gravel or rocks, with little vegetation; there are also large areas of sand dunes in the north (the Great Western Erg) and east (the Great Eastern Erg). Important oases include Touggourt, Biskra, Chenachane, In Zize, and Tin Rerhoh.
In addition to the capital, major cities include Annaba, Blida, Constantine, Mostaganem, Oran, Sétif, Sidi-bel-Abbès, Skikda, and Tlemcen. Berbers once constituted the chief ethnic group in Algeria, but have been largely assimilated into Arab culture. The Berbers, beginning in the late 7th cent. A.D., adopted the Arabic language and Islam from the small number of Arabs who settled in the country. Today those of Arab-Berber descent make up some 99% of the population. Arabic is the main language, although about 15% of the population still speaks a Berber language. These inhabitants live mostly in the mountainous regions of the north, but also include the nomadic Tuareg of the Sahara. Relations between Arabic-speaking and Berber-speaking Algerians have long been marked by tension. Arabic was made the sole national language in 1980, but that policy was reversed in 2002, when Tamazight, a Berber tongue, was also recognized as a national language. French is widely spoken, and about 1% of the Algerian population is of European descent (before independence Europeans accounted for some 10%). Almost all Algerians are adherents of the Sunni Muslim faith, the state religion.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.