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It has been regarded by some as stretching from the Atlantic shores of Morocco in the west to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea in the east, though this designation is more commonly referred to as northern Africa.Others have limited it to the countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, a region known by the French during colonial times as Afrique du Nord and by the Arabs as the Maghrib (“West”).They run generally from east to west, parallel to the Mediterranean coast, with their highest elevations in the Atlas ranges.
Only in northeastern Tunisia is the coastline more favourable, and the main movement of culture and conquest has naturally been from there westward.
The Maghrib provides the paradox of being an area in which various cultures have imposed some measure of uniformity, while political unity has been rare; for this geography is largely responsible.
The area of settlement is of vast length but little breadth and has no natural centre from which political uniformity could be imposed; its natural communications have never been easy, and the mountain blocks have been large enough to maintain populations to a greater or lesser degree independent of and hostile to those that controlled the plains.
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.