Libya is located in North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Egypt is to the east, Sudan to the southwest, Algeria and Tunisia to the west, and Chad and Niger to the south.
Libya is Africa’s 4th largest county by area and covers 1,800,000 sq. km. In the world, it is the 17th largest nation. 5.7 million live in Libya and 1.7 million in Tripoli, the capital. The total population is estimated to be 7,200,000 million (2018).
Libya’s flag is simply a green field, which is the only world flag with just one color and no other design.
At one time over 10,000 years ago, the Sahara desert was covered with green vegetation. Neolithic Berbers inhabited the area from as early as 8,000 BCE. These people cultivated crops and were skilled a domesticating cattle.
Rock carvings reveal the pastoralist culture in the region. These show the area had grassy plateaus, abundant wildlife, and rivers.
There are still pockets of Berbers in Libya. Climate changes caused desertification, which scattered the population. The Garamantes were of Berber origin and used elaborate irrigation systems. They founded a kingdom in the Fezzan area of modern Libya. They likely were in Libya by 1,000 BCE and were a powerful group from 500 BCE to 500 ACE. The Phoenicians were the first outside civilizations to arrive in Libya and by the time they arrived the Garamantes were already established.
Phoenician Tripolitania and the Greek Pentapolis
The Phoenicians established trading posts. Merchants from Tyre in modern Lebanon made treaties with the Berbers to exploit raw minerals. Carthage had extended its control over the area by the 5th century BCE and developed the Punic civilization across North Africa. Punic settlements included Libdah, Oea, and Sabratha.
Ancient Greeks conquered eastern Libya in 630 BCE. Four Greek cities were established within 200 years, which were Barce, Teuchira, Apollonia, Cyrene, and Euhesperides. Cyrene developed into one of the greatest Greek artistic and intellectual centers. It had a medical school and other academies. These Greeks fought Carthaginians in the west and Egyptians in the east. The Persians eventually overran the area in 525 BCE under Cambyses II. For the next two hundred years the area was under Persian or Egyptian rule. When Alexander the Great arrived in Cyrenaica in 331 BCE, the Greeks greeted him. The area became part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. A federation of the Pentapolis was formed and ruled by a Ptolemaic king.
In 106 BCE, the Romans invaded the area around what later became Tripoli. The last Greek king, Ptolemy Apoin, turned Cyrenaica over to the Romans who annexed it in 74 BCE. Legions under the command of Julius Caesar occupied the area by 64 BCE and unified all three areas of Libya. In the 2nd century AD, Libya reached its golden age when Leptis Magna rivaled Alexandria and Carthage in its prominence. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were wealthy Roman provinces for over 400 years. Merchants from all around the Roman Empire established themselves in Libya. Tripolitania exported a large amount of olive oil, gold, and slaves. Cyrenaica was a major wine region and was a source for horses and drugs.
The classical cities fell into ruin when Rome declined. The Vandals invaded in the 5th century ACE and the areas prosperity lessened. The old Roman political order could not be restored. Those outside of the cities sought protection from tribal leaders and later resisted being brought back into the imperial system. The Byzantines attempted to restore the cities when they arrived in the 6th century ACE, but this failed. Its rulers were unpopular due to taxes. By the 7th century, Byzantine control was very weak and Berber uprisings left the area unable to resist the invasion from the Muslims.
Arab Islamic Rule 642–1551
There was little Byzantine resistance when Arab horsemen crossed into Cyrenaica in 642. The area was conquered by armies under Amr ibn al-A’as and renamed Pentapolis Barqa. An additional Arab army led by ‘Abdu’llah ibn Sa’ad drove into western Libya and took Tripoli in 643 AD. Uqba ibn Nafi took the Fezzan in 663 AD, overcoming Berber resistance. Libya was ruled by several Islamic dynasties over the next several centuries. The Arabs easily imposed rule over the coastal towns, which did well under their leadership. In the hinterland, the Berber tribes accepted Islam, but resisted Arab rule.
Libya was governed by the Ummayad Caliph of Damascus for the next several decades. The Abbasids overthrew them in 750 AD and Libya came under Baghdad rule. When Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab as was appointed governor of the area in 800 AD, Libya had considerable autonomy locally. The Aghlabid dynasty brought order to the area, brought an agricultural surplus, and restored Roman irrigation. When the 9th century ended the Shiite Fatimids ruled Libya from Mahdia. They later ruled the entire area form Cairo in 972 and appointed Buluggin ibn Ziri as the governor. Tripoli prospered under the slave and gold trade under Fatimid rule. The Berber Zirid dynasty broke from the Fatimids and recognized rival Sunni Abbasids as rightful rulers. In response, the Fatimids migrated 200,000 Bedouin tribes and altered the fabric of Libyan cities. Normans from Sicily later invaded. After this an Almohads viceroy, Muhammad ibn Abu Hafs, governed Libya from 1207 to 1221 and founded the Hafsid dynasty. This dynasty ruled for nearly 300 years and traded with European cities. They also encouraged architecture, literature, scholarship, and art. Ahmad Zarruq, a famous Islamic scholar, settled in Libya. A power struggle in the 16th century between Spain and the Ottoman Empire led to a Spanish invasion in 1510. In 1551, the Ottomans took control of Libya.
Ottoman Regency 1551–1911
After the Spanish invasion by the Hapsburgs in the early 1500s, Charles V ordered the Knights of St. John to defend the area. Barbarossa and his successors solidified Ottoman control in the central Maghrib. Turgut Reis conquered Tripoli for the Ottoman Turks in 1551. He was named Bey of Tripoli and Pasha of Tripoli in 1556. Turgut built up Tripoli to one of the most impressive cities in North Africa.
A self-governing military guild, the pasha’s coup of janissaries, were the real power in Libya. Coups frequently occurred and in 1611 a coup against the pasha led to Dey Sulayman Safar being appointed the head of government. Over one hundred years, a series of deys ruled Tripolitania. While the government was dependent on the sultan for troops, it was allowed to pursue an independent foreign policy.
In Ottoman Libya, Tripoli was the only sizeable city. At the end of the 17th century, it had 30,000 people. Most of the residents were Moors, or city dwelling Arabs. The Turks formed a governing elite and were respected by the locals. Many Moriscos and Jews were merchants and craftsman. Europeans also acted as traders.
Without Ottoman direction, Tripoli entered a period of military anarchy with multiple coups occurring. One coup placed Ahmed Pasha Karamanli in power. The Karamanlis governed from 1711 to 1835. Ahmed, a popular cavalry officer, murdered the Ottoman governor and took power in 1711. He convinced the Ottomans to confirm him as governor and made his port hereditary. While still paying tribute to the Ottomans, Tripoli acted independently. Under Ahmed’s leadership, the economy expanded mainly due to employment of pirates in the Mediterranean. Nations were forced to pay tribute to keep their ships from being attacked. Ahmed’s successors were not as capable, but a delicate balance of power allowed the dynasty to survive without invasion. In 1793, a Ottoman rule was briefly reestablished when Ali Benghul deposed Hamet Karamanli. Hamet’s brother Yusuf returned Tripoli to independence two years later.
A war broke out between Tripoli and the U.S. in the early 1800s, which became known as the Barbary Wars. Napoleonic War treaties forced the Barbary States to abandon piracy by 1819. This led to a collapse of the economy. This led to Yusuf’s power weakening. Despite Yusuf abdicating and his son Ali II gaining power, civil war began. The Ottomans sent in forces and deposed Ali II, ending independent Tripolitania.
This second time of Ottoman rule ushered in administrative changes. Overall, Ottoman rule was plagued by corruption, repression and revolt. Libya was a lesser province in the decaying Ottoman Empire.
Italian Colony and WWII 1911–1951
Libya was known as Italian North Africa from 1912 to 1927. The territory was divided into two colonies between 1927 and 1934 known as Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitania. During this time, 20 percent to 50 percent of Libyans died fighting for independence. 150,000 Italians moved to Libya.
The Italians gave the colony the official name Libya in 1934. Libyan resistance was led by King Idris I. Estimates show that from 1928 to 1932, Italians killed half the population of Bedouins.
The two colonies were under British control from 1943 to 1951, while Fezzan was controlled by France. Idris returned from exile in 1944 but refused to live in Cyrenaica until some parts of foreign control ended. Italy gave up its claims in Libya in the 1947 peace treaty with the allies.
Independence and the United Kingdom of Libya 1951–1969
On November 21, 1949, the U.N. passed a resolution calling for Libyan independence before 1952. Libya declared its independence on December 24, 1951. It did so as a constitutional monarchy under King Idris.
In 1959, significant oil reserves were discovered which transformed Libya from one of the poorest nations to one of the richest. While the government increased its finances, the people became increasingly agitated at the concentration of the wealth in the hands of King Idris and the Libyan elite.
Revolution and Gaddafi’s Libya 1969–2011
On September 1, 1969, a 27-year-old officer Muammar al-Gaddafi led a small group in a coup against Idris and launched the Libyan Revolution. Idris was out of the country at the time. His nephew, Sayyid Hasan ar-Rida al-Mahdi as-Sanussi, became king. Despite only being a small group of junior officers, Gaddafi’s small group seized the military headquarters and the radio station with few weapons. The new king had been formally deposed and placed under house arrest by the end of the first day. The monarchy was abolished and the new Libyan Arab Republic proclaimed.
Revolution and Civil War in Libya
After the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown by popular movement, Libyans began a revolt on February 17, 2011. The unrest spread to Tripoli. Gaddafi’s former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil led the National Transitional Council, which was established on February 27, 2011. This was the first attempt to organize the opposition. France was the first nations to recognize the council as the Libyan people’s legitimate representative on March 10, 2011.
By March 2011, parts of the country had come under the opposition forces. Tripoli remained contested. Gaddafi threatened to destroy the protest movement. International groups condemned action against the protestors. The U.S. imposed economic sanctions against Libya and other nations followed.
On March 27, 2011, the U.S. passed a resolution permitting no-fly zones and the protection of civilians. On March 19, the no-fly zone began when French jets performed a reconnaissance mission. Action to enforce a ceasefire began with air missions. On June 27, 2011, an arrest warrant was issued by the International Criminal Court for Gaddafi.
Rebels entered Tripoli and occupied Green Square. Gaddafi continued to assert he would not concede power. Gaddafi was killed on October 20, 2011 in Sirte, his hometown. Libya was considered “liberated” on October 23, 2011. The NTC head announced an interim government would be formed within one month, followed by elections within eight months. Jibril left the NTC as he had previously promised and Ali Tarhouri replaced him. It has been estimated 30,000 Libyans died in the civil war.
Parliamentary elections took place on July 7, 2012. This formed a 200-member interim assembly. The NTC handed power to the General National Congress on August 8, 2012. Sectarian attacks still occur. The Prime Minister-elect, Mustafa A.G. Abushagur, stepped down after failing to will approval for his cabinet. On October 14, 2012, Ali Zeidan was elected as the new prime minister.
During the civil war at least 100 countries recognized the National Transitional Council as the Libyan government. The NTC had asked for aid, including medical supplies, money, and weapons. The NTC promised to pay off these debts after the war ended.
Libya’s foreign aid has changed since 1951. When it was a kingdom, Libya favored the West. While the government supported Arab causes, it did not take part in the Arab-Israeli dispute. After the coup in 1969, Gaddafi closed western business bases and nationalized interests.
Gaddafi became well known for supporting anti-Western leaders, including Idi Amin. Several incidents strained Libyan relations with the West. These included the bombing of a night club in West Berlin, the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, and the murder of a London police woman.
Throughout history, Libya was considered to be three main areas, Tripolitania, Barka, and Fezzan. Italy’s conquest united these three into a single unit. The Italians divided Libya into four provinces and one territory.
Libya was divided into three governorates after independence and then ten in 1963. These were abolished in 1975. Several other divisions and modifications occurred. In 2007, they were rearranged again into 22 districts. There are also additional Basic People’s Congresses, which act as townships.
Libya’s total area is 1,759,540 sq. km. and is the 17th largest in the world. The Mediterranean Sea is to the north. Niger is to the southwest, Chad and Sudan to the south, Egypt to the east, and Tunisia and Algeria to the west. Libya’s coastline is the longest in Africa on the Mediterranean. The climate is dry in most areas but the northern areas have a more Mediterranean climate.
The Libyan Desert is one of the world’s most arid places. Decades pass in some areas without rain. At Uweinat there has not been recorded rainfall since 1998. The Qattara Depression sits to the south of the northernmost scarp.
Small oases are usually located near major depressions. The desert is generally flat with the exception of a series of plateaus and massifs. Further south additional massifs are at Arkenu, Kissu, and Uweinat. The high point in the desert at Uweinat is a raised sandstone plateau. When oil was discovered, a large aquifer was also found underneath the country. This water predates the desert itself.
Libya primarily depends on oil for nearly all export earnings. In the 1980s, Libya was one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
The oil revenues and small population give Libya one of Africa’s highest per capita GDPs. Unemployment is still high at 21 percent. The level of poverty is low compared to its neighbors.
Prior to the revolution, Libya started market reforms and applied for WTO membership. Government-owned companies were privatized. Non-oil sectors in manufacturing are 20 percent of GDP.
Agricultural output is poor due to inadequate soils. The country imports 75 percent of its food. 28 percent of the population does not have access to safe drinking water. Projects are underway to tap the underground aquifers to improve agricultural output. Prior to the revolution, tourism was increasing.
Population density in Libya is low. 90 percent of the people live within only 10 percent of the land area. The population is mostly urban and young, with 50 percent under 15 years old.
Most native Libyans are Arabs, Berbers, and Tuareg. There are other nomadic tribal groups. There is also a large population of illegals of over one million.
Arabic is spoken by 80 percent of the people and is the official languages. Berber and Tuareg languages do not have official status but are spoken by 20 percent. In the main cities, Italian and English are sometimes spoken, but mostly in the older generation.
The Arabs traditionally lived nomadic lifestyles, but those traditions are fading away. A small number of Libyans still live in the desert. Most people work in services and industry.
Libya’s student population is 1.7 million. There is free education that is compulsory to the secondary level. Libya has the highest literacy rate in North Africa at 82 percent.
The University of Libya was established in 1951 after independence. Enrollment is about 200,000 students, with 70,000 more enrolled in technical programs.
There are nine universities and 84 technical and vocational institutions. Libya’s budget funds higher education. In 1998, this was 38.2 percent of the national budget. Main universities in addition to the University of Libya are Al Fateh University, Garyounis University, and the University of Omar Almukhtar.
Islam is followed by 97 percent of the population. Most are Sunni, but a minority of the people follow Ibadism. Prior to the 1930a, the Senussi Movement, a religious revival adapted to desert life, was important in Libya. The movement gave the tribal people a purpose and unified them
The movement was destroyed when the Italians invaded and during Gaddafi’s reign. It was more conservative than the Islam practiced in Libya today. A Libyan form of Sufism is also common.
In addition to Islam, there are small Christian communities. Coptic Orthodox is the primary denomination whose adherents are one percent of the total population. There are an estimated 40,000 Roman Catholics in Libya as well.
Until recent times, Libya was home to one of the oldest Jewish populations in the world. This community dated to 300 BC.
After the Italian invasion in 1942, the Jewish population was forced into labor camps south of Tripoli. Approximately 500 died. Others not in the camps were under heavy restrictions.
After Libya was liberated, Muslims attacked the Jewish population, killing 140. These attacks lasted nearly three years and resulted in most of the Jewish population leaving the country.
Libyans perceived themselves as part of the Arab community. Arabic is considered the only official language and, under Gaddafi, forbid the teaching and use of the Berber language.
There are few art galleries or theaters in the country. Folk culture is very prominent, which includes music and dance.
Libyan television dedicates itself to showing traditional music. Tuareg dance and music are popular in the southern parts of the country. Most programs are in Arabic but there is a 30-minute news broadcast in English and French. Under Gaddafi, media was tightly controlled.
There are some of the most well-preserved Roman ruins at Leptis Magna. The country’s beaches are also popular with locals.
Tripoli, the capital, is well known for its museums and archives. These include the Ethnographic Museum, the Government Library, the Archaeological Museum, the National Archives, the Islamic Museum, and the Jamahiriya Museum.
The cuisine in Libya is similar to Sahara cuisine and is very simple. Common foods are couscous, bazeen, and shurba. Alcohol consumption is illegal throughout Libya. Food is an important part of Libyan family life.