History of Ancient Libya

Early History

The first inhabitants of Libya were Berber tribes. In the 7th century B.C., Phoenicians colonized the eastern section of Libya, called Cyrenaica, and Greeks colonized the western portion, called Tripolitania.

Archaeological evidence indicates that from as early as the 8th millennium BC, Libya's coastal plain was inhabited by a Neolithic people who were skilled in the domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops.

The area known in modern times as Libya was later occupied by a series of peoples, with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines ruling all or part of the area. Although the Greeks and Romans left ruins at Cyrene, Leptis Magna and Sabratha, little other evidence remains of these ancient cultures.

To the south, in what is now the Sahara Desert, nomadic hunters and herders roamed a vast, well-watered savanna that abounded in game and provided pastures for their stock. Their culture flourished until the region began to desiccate after 2000 B.C. Scattering before the encroaching desert and invading horsemen, the savanna people migrated into the Sudan or were absorbed by the Berbers.

The origin of the Berbers is a mystery, the investigation of which has produced an abundance of educated speculation but no solution. Archaeological and linguistic evidence strongly suggests southwestern Asia as the point from which the ancestors of the Berbers may have begun their migration into North Africa early in the third millennium B.C. Over the succeeding centuries they extended their range from Egypt to the Niger Basin.

Caucasians of predominantly Mediterranean stock, the Berbers present a broad range of physical types and speak a variety of mutually unintelligible dialects that belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family. They never developed a sense of nationhood and have historically identified themselves in terms of their tribe, clan, and family. Collectively, Berbers refer to themselves simply as imazighan, to which has been attributed the meaning "free men."

Inscriptions found in Egypt dating from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2200 B.C.) are the earliest known recorded testimony of the Berber migration and also the earliest written documentation of Libyan history. At least as early as this period, troublesome Berber tribes, one of which was identified in Egyptian records as the Levu (or "Libyans"), were raiding eastward as far as the Nile Delta and attempting to settle there.

During the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2200-1700 B.C.) the Egyptian pharaohs succeeded in imposing their overlordship on these eastern Berbers and extracted tribute from them. Many Berbers served in the army of the pharaohs, and some rose to positions of importance in the Egyptian state.

One such Berber officer seized control of Egypt in about 950 B.C. and, as Shishonk I, ruled as pharaoh. His successors of the twentysecond and twenty-third dynasties--the so-called Libyan dynasties (ca. 945-730 B.C.)--are also believed to have been Berbers.

Enterprising Phoenician traders were active throughout the Mediterranean area before the twelfth century B.C. The depots that they set up at safe harbors on the African coast to service, supply, and shelter their ships were the links in a maritime chain reaching from the Levant to Spain.

Many North African cities and towns originated as Phoenician trading posts, where the merchants of Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) eventually developed commercial relations with the Berber tribes and made treaties with them to ensure their cooperation in the exploitation of raw materials.

By the fifth century B.C., Carthage, the greatest of the overseas Phoenician colonies, had extended its hegemony across much of North Africa, where a distinctive civilization, known as Punic, came into being. Punic settlements on the Libyan coast included Oea (Tripoli), Labdah (later Leptis Magna), and Sabratah, in an area that came to be known collectively as Tripolis, or "Three Cities".

Governed by a mercantile oligarchy, Carthage and its dependencies cultivated good relations with the Berber tribes in the hinterland, but the city-state was essentially a maritime power whose expansion along the western Mediterranean coast drew it into a confrontation with Rome in the third century B.C. Defeated in the long Punic Wars (264-241 and 218-201 B.C.), Carthage was reduced by Rome to the status of a small and vulnerable African state at the mercy of the Berbers. Fear of a Carthaginian revival, however, led Rome to renew the war, and Carthage was destroyed in 146 B.C. Tripolitania was assigned to Rome's ally, the Berber king of Numidia.

A century later, Julius Caesar deposed the reigning Numidian king, who had sided with Pompey (Roman general and statesman, rival of Julius Caesar) in the Roman civil wars, and annexed his extensive territory to Rome, organizing Tripolitania as a Roman province.

The Romans invaded Tripolitania (the region around Tripoli) in 106 BC, and by 64 BC Julius Caesar's legions had completed the occupation. As a Roman province, Libya was prosperous, reaching a golden age in the 2nd century AD. The three principal Roman cities of Sabratha, Oea and Leptis Magna provided the empire with grain, oil and a supply of slaves and exotic goods from sub-Saharan Africa.

The decline of the Roman Empire saw the classical cities fall into ruin, a process hastened by the Vandals' destructive sweep though northern Africa in the 5th century AD. When the Byzantines took over in the 6th century, efforts were made to strengthen the old cities, but it was only a last gasp before they collapsed into disuse. Only Oea, which survives today as Tripoli, the nation's capital, remains a living city.

The influence of Punic civilization on North Africa remained deep-seated. The Berbers displayed a remarkable gift for cultural assimilation, readily synthesizing Punic cults with their folk religion. The Punic language was still spoken in the towns of Tripolitania and by Berber farmers in the coastal countryside in the late Roman period.

For more than 400 years, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were prosperous Roman provinces and part of a cosmopolitan state whose citizens shared a common language, legal system, and Roman identity. Roman ruins like those of Leptis Magna, extant in present-day Libya, attest to the vitality of the region, where populous cities and even smaller towns enjoyed the amenities of urban life--the forum, markets, public entertainments, and baths-- found in every corner of the Roman Empire.

Merchants and artisans from many parts of the Roman world established themselves in North Africa, but the character of the cities of Tripolitania remained decidedly Punic and, in Cyrenaica, Greek. Tripolitania was a major exporter of olive oil, as well as being the entrapping for the gold and slaves conveyed to the coast by the Garamentes, while Cyrenaica remained an important source of wines, drugs, and horses. The bulk of the population in the countryside consisted of Berber farmers, who in the west were thoroughly "Punicized" in language and customs.

Tripolitania was for a time under Carthaginian control. It became part of the Roman Empire from 46 B.C. to A.D. 436, after which it was sacked by the Vandals. Cyrenaica belonged to the Roman Empire from the 1st century B.C. until its decline, after which it was invaded by Arab forces in 642. Beginning in the 16th century, both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica nominally became part of the Ottoman Empire.

Although the African provinces profited as much as any part of the empire from the imposition of the Pax Romana, the region was not without strife and threat of war. Only near the end of the first century A.D. did the army complete the pacification of the Sirtica, a desert refuge for the barbarian tribes that had impeded overland communications between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

But for more than two centuries thereafter commerce flowed safely between markets and ports along a well-maintained road system and sea lanes policed by Roman forces who also guaranteed the security of settled areas against incursions by desert nomads.

The vast territory was defended by one locally recruited legion (5,500 men) in Cyrenaica and the elements of another in Tripolitania, reinforced by tribal auxiliaries on the frontier. Although expeditions penetrated deep into Fezzan, in general Rome sought to control only those areas in the African provinces that were economically useful or could be garrisoned with the manpower available.

Under the Ptolemies, Cyrenaica had become the home of a large Jewish community, whose numbers were substantially increased by tens of thousands of Jews deported there after the failure of the rebellion against Roman rule in Palestine and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Some of the refugees made their way into the desert, where they became nomads and nurtured their fierce hatred of Rome. They converted to Judaism many of the Berbers with whom they mingled, and in some cases whole tribes were identified as Jewish. In 115 the Jews raised a major revolt in Cyrenaica that quickly spread through Egypt back to Palestine.

The uprising was put down by 118, but only after Jewish insurgents had laid waste to Cyrenaica and sacked the city of Cyrene. Contemporary observers counted the loss of life during those years at more than 200,000, and at least a century was required to restore Cyrenaica to the order and prosperity that had meanwhile prevailed in Tripolitania.

As part of his reorganization of the empire in 300, the Emperor Diocletian separated the administration of Crete from Cyrenaica and in the latter formed the new provinces of Upper Libya and Lower Libya, using the term Libya for the first time as an administrative designation. With the definitive partition of the empire in 395, the Libyans were assigned to the eastern empire; Tripolitania was attached to the western empire.

By the beginning of the second century, Christianity had been introduced among the Jewish community, and it soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. Rome's African provinces were thoroughly Christianized by the end of the fourth century, and inroads had been made as well among the Berber tribes in the hinterland.

From an early date, however, the churches in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica developed distinct characteristics that reflected their differing cultural orientations. The former came under the jurisdiction of the Latin patriarch, the bishop of Rome, and the latter under that of the Coptic (Egyptian) patriarch of Alexandria. In both areas, religious dissent became a vehicle for social revolt at a time of political deterioration and economic depression.

Invited to North Africa by a rebellious Roman official, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, crossed from Spain in 429. They seized power and, under their leader, Gaiseric, established a kingdom that made its capital at Carthage.

Although the Roman Empire eventually recognized their overlordship in much of North Africa, including Tripolitania, the Vandals confined their rule to the most economically profitable areas. There they constituted an isolated warrior caste, concerned with collecting taxes and exploiting the land but leaving civil administration in Roman hands. From their African base they conquered Sardinia and Corsica and launched raids on Italy, sacking the city of Rome in 455. In time, however, the Vandals lost much of their warlike spirit, and their kingdom fell to the armies of Belisarius, the Byzantine general who in 533 began the reconquest of North Africa for the Roman Empire.

Effective Byzantine control in Tripolitania was restricted to the coast, and even there the newly walled towns, strongholds, fortified farms, and watchtowers called attention to its tenuous nature.

The region's prosperity had shrunk under Vandal domination, and the old Roman political and social order, disrupted by the Vandals, could not be restored. In outlying areas neglected by the Vandals, the inhabitants had sought the protection of tribal chieftains and, having grown accustomed to their autonomy, resisted reassimilation into the imperial system.

Cyrenaica, which had remained an outpost of the Byzantine Empire during the Vandal period, also took on the characteristics of an armed camp. Unpopular Byzantine governors imposed burdensome taxation to meet military costs, but towns and public services--including the water system--were left to decay. Byzantine rule in Africa did prolong the Roman ideal of imperial unity there for another century and a half, however, and prevented the ascendancy of the Berber nomads in the coastal region.


The Phoenicians were the first to establish trading posts in Libya, when the merchants of Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) developed commercial relations with the Berber tribes and made treaties with them to ensure their cooperation in the exploitation of raw materials.

By the 5th century BC, Carthage, the greatest of the Phoenician colonies, had extended its hegemony across much of N.Africa, where a distinctive civilization, known as Punic, came into being. Punic settlements on the Libyan coast included Oea (Tripoli), Libdah (Leptis Magna) and Sabratha. All these were in an area that was later called Tripolis, or "Three Cities". Libya's current-day capital Tripoli takes its name from this.

Fezzan and the Garamentes

Throughout the period of Punic and Greek colonization of the coastal plain, the area known as Fezzan was dominated by the Garamentes, a tribal people who entered the region sometime before 1000 B.C. In the desert they established a powerful kingdom astride the trade route between the western Sudan and the Mediterranean coast.

The Garamentes left numerous inscriptions in tifinagh, the ancient Berber form of writing still used by the Tuareg. Beyond these and the observations of Herodotus and other classical writers on their customs and dealings with the coastal settlements, little was known of this extraordinary and mysterious people until the advent of modern archaeological methods.

The Garamentes' political power was limited to a chain of oases about 400 kilometers long in the Wadi Ajal, but from their capital at Germa they controlled the desert caravan trade from Ghadamis south to the Niger River, eastward to Egypt, and west to Mauretania . The Carthaginians employed them as carriers of goods--gold and ivory purchased in exchange for salt--from the western Sudan to their depots on the Mediterranean coast.

The Garamentes were also noted as horsebreeders and herders of longhorned cattle. They succeeded in irrigating portions of their arid lands for cultivation by using foggares, vast underground networks of stone-lined water channels. Their wealth and technical skill are also attested to by the remains of their towns, which were built of stone, and more than 50,000 of their pyramidal tombs. Rome sent several punitive expeditions against the Garamentes before concluding a lasting commercial and military alliance with them late in the first century A.D.

Cyrenaica and the Greeks

Like the Phoenicians, Minoan and Greek seafarers had for centuries probed the North African coast, which at the nearest point lay 300 kilometers from Crete, but systematic Greek settlement there began only in the seventh century B.C. during the great age of Hellenic overseas colonization.

According to tradition, emigrants from the crowded island of Thera were commanded by the oracle at Delphi to seek a new home in North Africa, where in 631 B.C. they founded the city of Cyrene. The site to which Berber guides had led them was in a fertile highland region about 20 kilometers inland from the sea at a place where, according to the Berbers, a "hole in the heavens" would provide ample rainfall for the colony.

Within 200 years of Cyrene's founding, four more important Greek cities were established in the area: Barce (Al Marj); Euhesperides (later Berenice, present-day Benghazi); Teuchira (later Arsinoe, present-day Tukrah); and Apollonia (Susah), the port of Cyrene. Together with Cyrene, they were known as the Pentapolis (Five Cities).

Often in competition, they found cooperation difficult even when confronted by common enemies. From Cyrene, the mother city and foremost of the five, derived the name of Cyrenaica for the whole region.

The Greeks of the Pentapolis resisted encroachments by the Egyptians from the east as well as by the Carthaginians from the west, but in 525 B.C. the army of Cambyses (son of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia), fresh from the conquest of Egypt, overran Cyrenaica, which for the next two centuries remained under Persian or Egyptian rule.

Alexander the Great was greeted by the Greeks when he entered Cyrenaica in 331 B.C. When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his empire was divided among his Macedonian generals. Egypt, with Cyrene, went to Ptolemy, a general under Alexander who took over his African and Syrian possessions; the other Greek citystates of the Pentapolis retained their autonomy.

However, the inability of the city-states to maintain stable governments led the Ptolemies to impose workable constitutions on them. Later, a federation of the Pentapolis was formed that was customarily ruled by a king drawn from the Ptolemaic royal house. Ptolemy Apion, the last Greek ruler, bequeathed Cyrenaica to Rome, which formally annexed the region in 74 B.C. and joined it to Crete as a Roman province.

The economic and cultural development of the Pentapolis was unaffected by the turmoil its political life generated. The region grew rich from grain, wine, wool, and stockbreeding and from silphium, an herb that grew only in Cyrenaica and was regarded as an aphrodisiac.

Cyrene became one of the greatest intellectual and artistic centers of the Greek world, famous for its medical school, learned academies, and architecture, which included some of the finest examples of the Hellenistic style. The Cyrenaics, a school of thinkers who expounded a doctrine of moral cheerfulness that defined happiness as the sum of human pleasures, also made their home there and took inspiration from the city's pleasant climate.


The Romans unified all three regions of Libya, and for more than 600 years Tripolitania and Cyrenaica became prosperous Roman provinces. Roman ruins, such as those of Leptis Magna, attest to the vitality of the region, where populous cities and even small towns enjoyed the amenities of urban life. Merchants and artisans from many parts of the Roman world established themselves in North Africa, but the character of the cities of Tripolitania remained decidedly Punic and, in Cyrenaica, Greek.

Islam & The Arabs

Arabs under General Abdullah ibn Saad conquered Libya in the 7th century AD during the reign of Caliph Usman. In the following centuries, many of the indigenous peoples adopted Islam, and also the Arabic language and culture.

By the time of his death in A.D. 632, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers had brought most of the tribes and towns of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of the new monotheistic religion of Islam (literally, "submission"), which was conceived of as uniting the individual believer and society under the omnipotent will of Allah (God). Islamic rulers therefore exercised both temporal and religious authority. Adherents of Islam, called Muslims ("those who submit" to the will of God), collectively formed the House of Islam (Dar al Islam).

Within a generation, Arab armies had carried Islam north and east from Arabia and westward into North Africa. In 642 Amr ibn al As, an Arab general under Caliph Umar I, conquered Cyrenaica, establishing his headquarters at Barce. Two years later, he moved into Tripolitania, where, by the end of the decade, the isolated Byzantine garrisons on the coast were overrun and Arab control of the region consolidated.

Uqba bin Nafi, an Arab general under the ruling Caliph, invaded Fezzan in 663, forcing the capitulation of Germa. Stiff Berber resistance in Tripolitania had slowed the Arab advance to the west, however, and efforts at permanent conquest were resumed only when it became apparent that the Maghrib (see Glossary) could be opened up as a theater of operations in the Muslim campaign against the Byzantine Empire. In 670 the Arabs surged into the Roman province of Africa (transliterated Ifriqiya in Arabic; present-day Tunisia), where Uqba founded the city of Kairouan (present-day Al Qayrawan) as a military base for an assault on Byzantine-held Carthage.

Twice the Berber tribes compelled them to retreat into Tripolitania, but each time the Arabs, employing recently converted Berber tribesmen recruited in Tripolitania, returned in greater force, and in 693 they took Carthage. The Arabs cautiously probed the western Maghrib and in 710 invaded Morocco, carrying their conquests to the Atlantic.

In 712 they mounted an invasion of Spain and in three years had subdued all but the mountainous regions in the extreme north. Muslim Spain (called Andalusia), the Maghrib (including Tripolitania), and Cyrenaica were systematically organized under the political and religious leadership of the Umayyad caliph of Damascus.

Arab rule in North Africa--as elsewhere in the Islamic world in the eighth century--had as its ideal the establishment of political and religious unity under a caliphate (the office of the Prophet's successor as supreme earthly leader of Islam) governed in accord with sharia (a legal system) administered by qadis (religious judges) to which all other considerations, including tribal loyalties, were subordinated. The sharia was based primarily on the Quran and the hadith (see Glossary) and derived in part from Arab tribal and market law.

Arab rule was easily imposed in the coastal farming areas and on the towns, which prospered again under Arab patronage. Townsmen valued the security that permitted them to practice their commerce and trade in peace, while the Punicized farmers recognized their affinity with the Semitic Arabs to whom they looked to protect their lands; in Cyrenaica, Monophysite adherents of the Coptic Church had welcomed the Muslim Arabs as liberators from Byzantine oppression.

Communal and representative Berber tribal institutions, however, contrasted sharply and frequently clashed with the personal and authoritarian government that the Arabs had adopted under Byzantine influence. While the Arabs abhorred the tribal Berbers as barbarians, the Berbers in the hinterland often saw the Arabs only as an arrogant and brutal soldiery bent on collecting taxes.

The Arabs formed an urban elite in North Africa, where they had come as conquerors and missionaries, not as colonists. Their armies had traveled without women and married among the indigenous population, transmitting Arab culture and Islamic religion over a period of time to the townspeople and farmers.

Although the nomadic tribes of the hinterland had stoutly resisted Arab political domination, they rapidly accepted Islam. Once established as Muslims, however, the Berbers, with their characteristic love of independence and impassioned religious temperament, shaped Islam in their own image, enthusiastically embracing schismatic Muslim sects--often traditional folk religion barely distinguished as Islam--as a way of breaking from Arab control.

One such sect, the Kharijites (seceders; literally, "those who emerge from impropriety") surfaced in North Africa in the mideighth century, proclaiming its belief that any suitable Muslim candidate could be elected caliph without regard to his race, station, or descent from the Prophet. The attack on the Arab monopoly of the religious leadership of Islam was explicit in Kharijite doctrine, and Berbers across the Maghrib rose in revolt in the name of religion against Arab domination.

The rise of the Kharijites coincided with a period of turmoil in the Arab world during which the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyads and relocated the caliphate in Baghdad. In the wake of the revolt, Kharijite sectarians established a number of theocratic tribal kingdoms, most of which had short and troubled histories. One such kingdom, however, founded by the Bani Khattab, succeeded in putting down roots in remote Fezzan, where the capital, Zawilah, developed into an important oasis trading center.

After the Arab conquest, North Africa was governed by a succession of amirs (commanders) who were subordinate to the caliph in Damascus and, after 750, in Baghdad. In 800 the Abbasid caliph Harun ar Rashid appointed as amir Ibrahim ibn Aghlab, who established a hereditary dynasty at Kairouan that ruled Ifriqiya and Tripolitania as an autonomous state that was subject to the caliph's spiritual jurisdiction and that nominally recognized him as its political suzerain.

The Aghlabid amirs repaired the neglected Roman irrigation system, rebuilding the region's prosperity and restoring the vitality of its cities and towns with the agricultural surplus that was produced.

At the top of the political and social hierarchy were the bureaucracy, the military caste, and an Arab urban elite that included merchants, scholars, and government officials who had come to Kairouan, Tunis, and Tripoli from many parts of the Islamic world. Members of the large Jewish communities that also resided in those cities held office under the amirs and engaged in commerce and the crafts.

Converts to Islam often retained the positions of authority held traditionally by their families or class in Roman Africa, but a dwindling, Latinspeaking , Christian community lingered on in the towns until the eleventh century. The Aghlabids contested control of the central Mediterranean with the Byzantine Empire and, after conquering Sicily, played an active role in the internal politics of Italy.

By the seventh century, a conflict had developed between supporters of rival claimants to the caliphate that would split Islam into two branches--the orthodox Sunni and the Shia--which continued thereafter as the basic division among Muslims.

The Shia (from Shiat Ali, or Party of Ali) supported the claims of the direct descendants of Ali, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, whereas the Sunni favored that of Ali's rival, the leader of a collateral branch of Muhammad's tribe, and the principle of election of the fittest from the ranks of the shurfa (see Glossary). The Shia had their greatest appeal among non-Arab Muslims, who, like the Berbers, were scorned by the aristocratic desert Arabs.

In the last decade of the ninth century, missionaries of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam converted the Kutama Berbers of the Kabylie region to the militant brand of Shia Islam and led them on a crusade against the Sunni Aghlabids. Kairouan fell in 909, and the next year the Kutama installed the Ismaili grandmaster from Syria, Ubaidalla Said, as imam (see Glossary) of their movement and ruler over the territory they had conquered, which included Tripolitania. Recognized by his Berber followers as the Mahdi ("the divinely guided one"--see Glossary), the imam founded the Shia dynasty of the Fatimids, named for Fatima, daughter of Muhammad and wife of Ali, from whom the imam claimed descent.

Merchants of the coastal towns were the backbone of the Fatimid state that was founded by religious enthusiasts and imposed by Berber tribesmen. The slow but steady economic revival of Europe created a demand for goods from the East for which Fatimid ports in North Africa and Sicily were ideal distribution centers. Tripoli thrived on the trade in slaves and gold brought from the Sudan and on the sale of wool, leather, and salt shipped from its docks to Italy in exchange for wood and iron goods.

For many years the Fatimids threatened Morocco with invasion, but they eventually turned their armies eastward, where in the name of religion the Berbers took their revenge on the Arabs. By 969 the Fatimids had completed the conquest of Egypt and moved their capital to the new city that they founded at Cairo, where they established a Shia caliphate to rival that of the Sunni caliph at Baghdad. They left the Maghrib to their Berber vassals, the Zirids, but the Shia regime had already begun to crumble in Tripolitania as factions struggled indecisively for regional supremacy.

The Zirids neglected the economy, except to pillage it for their personal gain. Agricultural production declined, and farmers and herdsmen became brigands. Shifting patterns of trade gradually depressed the once-thriving commerce of the towns. In an effort to hold the support of the urban Arabs, in 1049 the Zirid amir defiantly rejected the Shia creed, broke with the Fatimids, and initiated a Berber return to Sunni orthodoxy.


In Cairo the Fatimid caliph reacted by inviting the Bani Hilal and Bani Salim, beduin tribes from Arabia known collectively as the Hilalians, to migrate to the Maghrib and punish his rebellious vassals, the Zirids. The Arab nomads spread across the region, in the words of the historian Ibn Khaldun, like a "swarm of locusts," impoverishing it, destroying towns, and dramatically altering the face and culture of the countryside.

The Hilalian impact on Cyrenaica and Tripolitania was devastating in both economic and demographic terms. Tripoli was sacked, and what little remained of urban life in once-great cities like Cyrene was snuffed out, leaving only ruins. Over a long period of time, Arabs displaced Berbers (many of whom joined the Hilalians) from their traditional lands and converted farmland to pasturage. Land was neglected, and the steppe was allowed to intrude into the coastal plain.

The number of Hilalians who moved westward out of Egypt has been estimated as high as 200,000 families. The Bani Salim seem to have stopped in Libya, while the Bani Hilal continued across the Maghrib until they reached the Atlantic coast of Morocco and completed the Arabization of the region, imposing their social organization, values, and language on it. The process was particularly thorough in Cyrenaica, which is said to be more Arab than any place in the Arab world except for the interior of Arabia.

The Norman rulers of southern Italy took advantage of the Zirids' distress in North Africa to invade Sicily in 1060 and bring it back under Christian control. By 1150 the Normans held a string of ports and fortresses along the coast between Tunis and Tripoli, but their interests in North Africa were commercial rather than political, and no effort was made to extend the conquest inland.

Ottoman Turks

Part of the Ottoman Empire from the early 16th century, Libya experienced autonomous rule (similar to that in Ottoman Algeria and Tunisia) under the Karamanli dynasty from 1711 to 1835. In the latter year the Ottomans took advantage of a dispute over the succession and local disorder to reestablish direct administration. For the next 77 years the area was administered by officials from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) and shared in the limited modernization common to the rest of the empire.

The Ottoman Turks conquered the country in the mid-16th century, and the three States or "Wilayat" of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan (which make up Libya) remained part of their empire with the exception of the virtual autonomy of the Karamanlis. The Karamanlis ruled from 1711 until 1835 mainly in Tripolitania, but had influence in Cyrenaica and Fezzan as well by the mid 18th century. This constituted a first glimpse in recent history of the united and independent Libya that was to re-emerge two centuries later.

In Libya the most significant event of the period was the creation (1837) of the Sanusiyyah, which preached a puritanical form of Islam, giving the people instruction and material assistance and so creating in them an added sense of unity. The first Sanusi zawiyah (monastery) in Libya was established in 1843 near the ruins of the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene in eastern Cyrenaica. The order spread principally in that province but also found adherents in the south.

The Grand al-Sanusi, as the founder came to be called, moved his headquarters to the oasis of Al-Jaghbub near the Egyptian frontier, and in 1895 his son and successor, Sidi Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi, transferred it farther south into the Sahara to the oasis group of Al-Kufrah.

Though the Ottomans welcomed the order's opposition to the spread of French influence northward from Chad and Tibesti, they regarded with suspicion the political influence it exerted within Cyrenaica. In 1908 the Young Turk revolution gave a new impulse to reform.

Ironically, reunification came about through the unlikely route of an invasion (Italo-Turkish War, 1911-1912). The Italians, with banking and other interests in the country, launched an invasion of Libya. The occupation starting from 1911 and finally Italy simultaneously turned the three regions into colonies.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008