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Ancient Libya

In ancient times, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the armies of Alexander the Great and his Ptolemaic successors from Egypt, then Romans, Vandals, and local representatives of the Byzantine Empire ruled parts of Libya. The territory of modern Libya had separate histories until Roman times, as Tripoli and Cyrenaica.

Tripoli was originally a group of Phoenician colonies dependent on Carthage. Carthage and its dependencies all fell to Rome during the course of the three Punic Wars. Tripoli is the ancient sea port at the terminus of three great caravan routes linking the coast with Lake Chad and Timbuktu across the Sahara.

Cyrenaica, by contrast, was already heavily colonized by the Greeks centuries before it became a Roman province. It was also known as Pentapolis, the "five cities" being Cyrene (near the village of Shahat) with its port of Apollonia (Marsa Susa), Arsinoe (Tocra), Berenice (Bengazi) and Barca (Al Marj). From the oldest and most famous of the Greek colonies the fertile coastal plain took the name of Cyrenaica.

The Islamic Period

In 647 an army of 40,000 Arabs, led by 'Abdu'llah ibn Sa'ad, the foster-brother of Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, invaded western Libya. Tripoli was taken from the Byzantines, followed by Sufetula, a city 150 miles south of Carthage, where the Exarch Gregory was killed. Gregory's successor, Gennadius, promised them an annual tribute of some 330,000 nomismata. Gennadius also sent the usual surplus of revenues over expenditures to Constantinople, but otherwise administered Africa as he liked. When Gennadius refused to pay the additional sums demanded from Constantinople, his own men overthrew him.

Following the revolt, Gennadius fled to Damascus and asked for aid from Muawiyah, to whom he had paid tribute for years. The caliph sent a sizable force with Gennadius to invade Africa in 665. Even though the deposed exarch died after reaching Alexandria, the Arabs marched on. The Byzantines dispatched an army to reinforce Africa, but its commander Nicephorus the Patrician lost a battle with the Arabs and reembarked. Uqba ibn Nafi and Abu Muhajir al Dinar did much to promote Islam and in the following centuries most of the indigenous peoples converted.

In 750 the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Ummayad caliph and shifted the capital to Baghdad, with emirs retaining nominal control over the Libyan coast on behalf of the far-distant caliph. In 800 Caliph Harun ar-Rashid appointed Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab as his governor. The Aghlabids dynasty effectively became independent of the Baghdad caliphs, who continued to retain spiritual authority. The Aghlabid emirs took their custodianship of Libya seriously, repairing Roman irrigation systems, restoring order and bringing a measure of prosperity to the region.

See also Ottoman Rule (15th-1912)

By the beginning of the 15th century the Libyan coast had minimal central authority and its harbours were havens for pirates. Hapsburg Spain occupied Tripoli in 1510, but the Spaniards were more concerned with controlling the port than with the inconveniences of administering a colony. Ferdinand V took Tripoli and in 1528 gave it to the Knights of St John of Malta. In 1538 Tripoli was reconquered by a pirate king called Khair ad-Din (known more evocatively as Barbarossa, or Red Beard) and the coast became renowned as the Barbary Coast.

When the Ottomans arrived to occupy Tripoli in 1551, they saw little reason to rein in the pirates, preferring instead to profit from the booty. It would be more than two centuries before the pirates' control of the region was challenged.

Under the Ottomans, the Meghreb was divided into three provinces, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis. After 1565, administrative authority in Tripoli was vested in a pasha appointed by the sultan in Constantinople. The sultan provided the pasha with a corps of janissaries, which was in turn divided into a number of companies under the command of a junior officer or bey. The janissaries quickly became the dominant force in Ottoman Libya.

In 1711, Ahmed Karamanli, an Ottoman cavalry officer, seized power and founded the Karamanli dynasty, which would last 124 years. In May 1801 Pasha Yusuf Karamanli demanded from the United States an increase in the tribute ($83,000) which that government had paid since 1796 for the protection of their commerce from piracy. The demand was refused, an American naval force blockaded Tripoli, and a desultory war dragged on until 3 June 1805.

In 1835, the government of Sultan Mahmud II took advantage of local disturbances to reassert their direct authority and held it until the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As decentralized Ottoman power had resulted in the virtual independence of Egypt as well as Tripoli, the coast and desert lying between them relapsed to anarchy, even after direct Ottoman control was resumed in Tripoli. Over a 75 year period the Ottoman Turks provided 33 governors and Libya remained part of the empire-- although at times virtually autonomous-- until Italy invaded in 1911, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing.

Italian Rule

The attempted Italian colonization of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica was never wholly successful. On October 3, 1911, the Italians attacked Tripoli, claiming somewhat disingenuously to be liberating Libya from Ottoman rule. Despite a major revolt by the Libyans, the Ottoman sultan ceded Libya to the Italians by signing the 1912 Treaty of Lausanne. Tripoli was largely under Italian control by 1914, but both Cyrenaica and the Fezzan were home to rebellions led by the Senussis. 150,000 Italians settled in Libya.

In 1920 (25 October) the Italian government recognized Sheikh Sidi Idris the hereditary head of the nomadic Senussi, with wide authority in Kufra and other oases, as Emir of Cyrenaica, a new title extended by the British at the close of World War I. The emir would eventually become king of the free Libyan state.

In 1944, Idris returned from exile in Cairo but declined to resume permanent residence in Cyrenaica until the removal in 1947 of some aspects of foreign control. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya. In July 1999 the Italian government offered a formal apology to Libya and it is reported that Italy agreed to pay USD $260 million as compensation for the occupation.

Modern Libya

On November 21, 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Libya should become independent before January 1, 1952. Idris represented Libya in the subsequent UN negotiations. When Libya declared its independence on December 24, 1951, it was the first country to achieve independence through the United Nations and one of the first former European possessions in Africa to gain independence. Libya was proclaimed a constitutional and a hereditary monarchy and Idris was proclaimed king.

The discovery of significant oil reserves in 1959 and the subsequent income from petroleum sales enabled what had been one of the world's poorest countries to become extremely wealthy. Although oil drastically improved Libya's finances, popular resentment grew as wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite.

On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by then 28-year-old army officer Mu'ammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi staged a coup d'etat against King Idris, who was exiled to Egypt. The new regime, headed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic. The new RCC's motto became "freedom, socialism, and unity." It pledged itself to remedy "backwardness," take an active role in the Palestinian Arab cause, promote Arab unity, and encourage domestic policies based on social justice, nonexploitation, and an equitable distribution of wealth.


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