Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Second Ottoman Period – Al-Senussi (1823 – 1859)

Libya Second Ottoman Period
This map from 1883 shows the wide extent of the Sanusi spread over the Sahara. It is interesting to note that the author, Henri Duveyrier, locates Jaghbub inside Egyptian territory. The precise location of borders at this time was not well understood. Source: University of Illinois Digital Collections


After the Ottomans had re-established direct control over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1835, they were determined to keep it. Faced with the French invasion of Algeria in 1830 they set about salvaging their biggest territory in North Africa. Having removed the Qaramanlis, Istanbul did not allow any governor to regain the former autonomy, and pashas were rotated with great rapidity: there were 33 governors over the next 75 years.

The Ottomans also wanted to control the hinterland of Tripoli, to extract revenue. There was resistance to the conquest of the hinterland in the Jabal al-Gharb, around Misrata and among the Warfalla and Tarhuna tribes on the northern edges of the Sahara. Much like other imperial powers of the time, the Ottomans overcame resistance by force, punitive taxation, and the incorporation of local leaders into provincial government. At the same time, the Ottomans incorporated Tripoli into the European world economic order – and its moral order, until slavery was abolished.

The Wider Mediterranean economy

Libya Second Ottoman Period
Esparto grass, which grew wild in North Africa, became an important export product from Libya in the 19th century, where it was harvested by hand, before being exported to make high-quality paper, particularly for banknotes. Photo Carsten Niehaus, Wikimedia Commons

By the middle of the 19th century, Tripoli was able to export quantities of cereals, olive oil, animals and butter. When the rains were good, agricultural exports boomed; in bad years they dropped to nothing. Drought and famine recurred over the 19th century (1856, 1859, 1881-1882, 1888), and even into the 20th century (1901-1903). Added to the Saharan trade, the annual trade was around £3.2 million (£262 million at current prices). This was smaller than other parts of North Africa but it grew greatly in the late 19th century when esparto grass became a staple of the British paper industry. Britain was Tripoli’s major trading partner by the end of the century, followed by Italy.

[PICTURE] Esparto grass, which grew wild in North Africa, became an important export product from Libya in the 19th century, where it was harvested by hand, before being exported to make high-quality paper, particularly for banknotes. Photo Carsten Niehaus, Wikimedia Commons

Most of the population of the hinterland was nomadic or semi-nomadic and hard to count. The first census in 1911 put it at just under 600,000. The urban population was estimated half a century earlier (1850) at around 12,000 inhabitants each in Tripoli and Misrata and no more than about 5,000 each in Murzuq in Fezzan and the two major towns of Cyrenaica, Benghazi and Derna.

The Jewish minority was poorly-seen socially, but it grew quickly – from about 1,000 Jewish families in Tripoli in 1853 to about 10,500 people in 1914, somewhere between one-fifth to one-third of the city’s population. There were also smaller Jewish populations in the interior and in Cyrenaica. In Tripoli, they were traders, grocers and butchers and craftsmen (shoemakers, carpenters, builders, and silversmiths). In addition, they had a role in trade with Europe. Many European consuls employed them as agents. As they knew European languages, Jewish traders had a huge network across both sides of the Mediterranean, so they often had a much closer interaction with Europeans. This also gave them semi-diplomatic protection.

There was a local government in Tripoli and other towns. Formal primary and secondary education and the beginnings of a civilian legal system were developed, and a limited infrastructure built. The basis of a modern educated class emerged from the old elite families.

Cyrenaica, far away from Tripolitania, was separated by desert that reached the shore of the sea. As it had been under the Qaramanlis, Ottoman control of the province was far less effective. Cyrenaica was semi-autonomous and the Ottoman presence was marginal. It was hard for the small garrisons to collect taxes. This allowed the tribal structures to dominate the pastoral lands and access to water.

The Sanusis

The Ottomans’ limited control of Cyrenaica and the desert permitted the growth of a powerful Sufi brotherhood, the Sanusiyya. It was founded in 1837 in Mecca by the Grand Sanusi, Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi (1787-1859). He preached a middle path between the ecstatic Sufi mysticism and the rationality of orthodox Sunni ulama (religious scholars), rejecting fanaticism and the use of stimulants, like coffee, tea and hashish. Rather than relying on charity, he emphasized hard work. The brotherhood took control of the trans-Saharan trade and became extremely wealthy.

Around 1843 al-Sanusi moved his headquarters to al-Bayda (after the Zawiya al-Bayda, the white monastery) which became his headquarters in the Jabal al-Akhdar. From there, in 1855 he moved to Jaghbub, close to the Egyptian oasis of Siwa but still in present-day Libya. From its remote bases deep in the desert, the Sanusiyya was more powerful than the Ottoman state. When the Grand Sanusi died, in 1859, his son Muhammad al-Mahdi succeeded him and in 1894 moved his base even further away, to Kufra, far to the south.

The Sanusi brotherhood had become famous in Fez, Damascus, Constantinople, the Hejaz, and as far away as India. In the desert itself, there were about a hundred local Sanusi zawiyas (retreats) which had some of the functions of a state: mediation in disputes, assistance to the poor, encouragement of trade, and resistance to the armies of the Christian powers. At the beginning of the 20th century, the French advanced northwards across the Sahara, and the Sanusis organized a jihad to resist them.