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From Antiquity to World War II

Rock art in the Acacus Mountains
Rock art in the Acacus Mountains


Coming of Islam
Ottoman Rule, Corsairs and Karamanli
The Second Ottoman Period and the Rise of al-Senussi
Italy’s ‘Fourth Coast’
Omar Mukhtar
World War II

The original inhabitants of North Africa apparently descended from Neolithic people who migrated there between 15,000 and 10,000 BCE. They were nomadic herdsmen who occasionally cultivated land and hunted.

The earliest evidence of (semi-)permanent settlements in Libya dates back to 8000 BCE. The main source of knowledge about this period is the petroglyphs in the Acacus Mountains (near Ghat), Wadi Matkhandoush (south-west of Sabha), and Tassili n’Ajjer and the Hoggar Mountains (both in Algeria).

The Phoenicians were the earliest arrivals. In the 12th century BCE, international traders based in what is now Lebanon criss-crossed the Mediterranean. Around 700 BCE, Phoenicians who sought to expand their trade in gold, silver, ivory, and raw materials established settlements at Lebda (Leptis Magna), Oea (Tripoli), and Sabratha. The name Tripoli reminds us of the prosperity of these three ancient cities, from which the Phoenicians traded with the Amazigh tribes in the interior. These remains of the ancient civilizations in Libya – Leptis Magna (Lebda), Sabratha, Apollonia (Marsa Susa) and the port of Cyrene – are now important tourist attractions.

The Phoenician colonies were governed from Carthage, in modern Tunisia, which was founded in 814 BCE and, by about 400 BCE, dominated the North African coast between Tripolitania and the Atlantic. After several wars against Rome, Carthage gradually lost its importance. In 146 BCE, the Romans defeated the Phoenicians, and Carthage was destroyed: ancient accounts say it was laid waste and bestrewn with salt.

In Fezzan, the modern settlement of Germa has remnants of large cities. Archaeologists believe that these cities were outposts on trade routes, and they flourished with markets and forums for public entertainment. Their inhabitants were called Garamantes and were probably descended from the Neolithic population. Some of them were familiar with cultivation and probably came originally from Libya’s eastern oases.

The Garamantes formed a substantial nation in Fezzan between 900 BCE and 500 CE. They are believed to have had writing, horses, and wheeled vehicles. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BCE that people in Fezzan used wagons with four horses to hunt ‘troglodyte Ethiopians’, probably referring to the Toubou in the Tibesti Mountains.

The Garamantes dominated the caravan routes through the desert to Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. Salt, traded for gold and slaves, was used to preserve meat and food. Herodotus described the Garamantes’ agricultural practices: spreading salt on the earth to germinate seeds and relying on hundreds of underground aqueducts, foggaras , in the oases for a flourishing agriculture. The Garamantes probably collapsed when the underground water supply was exhausted.

The Imazighen/Berbers adopted much of the Phoenician culture and language, which, like related Semitic languages, was written from right to left. It was long thought that the Phoenician language was replaced by the Latin language of the Roman conquerors in two centuries, after the destruction of Carthage, but recent research indicates that the regional elite used the language much longer. This included church father Augustine (354-430 CE) and the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193 to 211 CE).

Umayyads Libya history
The Umayyads

The Muslim conquest of North Africa in the final decades of the 7th century was a by-product of the conquests further east: Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt were far richer and more sophisticated societies. Situated on the political periphery, North African states quickly emerged that were ruled by Muslims but washed over by the great political events in the east rather than influencing their course. While the Maghreb was incorporated into the Islamic world, it quickly went its own way politically.

Early Islam was rent by a long struggle in the decades following the death of the Prophet, who had designated no successor. Abu Bakr and Umar, the first two caliphs (Arabic khalifa, successor or deputy to the Prophet) were chosen by the Meccan elite, with little opposition from the community. Under the third caliph, Uthman, a rift occured within the community over the Prophet’s succession and he was eventually murdered (as was Umar before him). It was under these three leaders that the conquest of North Africa began, with the taking of Egypt in 641. The controversy over the succession led Uthman’s opponents to gather round the family of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. Ali became caliph, but the Meccan elite soon deposed him. The first split that emerged in Islam was between those who believed that the caliph should come from among Muhammad’s descendants and those who believed that the caliph should be chosen by the Meccan elite. Ali’s party, the Shiat Ali, or Shiites, became a permanent focus of dissent from mainstream Muslims, known as Sunnis.

Ali’s line of Shiite imams, or leaders, continued until the 9th century, when the twelfth imam disappeared, leaving his followers with the hope that he had merely gone into hiding and would return to lead a revolutionary period of justice and truth that would finally prevail. Supporters of an alternative seventh imam had the same idea: Shiites combined millenarian ideals with descent from Fatima and Ali.

A third group rejected both Sunnis and Shiites, saying that descent or oligarchy was no way to choose the leader of the community. Only a man chosen for his piety and his probity was acceptable. This group left the main community and so were described as Kharijites, ‘those who go out’. They sought refuge in remote areas, such as the desert and the peripheries of Islam (Iraq and North Africa).

It was the mainstream Sunnis who continued the invasion of North Africa after their leader Muawiya seized the caliphate in 661 and established the Umayyad dynasty. Uqba ibn Nafi led the attack in 662. By 674 he had moved across the desolate desert of Libya to found a new base at Kairouan, in what is now Tunisia. Kairouan, which became the Islamic capital of North Africa, gradually changed from a military camp into a great centre of learning, government, and trade. From Kairouan, Uqba struck inland across the central plateau and in 682 reached the Atlantic coast.

The advance was not opposed by the Christian inhabitants of the coast, because they were not forced to convert. Few Berbers were Christians, and although some were Jews, most were animists. Pagans could be forced to submit, although the Muslims found it hard to break Amazigh resistance. They did eventually convert but were irked by their second-class status and open to the influence of heterodox movements such as the Shiites and Kharijites.

Abbasid caliphate libya historyTo a large extent, the rule of the Umayyads, from Damascus, and the later Abbasid dynasty, from Baghdad, was confined to the North African coast. In the 720s Ibadi propagandists, a moderate offshoot of the Kharijites, reached Tripolitania and took root in Jebel Nafusa. Encouraged by the Ibadi leadership in Iraq, they formed a local imamate that took Tripoli in 757 and Kairouan in 758. In 761 the Abbasid governor of Egypt defeated the Ibadis at Tawergha. The Abbasids’ governors in Kairouan, members of the Aghlabid family, who became virtually autonomous at the start of the 9th century pushed the Ibadis further back into the interior, where they founded an imamate at Tiaret, in Algeria, which effectively controlled the Jebel Nafusa until it was overrun by the Aghlabid ruler Ibrahim II in 897. Although there were brief attempts to found Ibadi states in Tripolitania, these died out under the Fatimids in the 11th century, after which the Ibadis were confined to isolated communities in the Mzab (Algeria), Djerba (Tunisia), and the Jebel Nafusa.

At the end of the 9th century, North Africa became host to another heterodox group, the Shiite Ismailis. They originated in Syria, where a man named Ubayd Allah announced that he was a descendant of the hidden Imam, through the vanished seventh Imam, Ismail. One of his propagandists, Abu Abdullah, arrived in the Maghreb in 893 and quickly won support. In 909 he defeated the last Aghlabid ruler and was able to give protection to Ubayd Allah when he fled to the Maghreb and declared himself caliph, the head of a new dynasty called the Fatimids. The Fatimids were the only important Shiite caliphate in the history of Islam, and their eventual aim was to conquer the Arab east. Their Tunisian capital, Mahdia, was built on a peninsula facing east into the Mediterranean, and eventually, in 972, they were able to conquer Egypt and moved the seat of the caliphate to Cairo. Once they had done so, control of the Maghreb began to slip away, and local dynasties began to reassert themselves. Tripoli fell under the control of the Zirid dynasty, Berbers who originated in what is now Algeria. They had once served the Fatimids faithfully, and, following the move to Cairo, they were appointed governors of the central Maghreb, but after a split with the Algerian branch of the family, they abandoned the Shiite ideology of their nominal overlords in the mid-11th century and ruled what is now Tunisia and western Libya from Kairouan. Supposedly, they paid allegiance to the shadowy Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, but they were actually independent and, for a while, prosperous and powerful.

By the mid-11th century, however, North Africa was afflicted by an economic and social crisis. Two great confederations of Arab tribes moved in from the east, the Banu Hilal and the Banu Sulaym. The traditional view is that they were sent to the Maghreb by the Fatimids to bring the Zirids to heel, ruining the economy of the region in the process. Another view holds that the economic collapse was the result of internal factors. A more recent hypothesis is that the whole concept of ruin is greatly exaggerated and that the arrival of the Banu Hilal and the Banu Sulaym came about because of a long period of tribal movement. This began in Arabia, where they originated, but they were severely affected by a devastating earthquake in the north-west desert in 873 and then moved into the area west of the Nile and on into the Maghreb.

 Almoravids and Almohads Libya history
The map shows the stretch of the rule of the Almoravids and the Almohads

As Zirid rule weakened, agriculture declined and insecurity grew. After they lost Kairouan in 1057, the rule of the Zirids was confined to a coastal strip of Tunisia based on the old Fatimid capital at Mahdia. Two outside powers moved in: one was the Christian Normans of Sicily, who conquered all the coastal towns, including Tripoli, between 1146 and 1148, and the other was the Almohad dynasty based in Marrakesh, in what is now Morocco. In 1151 Almohad troops moved east and in 1152 occupied Algiers, Constantine, and Bejaïa. In 1159 they took Tunis and retook Mahdia, Sfax, and Tripoli from the Normans. This was not liberation: the first caliph of the Almohad empire Abd al-Mumin treated the central and eastern Maghreb as conquered lands and taxed them as though they had been newly occupied by Muslims.

Almohad rule did not last long: by the beginning of the 13th century it was increasingly weakened by the collapse of the tax base and by a series of defeats by the Christian armies in Spain. Then the Almohad governor in Tunis broke away and set up a local dynasty, the Hafsids, who claimed the caliphate of Islam for themselves, although even at its height it never extended much beyond Tripoli in the east and central Algeria in the west and they were twice conquered by the Marinids, who ruled Morocco following the Almohad collapse. By the early 15th century the Hafsids had rebuilt their state, and it became prosperous, partly through trade and partly through privateering attacks on Christian shipping. In the second half of the 15th century the Hafsids reached their economic zenith, strengthened by the arrival of a wave of refugees fleeing persecution in Christian Spain, who became heavily involved in manufacturing, trade, and sea raiding. But even the Hafsids were no more than a coastal phenomenon.

The political history of Fezzan was a different story. It was a long time before it was incorporated into the Arab sphere, although it had been conquered by Uqba ibn Nafi in 666 or 667. In the early 10th century, the town of Zwila, founded by a Berber named Ibn Khattab al-Hawwari, ruled Fezzan. It flourished as a centre of the slave trade and had a prosperous irrigated agriculture. Later chronicles blame the decline of Zwila on the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Fezzan was controlled by the kings of Kanem in what is now Chad and Nigeria, but wars between Kanem and Bornu (in Nigeria) in the early 16th century allowed a Moroccan tribal group, the Awlad Muhammad, to take over Fezzan, with their capital at Murzuq.

Ottoman Control, Corsairs and Karamanli

The Red Castle in Tripoli
The Red Castle in Tripoli, built by the Knights of St. John

Despite the importance of the desert trade routes, Tripoli was always oriented towards the sea. In the early 16th century the Mediterranean was a battle field between two great powers: the Habsburgs, who not only controlled the Holy Roman Empire but also Spain and its growing empire in the Americas, and the Ottomans, who took Constantinople in 1453 and expanded southwards through Syria and Egypt at the beginning of the 16th century. These two great powers vied for power at sea by seizing coastal positions. In 1510 the Spanish conquered Tripoli, but this was a strategic advance – they had no interest in governing it and in 1530 handed it over to the Knights of St. John, whom the Ottomans had expelled from Rhodes in 1522. The Spanish also gave the Knights the island of Malta, which became the main base from which they controlled the passage between the eastern and western Mediterranean. The Ottomans responded with an all-out war against the Spanish and their allies in Genoa and Malta. It was partly fought by corsairs, naval officers who acted for profit. During the 1640s Ottoman naval forces attacked numerous places on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and expelled the Spanish from their bases in Tunisia. In 1551 Turgut Reis, the Ottoman commander in the Mediterranean, took back Tripoli.

Under Ottoman control Tripoli flourished as an ideal shelter for corsairs attacking merchant ships in the Mediterranean. This sort of warfare provided great economic gains for the corsair captains, who effectively seized control of all three main North African ports – Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, which became the capitals of three Ottoman provinces. These were ruled by coteries of military men: corsair captains and Ottoman janissary troops nominally presided over by a pasha (governor) appointed by the Ottomans. In order to prevent attacks on their shipping, the French, Dutch, and British bombarded each of the three cities several times in the 17th century and forced the rulers to make treaties of peace. Small Christian states were unable to exert so much power, and Italian, Maltese, and Christian Greek shipping and their foreshores were repeatedly attacked by North African corsairs and retaliated in like manner. None of the three provinces was politically stable, because the various military factions fought amongst themselves. Eventually a dynastic system emerged in Tunis, bringing internal peace.


In 1711 Tripoli followed the same pattern. A cavalry officer, Ahmed Karamanli, who was half Turkish and half North African seized power and made himself pasha. He founded a dynasty that lasted for 124 years, the first locally-based rulers since Septimius Severus. Under Karamanli rule, Tripoli flourished and expanded to take in Cyrenaica and then Fezzan, in order to profit from the lucrative trans-Saharan caravan trade. They ruled autonomously and made their own peace and war with the European states, but they acted in the name of the Ottoman sultan and were nominally his governors. Ahmed Karamanli followed the Ottoman-favoured Hanafi school of Islamic law and built the largest mosque in Tripoli’s medina, using Ottoman architectural features such as the hexagonal minaret.

Caravan trade

Painting of the burning of the USS Philadelphia by Tripolitanians, in the harbour of Tripoli, in 1804
Painting of the burning of the USS Philadelphia by Tripolitanians, in the harbour of Tripoli, in 1804

The Karamanlis’ main source of income was the trans-Saharan caravan trade, which dealt primarily in slaves, and maritime corsairing and the protection money paid by Christian traders to avoid being attacked. When the last of the Karamanli rulers, Yusuf (reigned 1795-1832), attempted to increase his revenue by building up his fleet and beginning an expanded war on Christian shipping, he came into conflict with the newly independent United States of America. The US government refused to pay protection money, and, when Yusuf increased taxes, there was a brief civil war. In 1803 the US declared war, which they eventually won by blockading Tripoli and landing troops in Cyrenaica. This was the USA’s first foreign war and is commemorated in the US Marine Corps Hymn:

From the Halls of Montezuma,

To the shores of Tripoli;

We fight our country’s battles

In the air, on land, and sea.

In 1832 Yusuf abdicated in favour of his son, Ali II, and Ottoman troops landed to restore order. In effect, the Ottomans had to reconquer the country, using the tactics of colonial war employed by European powers. The sultan did not allow another dynasty to take the Karamanlis’ place: the pashas were rotated with great rapidity: in 75 years there were 33 governors. This second Ottoman period saw Tripoli incorporated into the European world economic order – and its moral order, when slavery was abolished.

The Second Ottoman period and the rise of al-Senussi

Ottoman clock tower in TripoliPhoto Shutterstock
Ottoman clock tower in TripoliPhoto Shutterstock

The Ottomans re-established direct control over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica after 1835 by a mixture of conquest, punitive taxation, and the incorporation of local leaders into provincial government. Resistance centred on Jebel al-Ghar, in Misrata, among the Warfalla and Tarhuna tribes, and in Fezzan. Eventually it was crushed, but even then, direct Ottoman control was confined to the coast around Tripoli city and eastwards towards Misrata. The towns were factionalized, and the Ottomans tried to incorporate the leaders of the main families into their administration.

Ottoman control over the coast had two effects. It increased the penetration of capital into the interior, so that trade flourished and the foundations of a bureaucratic state were laid in Tripolitania; there was local government in Tripoli and other towns. Formal primary and secondary education and the beginnings of a civilian legal system grew up, and a limited infrastructure developed. By the end of the 19th century Tripoli was a large town of about 30,000 people, and the rural population in its hinterland was becoming sedentary. The basis of a modern educated class emerged from the old elite families.

The Ottoman authorities had far less influence in Cyrenaica, which was effectively the fiefdom of a powerful Sufi brotherhood, the Senussi. It was founded by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali al-Senussi (1787-1859) in Mecca in 1837. He preached a middle path between the ecstatic and intuitive ways of Sufi mystics and the rationality of orthodox Sunni ulama (religious scholars), rejecting fanaticism and the use of stimulants and living on charity. He emphasized the benefits of hard work and that members must earn their living. The order became extremely wealthy by taking control of the caravan trade across the Sahara.

By 1843 the Grand Senussi moved his headquarters to Sidi Rafaa (which was renamed Bayda, after the zawiya al-bayda, its white monastery) in the Jabal al-Akhdar district in Cyrenaica, with the intention of promoting his teachings and bringing education and knowledge of Islam to rural areas. The austerity of his message matched the local tribes’ character. In 1855 he moved his base again, this time to Jaghbub, close to the Egyptian oasis of Siwa but still in present-day Libya.

The Senussi brotherhood was famous in Fez, Damascus, Constantinople, the Hejaz, and as far away as India. When the Grand Senussi died, in 1859, his son Muhammad al-Mahdi succeeded him. In Cyrenaica and the desert, the brotherhood was more powerful than the nominal governors of the Ottomans. These were remote areas, to which the brotherhood resorted in order to be far from Ottoman influence. In 1894 the Grand Senussi’s son, al-Mahdi, moved his base even further away, to Kufra, far to the south. The hundred or so local Senussi zawiyas (retreats) scattered across the desert and both its fringes, performed some of the functions that a centralized state might otherwise have provided. They offered mediation in disputes, assistance to the poor, encouragement of trade, and resistance to the encroaching armies of the Christian powers. When the French began their advance across the Sahara at the beginning of the 20th century, the Senussi organized a jihad to resist them.

Italy’s ‘fourth coast’

ِChurch of Massah 1940 Libia history
ِChurch of Massah, 1940s

At the end of the 19th century, Italian commercial penetration had grown in Tripoli – banks and trading houses had opened. Less pragmatically, some Italian nationalist politicians with a lust for an imperial identity identified Libya as a suitable colony. Apart from its strategic value, it had little to recommend it, compared with Tunisia or Egypt. A socialist deputy aptly described Libya as a ‘barrel of sand’. In any case, the real benefit was symbolic. It provided the promise of a ‘fourth coast’ (cuarta sponda) for Italy, and Italian governments insisted on protecting their supposed national interests. The other European states agreed to recognize an Italian hegemony in Libya in 1902, and, in return, the Italian government recognized an agreement made in 1899 by the French and British governments that defined the northern limit of French colonial expansion. This would become the southern boundary of the Italian colony in Libya.

What was drawn on paper for the purposes of European treaties was more difficult to make real. When the Italians invaded in 1911 and attempted to occupy their Fourth Coast, the coastal towns fell quickly, but the hinterland was more difficult to conquer. The huge battle at al-Hani, outside Tripoli, in October 1911, became an important historical symbol for the Gaddafi regime.

The Italian suppression of resistance was brutal. When the Ottomans signed a peace treaty in 1913 and promised to withdraw, local forces continued the struggle. The resistance was largely spontaneous, channelled by local, pan-Islamic, and pro-Ottoman leaders, especially during World War I, when the Ottoman sultan declared a jihad.

In April 1915 the Italian army was virtually destroyed at the battle of Ghardabia, but in the same month Britain, France, and Russia agreed the secret Treaty of London, which promised Italy favourable treatment in gaining land for its colonies if it joined the war on the Allied side. This resembled similar agreements made between the same three great powers to divide the Ottoman Empire between them, which culminated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement on Syria in 1916. There was another similarity, too: in Syria, the British also indicated they would support the creation of an Arab state to satisfy their ally, King Husayn of the Hejaz. In Libya, in 1917, Muhammad Idris, who had become the new head of the Senussi order, was persuaded to negotiate a political settlement with the Italians, mediated by the British in Egypt, who arranged for him to be appointed in 1917 as emir (prince) of Cyrenaica.

However, after the end of World War I, the Italian fascist government embarked on a final ‘pacification’ of Libya. Agreements with local groups were broken, and resistance was crushed. In 1922 Muhammad Idris went into exile in Egypt, but Senussi resistance continued, under the leadership of Omar Mukhtar

Omar Mukhtar

Omar Mukhtar was born in Cyrenaica in 1858 and educated at the Senussi centre at Jaghbub. He became a Koran teacher, but, when Italian forces began to penetrate deep into Cyrenaica, he used his local knowledge to organize a highly successful guerrilla resistance. Northern Tripolitania surrendered in 1924, and the Senussi leadership in Cyrenaica did the same in 1926.

But Omar Mukhtar and his supporters did not accept the surrender. He did not come from the traditional elite of the Senussi order: he represented a group that had never been willing to compromise with the Italian invaders, and he continued to lead the resistance. Although his men were less well equipped than the Italians, they repeatedly beat them in action. Omar Mukhtar united the various tribes of Cyrenaica into an effective army. The resistance continued until 1931, when the elderly Umar (at age 73) was captured by the Italians, tried, sentenced to death, and hanged in the Suluq concentration camp in front of 20,000 prisoners. He became a national hero after independence: his portrait adorned the 10-dinar banknote, and the Gaddafi government financed a blockbuster movie Omar al-Mukhtar: Lion of the Desert (1981), starring Anthony Quinn. Pictures of Omar Mukhtar reappeared during the 2011 revolt.

In January 1929 the Italian government had united Tripolitania and Cyrenaica into the single colony of Libya: with the defeat of Omar Mukhtar, the colonial state had at last come into being. But the cost to the Libyan population was enormous: more than 6,000 dead, tens of thousands of refugees in Tunisia and Egypt, and most livestock destroyed. In its place, the Italians attempted to build a settler colony, with no success at all, apart from that of removing Libyans from any positions of responsibility in the country. In any event, the Italians had little time to put their plans into effect. World War II led to their defeat by the British, during which battles raged across the Libyan desert.

World War II

The British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery during the allied offensive against the German army in Northern Africa, in 1943
The British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery during the allied offensive against the German army in Northern Africa, in 1943

No effective Libyan nationalist movement emerged out of the bitter colonial experience. ‘Libya’ as a concept was little more than a geographical space – the idea of Tripolitanian exiles in Cairo and Damascus who dreamed of a Libyan nation. There was no united leadership in the colony itself. Only the exiled Senussi leadership in Egypt offered a political structure that the British could use against their Italian enemies.

During World War II Libya became a battlefield of Nazi-German and Allied forces. The Senussis provided Libyan troops to assist the British advance into Libya, but no such help came from Tripolitania. Consequently, when a British military administration was imposed on Cyrenaica in 1943, which lasted until 1951, the new authorities turned to  Muhammad Idris, and, having expelled the Italians, forced the population of Tripoli to cooperate with him. The French took control of Fezzan, and stayed there until 1951. That laid the basis for the post-war political evolution of Libya.

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