Today, one of the most globally discussed Arab nations is Libya, which is known formally as the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Libya is the seventeenth largest country in the world, with regards to landmass. It lies on the Mediterranean Sea in Northern Africa, just between Egypt and Tunisia. The northern portion of the country which lies along the sea enjoys the mild climate that is customary in the Mediterranean Region. However, this climate only occupies about ten percent of the country’s climate. Nearly ninety percent of Libya consists of desert. The Libyan Desert is considered one of the most arid places on Earth. In fact, rainfall only reaches the surface of the desert once every five to ten years. With such scarce rainfall, the country largely depends upon the vast aquifer that lies underneath much of the country. Water may be reached by simply digging just a few feet below the surface of the desert. Also throughout the desert are several oases that have supported human life for centuries.
The list of invaders that have captured the territory of present-day Libya is a long one. The earliest recorded invaders were the Roman Empire. Other conquerors include the Vandals, Byzantines, the Arabs, Turks, and the Italians. The country that is today known as Libya did not officially become an independent state until 1951.
The earliest known humans in the region stretch back thousands of years. These peoples knew a much different area than what is present today. Then, the region that today consists of the Libyan Desert was actually lush and green. The earliest known group to occupy the area were Neolithic peoples that lived on the then flourishing costal plains. Evidence of these early humans may be found in the rock paintings at Wadi Mathendous. These paintings reveal to scientists much about the ancient history of Libya. From them, they have learned that the people who lived during that era were adept at the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops. Also evident was the presence of many animals that now only exist much more to the south on the African continent. Many of these Saharan creatures include elephants and giraffes. The transformation of this lush, ancient landscape is blamed primarily on climate change. It is understood that these early people developed a civilization known as the Garamantes, who would later become known as a portion of the Berber tribes. They are known for their kingdom, which featured intricate irrigation systems. This kingdom was fully founded by the time the Phoenicians rose to power.
Initially Phoenician interaction took the form of trading, however, their hegemony spread quickly across much of North Africa. From this, the civilization known as the Punic grew. Influential Punic settlements in Libya included Sabratha, Oea, and Libdah. These three cities were known collectively as Tripolis. It is from this title that the present-day capital of Libya, Tripoli, owes its name.
Libya was also under the control of the Roman Empire. Over the course of two-hundred years, Eastern Libya became a center for arts and learning. This golden age peaked during the second and third centuries C.E. It was under the Romans that Christianity first arose in Libya and, as with many regions under Roman control, was largely spread by the stationed Roman soldiers. Libya during these times adopted a decidedly Roman culture. Evidence of Roman presence in the area is found through architectural remains that fell into ruins upon the fall of the empire in the fifth century C.E. A huge factor in disrupting the Roman foundation of the region was the conquests of the Vandals during the same time. Their pillaging disrupted not only the physical attributes of the cities but also the social and political ones as well. When the Christian Emperor Justinian returned to the region with the Byzantines Empire, they found the cities had turned back to more tribal systems of leadership and were thus less eager to submit to the new empire under their new, autonomous, tribal leaders.
Roman influence was officially ended with the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Arab generals found the poorly defended Byzantine strongholds in Libya easy to defeat. There they built the oldest mosque in the Sahara, the Atiq Mosque in Awjila. Arab rule allowed prosperity to return to the regions that had since been in decline since the end of Roman rule. A mass migration in the tenth century of nearly 200,000 Bedouin families to the area of Libya in the tenth century further reinforced the Arab presence in the area. The existence of so many Arabs within the region changed the cultural sphere of the Libyan people. Arab rule later grew unstable as power struggles arose between leaders in the sixteenth century. Eventually, the Ottoman Empire took control of power in 1551.
After the acquisition of the territory by the Hapsburgs of Spain in the sixteenth century, piracy soon became a pervasive problem throughout the region. Under the Ottomans, Libya was ruled by a series of different leaders. Most of these were Pashas, but power also lied in the hands of the Pasha’s military guilds, also known as janissaries, which were self-governing. Under these soldiers, there were frequent coups and uprisings. In addition to the Pashas and the janissaries, there were also a line of deys who ruled the region with almost complete autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. However, there remained civil strife within the country, including the Libyan Civil War during the end of the eighteenth century. War once again tore through Libya shortly thereafter with the Barbary Wars between Tripolitania and the United States.
By the early years of the twentieth century, Libya was grouped into the region known as Italian North Africa. This led to a drastic amount of immigration of Italians into the country, which eventually made up nearly twenty percent of the population. It was also under the Italians that the name Libya was used. It was derived from the Greek name for the region. There was strong resistance by the native peoples of Libya to Italian rule. However, it did not come to a definitive end until after World War II, when the British took control of the cities of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
Libya officially gained its independence in 1951 by UN mandate and shortly after oil was discovered. It was a finding that quickly made the country rich. There was a time of relative peace for about a decade, until under the leadership of King Idris, the monarchy was overthrown by Muammar Gaddafi.
He was only twenty- seven years old at the time. Under the leadership of Gaddafi, the country transitioned from a monarchy to a dictatorial state, with Gaddafi’s power being absolute. However, this system is officially known as a Jamahiriya, or a government “of the masses.” Additionally, a small amount of power is held by some people’s committees. Islam became the state religion as well, while in the previous system freedom of religion persisted. Gaddafi has been known globally for his controversial decisions throughout his rule. Some of these include the Lockerbie Plane Bombing, which killed two-hundred and seventy people, his act of assuming the title of “King of Kings of Africa”, and also his attempts to create a United States of Africa. In 2011, revolution against his rule and a resulting civil war broke out. These event led to the deaths of hundreds Libyan protestors and other citizens at the hands of their leader. The events caused the United Nations to step in and enforce a no-fly zone over the country. A new government arose from the fighting, known as the Transnational National Council. The group sees itself as the true representative of the citizens of Libya and is currently supported by several foreign nations, including several other Arab nations.
Libyans consider themselves part of the larger Arab world. Nearly ninety-seven percent of the population is Muslim. The only official language of Libya is Arabic. There are even strict rules about teaching any other native languages of the region, such as Berber. However, folk culture dominates the artistic and theatric spheres of the country. There are relatively few museums or public theaters, however. Some of the most visited public spaces, especially for tourists are the finely preserved Greek and Roman historical sites. Although the state of current events in the country seems to foretell great amounts of change in Libya’s future, evidence shows that the history of the country still runs deep in the culture of its people.