Libya Historical Setting
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
An arch from Leptis Magna, built by the Romans in the early third century A.D.
UNTIL LIBYA ACHIEVED independence in 1951, its history was essentially that of tribes, regions, and cities, and of the empires of which it was a part. Derived from the name by which a single Berber tribe was known to the ancient Egyptians, the name Libya was subsequently applied by the Greeks to most of North Africa and the term Libyan to all of its Berber inhabitants. Although ancient in origin, these names were not used to designate the specific territory of modern Libya and its people until the twentieth century, nor indeed was the whole area formed into a coherent political unit until then. Hence, despite the long and distinct histories of its regions, modern Libya must be viewed as a new country still developing national consciousness and institutions.
Geography was the principal determinant in the separate historical development of Libya's three traditional regions-- Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Cut off from each other by formidable deserts, each retained its separate identity into the 1960s. At the heart of Tripolitania was its metropolis, Tripoli, for centuries a terminal for caravans plying the Saharan trade routes and a port sheltering pirates and slave traders. Tripolitania's cultural ties were with the Maghrib, (see Glossary), of which it was a part geographically and culturally and with which it shared a common history. Tripolitanians developed their political consciousness in reaction to foreign domination, and it was from Tripolitania that the strongest impulses came for the unification of modern Libya.
In contrast to Tripolitania, Cyrenaica historically was oriented toward Egypt and the Mashriq (see Glossary). With the exception of some of its coastal towns, Cyrenaica was left relatively untouched by the political influence of the regimes that claimed it but were unable to assert their authority in the hinterland. An element of internal unity was brought to the region's tribal society in the nineteenth century by a Muslim religious order, the Sanusi, and many Cyrenaicans demonstrated a determination to retain their regional autonomy even after Libyan independence and unification.
Fezzan was less involved with either the Maghrib or the Mashriq. Its nomads traditionally looked for leadership to tribal dynasties that controlled the oases astride the desert trade routes. Throughout its history, Fezzan maintained close relations with sub-Saharan Africa as well as with the coast.
The most significant milestones in Libya's history were the introduction of Islam and the Arabization of the country in the Middle Ages, and, within the last two generations, national independence, the discovery of petroleum, and the September 1969 revolution that brought Muammar al Qadhafi to power. The era since 1969 has brought many important changes. The Qadhafi regime has made the first real attempt to unify Libya's diverse peoples and to create a distinct Libyan state and identity. It has created new political structures and made a determined effort at diversified economic development financed by oil revenues. The regime has also aspired to leadership in Arab and world affairs. As a consequence of these developments, Libyan society has been subjected to a significant degree of government direction and supervision, much of it at the behest of Qadhafi himself. Although the merits of the regime and its policies were much debated by Libyans and foreigners alike, there was no question that Libya in the 1980s was a significantly different country from the one it had been only two or three decades earlier.
Data as of 1987
NOTE: The information regarding Libya on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Libya Historical Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Libya Historical Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress.