What Should I Know About Libya?

Brendan McGuigan

Libya is a huge nation in North Africa. It covers 679,000 square miles (1,759,500 sq. km), making it a bit larger than the state of Alaska. It shares borders with Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia, with coastline along the Mediterranean Sea.

Libya is a nation that is located along North Africa's Mediterranean coast.
Libya is a nation that is located along North Africa's Mediterranean coast.

The region that is now Libya, along with much of North Africa, has been inhabited for nearly 200,000 years, with the first settlements appearing some 8,000 years ago. The region has also been the destination of many different conquering peoples from around the Mediterranean, beginning in about 900 BCE.

Some terrorist attacks targeting Americans were linked to Libya.
Some terrorist attacks targeting Americans were linked to Libya.

The Phoenicians were the first major Mediterranean power to settle the area, using it as an important trading hub. Alexander the Great then conquered Libya as his Empire expanded down into Northern Africa. The Romans eventually moved in, and the Vandals followed them soon after, and the Byzantine Empire finally taking control.

In the mid-7th century the most influential of the invasions took place, when the Arab world, in its enormous expansion, defeated Byzantium in the region and claimed control of most of Libya and much of the region in general. Islam was introduced at this time, and before long the Berbers who inhabited the country had nearly all converted.

In the early 16th century Libya was one of the important states that made up the Barbary Coast, a haven for pirates who raided ships throughout the Mediterranean. The dreaded Red Beard, also known as Barbarossa, whose true name was Khair ad-Din, was governor of Tripoli, ruling his mighty pirate kingdom from that city. The Ottomans arrived around this time, seizing control of Libya, but allowing the piracy to continue.

In 1911 the Italians invaded Libya, in theory to free them from the Ottomans. A decade later the Italians recognized as Emir Sheikh Sidi Idris. In 1951 Libya declared itself independent, making it the first country to use the United Nations to become independent. Idris was made king of the new monarchy. In 1959 large amounts of oil were discovered in the country, and it became relatively wealthy, although the wealth never made its way to the bulk of the population, leading to widespread discontent.

In 1969 the government was overthrown in a coup, led by Mu’ammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi, then only 28 years old. The new government dissolved the monarchy and declared a republic, although the Revolutionary Sector, made up of the important figures in the revolution, are not elected and can not be recalled from office. Libya has pursued an agenda of Arab unity, taken a leadership role in Africa, and pushed a broadly socialist agenda. The leadership has also been the subject of much criticism for human rights abuses, and state-sponsored terrorism, and for many years was distrusted by the Western world in general, and subjected to sanctions. Beginning in 2003 Libya has made serious overtures to reconciliation with the West, paying compensation to families of the victims of some state sponsored terrorism, and publicly disclosing its weapons of mass destruction program and dismantling it.

Libya offers some truly breathtaking views of Northern Africa, and for those who want to experience the vastness of the Sahara, this is the place to go. Ancient monoliths such as Jebel Acacus bear testament to the encroaching Sahara, as mighty relics of civilizations long past are now surrounded by an endless expanse of sand. The astounding Leptis Magna is the crown jewel of archaeological sites in Northern Africa, featuring some of the most amazing examples of Roman architecture outside of Italy. This is the site of the largest Roman baths outside of Rome, the Hadrianic Baths, and the mighty Severan Arch. The sands of the Sahara preserved these ruins almost perfectly, and they are not to be missed.

Flights arrive regularly in Tripoli from a number of European countries, as well as the Middle East, and the number of flights and connected airports is increasing steadily. Cruise ships also make port in Tripoli frequently. Overland travel is possible from a number of neighboring countries, but only travel from Tunisia or Egypt is at all recommended.

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