The current war fought in Libya in these days is drawing attention on that country and its history. This article is about the history of Libya from ancient times until World War II.
Only in recent times has the term “Libya” been in use, indicating the territories between Tunisia and Egypt; before its colonization, the area was called Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, two territories that had a separate historic development for centuries.
Libya before Italian Occupation: A Brief History
Tripolitania was initially under the control of Phoenicians while Cyrenaica was under the control of Greeks, who between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE founded Cyrene, Arsinoe, Apollonia, Tolemaide and Berenice: this territory was called Pentapolis, for the five cities present. Tripolitania passed from Phoenician influence to Carthaginian and after the Punic war, during the 1st century BCE, under Roman control. Cyrenaica, on the other hand, was under Persian influence (6th century BCE), then became a part of Alexander the Great’s Empire and afterwards, was put under the Hellenistic Reign of Egypt.
In 75 BCE, Romans took possession of the Cyrenaica, creating the province of Creta and Cyrene. In 46 BCE, Tripolitania was organized in the Africa province.
Roman domination was limited only to coastal regions where cities had a relevant development. It is to be noted that Libya, for the Romans, was an integral part of the Republic/Empire and not a colony in foreign land: from that part of the Empire came emperors, philosophers, and Popes.
In the region lived native populations, the Berber tribes. Those tribes defeated the Vandals invaders many times during 5th century A.D. Tripolitania became the home of the Vandals, who starting from there arrived to pillage Rome (455).
In 6th century both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were conquered by Arabs, and from that moment they exited the sphere of influence of Western culture.
Ottoman Empire conquered Cyrenaica in 1517 and Tripolitania in 1551.
In 1711, Ahmed Karamanli (a Turkish army officer) revolted against the Sultan and separated the Libya from the Ottoman Empire. Under the Karamanli dynasty, Libya recovered the independence but lost it in 1835, returning under Ottoman control.
The period Libya was under Turkish control is generally considered a period of decadence, caused by the incapacity of Ottomans to rule firmly the region (as we have seen by the rebellion of Karamanli). Also, the Turk government was limited to the coastal strip.
During 1801-1805 USA started the so called First Barbary War against Tripoli. Tripoli, together with other Barbary Reigns, was supporting pirate actions against European merchant ships passing through Tripolitania waters since Middle Age: in the 17th century ships still had to pay a strong tribute, otherwise crew was imprisoned and sold as slaves. USA decided not to submit to this tribute and sent a naval squadron that blocked Tripoli port and bombarded its fortresses. It was the first USA foreign conflict and the first time USA tried to place an ally on the throne of another nation (one of the Karamanli dynasty).
The Road to Italian Occupation
At the end of 19th century, political fever of colonization interested Italy, who looked to occupy the region, and made its move between 1911 and 1912.
There are many reasons Italy decided to pursue a conquest Libya: first of all, Italy wanted to become a colonial power like France, England and Spain, and Libya was the only remaining “free” region in Africa, since almost all of North Africa was under the Anglo-French domination.
There were reasons to colonize before of domestic politics: the First Minister, Giovani Giolitti, wanted to promote many social and political reforms, like universal suffrage, and he needed a colonial victory to satisfy nationalists and conservatives, who were against such reforms. Italy had also desired a colony to direct its growing rate of citizen emigration, that rose to high levels in those years and a was strong source of frustration (frustration from who? The politicians? The Italian public who wanted to emirgate?): workforce that emigrated in Americas or in Australia was taken away from national development while people migrating from one Italian region to another created social tensions.
After Italian Reunification (1861), in Italy there was still an anti-colonial sentiment, and political leaders first tried economical and commercial control in Libya. In 1907, the Bank of Rome opened a branch office in Tripoli, financing enterprises and commercial activities in Libya. At the same time, newspapers started a propaganda campaign about the advantages of the occupation of Libya: riches of subsoil and fertility of land were greatly exaggerated. A few intellectuals dissented: Italian intellectual and political writer Gaetano Salvemini coined the term “box of sand” to indicate that Libya was not actually a good opportunity of Italy.
The excuse the Italian government advanced just to justify an invasion was the protection of Italian citizens menaced by Muslim extremists. In September 1911, Italy ordered the Turks to abandon Libya, and after a refusal, declared war.
The first fight was a naval battle near Preveza. By October 1911, Tripoli and Bengasi were occupied. The Italian Army used ominous war tactics never used before, like air bombing, the use of gas against enemies, and the realization of a regular service of field radiotelegraphy, implemented directly by Guglielmo Marconi.
In November 1911, King Vittorio Emanuele III proclaimed the annexation of Libya to Italy. The international public opinion condemned the atrocities committed in the conquering of Tripoli; in the cities of many colonial empires ( such as London, Paris, New York) there were protests against the bloodbath. To many European countries, this was a senseless colonization: in fact Italy in that period already had Sardinia and Sicily as underdeveloped regions where the same workforce could have been employed.
Libyan population did not see the Italians as liberators: Italian soldiers died in ambushes organized by local partisans and Turkish officials. The reaction was terrible: Tripoli was laid to waste and two thousands inhabitants were killed in reprisal.
In 1912, Italy decided to bring the war further inland and, while in Libya, conquered the cities of Misurata, Zuara, Regdalin, and others between April and May, and then occupied the islands of Stampalia, Rodi and the Dodecannesus. In July, Italian war fleet crossed the Dardanelles, menacing the heart of Ottoman Empire, which accepted to end the conflict with the First Treaty of Lausanne, in October 1912. Libya was Italian only on the paper: the colonization concerned only Tripoli and the coast. The war wasn’t over: Turk and France supported guerrilla forces in Libyan territory. The Father of Turks, Mustafa Kemal, was among the Turkish officers who remained to help the Libyans.
Guerrilla warfare continued in Libya for many years. During WWI, Italian occupation was limited to strategic places on the coast, and then in 1919, operations were resumed towards the complete submission of the colony. In 1920, Libya seemed to be pacified, and a Tripolitan Parliament was established, but in 1922 another rebellion begun, and again Italy had to retake Libya with force: this happened again in 1931. Massacres, deportations, slaughters, racial laws, concentration camps were all employed by Italians in order to subdue the resistance. Military tribunals were instituted: people were judged and sentences (for the most part, capital punishment) were executed on the spot. The charges were for the most part to have helped to the rebels.
Head of this rebellion was Omar El Mukhtar, a Koran school teacher, who was captured only in 1931 at the end of an operation which lasted months and killed more than 50000 Libyans. The adventures of Mukhtar were narrated in the movie The Lion of the Desert (1981), a movie that was banned in Italy until 2009, when it was broadcast on television during a visit from Libya’s leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.
During the period 1917-1923, negotiation with Libyan factions was considered an option in order to gain control of several areas, but with the raise of Fascism in Italy; by 1922, the re-conquest of Libya became only a matter of war.
Life After Conquest
During Italian domination Libya territory accepted a huge wave of Italian colonists: in order to organize and manage such a growing colony, many infrastructures were created, like roads, schools, railways, hospitals and so on; the aim was the full integration of the Libya into the Italian economy. In 1938, the coastal provinces of Tripoli, Misurata, Bengasi and Derna were incorporated into Italian state, and “free Italian citizenship” was granted to natives.
Land was expropriated from Libyan owners and given to Italian entrepreneurs and officials who decided to move in Libya, while local population was exploited in agricultural works and underpaid. The villages created for Italian were called “White Villages” and had centers of worship and entertainment, like cinemas and churches. While these White Villages contributed to the economy by producing barley, potatoes and wines, the truth is that colonial farms could only survive with the help of Italian subsidies and financial aid.
Trying to satisfy local population, other villages were created for Libyans, each one with its school, Mosque and hospital. In 1939, 13% of population was composed of Italians and in cities like Tripoli or Bengasi the percentage was up to 40%. Tripoli was “Italianized” heavily with the erection of many buildings like the Justice Palace, the Italy Bank Palace, the Cathedral, the Grand Hotel Municipal and the Mosque Sidi Hamuda.
During WWII Libya was theater of many battles, and after the war Italy renounced any rights upon the colony. In 1951, the independent Libya state was created.
The history of Libya is very interesting within the context of the relations between West and East, North and South of the Mediterranean. Libya entered and exited the European/Western sphere of influence many times and for many reasons. It was seen as the “other side” of the Mediterranean Sea at the same time very near and very far away from Italy. Its history can probably be seen as another example of an area where all the cultures that face the Mediterranean Sea and are tied to the same shared destiny.
Dictionary of Wars by George C. Kohn
The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 B.C. to the Present by R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupey.
Libya and the United States by Ronald Bruce St John
Colonialismo italiano, tra rimozione e mito di grandezza by Alen Custovic
Storia di Tripoli e della Tripolitania dalla conquista araba al 1911 by Ettore Rossi
Pirate Utopias, Moorish Corsairs & European Renagadoes by Peter Lamborn Wilson
La Libia dalla conquista araba alla colonizzazione italiana by Nora Lafi
Lorenzo Davia writes articles, reviews and short tales for various magazines and anthologies. He is 30, lives in Italy, and is a major science fiction and steampunk fan.