POPULATION: 6.259 million (2014)
AREA: 679,400 sq. mi. (1,759,540 sq. km)
LANGUAGES: Arabic (official); Italian, English, Berber dialects
NATIONAL CURRENCY: Libyan Dinar
PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Muslim (Sunni) 97%
CITIES: Tripoli (capital), 1,822,000 (2000 est.); Benghazi, Misurata
ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from about 4 in. (100 mm) in the steppe to less than half an inch (12.5 mm) in parts of the Sahara desert
ECONOMY: GDP $41.12 billion (2014)
PRINCIPAL PRODUCTS AND EXPORTS:
- Agricultural: barley, wheat, sorghum, dates, olives, citrus, almonds, figs, grapes, peanuts, tobacco, livestock
- Manufacturing: food and beverage processing, textiles, petrochemicals, aluminum, cement, leather goods
- Mining: crude oil, natural gas, natron, potash, iron ore, salt, gypsum, manganese, sulfur
GOVERNMENT: Independence from Italy, 1951. Third International Theory, an Islamic Arabic Socialist state of the masses (called Jamahiriya). In theory, governed by the people through local councils; in fact, a military dictatorship. Governing bodies: General People’s Congress (legislative body) and General People’s Committee (cabinet).
HEADS OF STATE SINCE INDEPENDENCE:
- 1951–1969 King Idris I
- 1969– Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi
ARMED FORCES: 65,000
EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–15; literacy rate 76%
Bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Libya has played a significant role in North Africa and the Middle East since ancient times. For centuries the country’s three distinct regions—Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan—were ruled by foreign powers such as the Romans, the Muslim Arabs, and the Ottoman Turks. During the period of European colonial rule, Italy united these regions and created the borders of the modern state of Libya.
Since gaining independence in the 1950s, Libya has exploited its rich oil reserves and experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity. Beginning in 1969 the revolutionary government headed by Colonel Muammar al-QADDAFI introduced reforms based on socialism and ideals of Arab and African unity. However, Qaddafi’s policies have alienated Libya from Western nations and many of its potential allies.
THE LAND AND ITS PEOPLE
The fourth largest country in Africa, Libya has a total area of nearly 680,000 square miles. It is surrounded by ALGERIA and TUNISIA on the west, CHAD and NIGER on the south, and EGYPT and SUDAN on the east. Most of the population lives in the northern region along the coast. The remainder of the country lies in the SAHARA DESERT.
A series of ridges known as the Jebel run along the southern edge of the region of Tripolitania. South of the Jebel is Fezzan, mostly barren desert broken up by oases. In eastern Libya, Cyrenaica rises in a series of ridges along the coast and extends into the desert in the south. The vast majority of Libyans are Muslim Arabs and about 5 percent are BERBERS, an indigenous people of the region. A large number of immigrant workers employed by Libyan businesses live in the country.
To increase the size of the workforce, the government has encouraged Libyans to have large families. As a result much of the population is very young. The two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, are on the Mediterranean. Most of the people in rural areas live near oases where they can obtain water to irrigate their farms.
Each of the foreign powers that conquered Libya contributed to the country’s cities and towns as well as its culture. Since independence, the revolutionary government has tried to limit Western influences on Libyan society. It has also become deeply involved in Middle Eastern politics.
Libya had extensive contact with the various civilizations that grew up around the Mediterranean Sea. The Egyptians used the name Libya to refer to a Berber people who lived west of the NILE RIVER. The Greeks and Romans used the term to refer to Cyrenaica, the North African coast, or sometimes even the entire continent.
The two coastal regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica had distinct cultures made up of Berbers and immigrants from other areas. In the late 600s B.C., the Greeks colonized Cyrenaica. The local people adopted Greek culture, and the region produced a number of important writers and philosophers. By the 400s B.C., Phoenicians from Lebanon had settled in Tripolitania and built a powerful maritime empire in the region. During the 200s and 100s, the Romans conquered the western Mediterranean, including Tripolitania. Shortly after, they gained control of Cyrenaica as well. North Africa remained part of the Roman Empire for almost 700 years. Evidence of this long association with Rome can be seen at Leptis Magna in Libya, the site of some of the best-preserved remains of a Roman city.
By the A.D. 400s, Rome’s control over its vast empire began to weaken. The Vandals, a Germanic people from northern Europe, migrated south into Africa and took over Tripolitania. The Vandals dominated trade in the Mediterranean until the Byzantines in the eastern half of the Roman Empire reconquered the lost territory in 533.
The arrival of Islam in the 600s changed North Africa forever. Muslim Arab forces conquered vast portions of territory around the Mediterranean, including what is now Libya. The Berber groups that inhabited Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and the surrounding deserts adopted Islam. Although some local people continued to speak Berber, most learned Arabic, which replaced Greek and Latin as the language of literature and law. Meanwhile, several waves of nomadic Bedouins migrated into the region, bringing with them their own ways of life.
After the Muslim takeover, a series of Islamic dynasties ruled Libya. The powerful Abbasid dynasty appointed the Aghlabids to govern the region. The Aghlabids restored the Roman irrigation system and made Libya increasingly prosperous. During the 900s the Fatimids brought most of northern Africa under their control.
By the 1500s the coast of northern Africa was famous for its pirate kings, who often came into conflict with the European states across the Mediterranean. In 1551 the Ottoman Turks conquered Libya, which became a Turkish province known as Tripolitania. The Turkish sultan appointed a series of rulers to govern the province.
By the late 1800s, Britain, France, and Italy were looking for opportunities to establish settlements and expand their trading interests in North Africa. To gain control of Libya, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Turks in 1911. The Turks surrendered the region a year later. However, led by members of the Sanusi, a Sufi religious order, the Libyans resisted Italian rule. Italy succeeded in dominating Libya until the 1940s, and thousands of Italians settled in the colony. After World War II, France and Britain won control of Libya. In 1951 they decided to grant the territory independence. A council of leaders from Libya’s three regions met and declared the new country to be a united kingdom headed by Muhammad Idris. A hero of the Sanusi resistance against the Italians, he became King Idris I.
At first the new kingdom of Libya was very poor and required large amounts of aid from Western powers to survive. In 1955 the discovery of rich petroleum resources in Libya ushered in an era of prosperity. Yet even with the benefit of its oil wealth, the country faced many challenges in developing a diverse modern economy. During the 1960s, changes in other Arab countries, particularly a movement for Arab unity, began to affect Libyan society. Conflicts between various Arab states and Israel, as well as uncertainty about the fate of the Palestinian people, helped win support for the movement. In 1969 a group of military officers led by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi carried out a coup that ended the monarchy. Colonel Qaddafi took over as head of the revolutionary government and introduced wide-ranging social, political, and economic reforms. Under his rule all public institutions, including schools, businesses, and the media, were administered by “people’s committees.” The military and foreign relations remained outside the people’s control.
In 1973 Qaddafi launched a “cultural revolution” aimed at eliminating foreign influence and creating a society based on Muslim principles and socialism. He also made several unsuccessful attempts to unite Libya with other Arab countries. Relations with Western powers became strained after the Libyan government was suspected of supporting international terrorist activities and the United States placed economic sanctions on Libya.
In 1986, following charges of terrorist activities by Libya, the United States bombed important Libyan sites. Two years later an American passenger airline exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, and British and American authorities claimed that Libyan terrorists had caused the explosion, increasing tensions even more. Libya was punished by the United Nations and various other organizations until 1999, when the Libyan government turned over two suspects in the explosion. The trial in Lockerbie, Scotland, resulted in a split verdict. One suspect received a life sentence, and the other was found not guilty.
Libya’s economy is more like that of the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf than that of its neighbors in Africa. The main source of the country’s income, oil has made Libya one of the wealthiest states in Africa. Nevertheless, the government continues to put great emphasis on agriculture. Farmers raise livestock and plant crops such as barley, wheat, sorghum, almonds, citrus fruit, apricots, and figs. To increase agricultural production, the country has built extensive irrigation works in the last several decades. The largest program, the Great Man-Made River project, consists of a huge pipeline to carry water from wells in the southern Sahara to the coastal region. Libya has also launched programs to prevent desertification—the spread of desert conditions to usable stretches of land. (See also Arabs in Africa, Colonialism in Africa, Deserts and Drought, Energy and Energy Resources, Islam in Africa, North Africa: Geography and Population, North Africa: History and Cultures, Roman Africa.)