Libya's history dates back to prehistoric times although, in the 20th and early 21st century, it’s mostly been focused on revolution, wars and successive rulers, ending in the disastrous dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Since the end of his brutal regime, the original Berber and Bedouin traditions are reasserting themselves, although Libyans still retain strong religious and cultural connections to the rest of the Arab World.
Inhabited since the dawn of time, Ancient Libya’s coastal plains were once lush and green, with lakes, forests and a Mediterranean climate perfect for a tribal, pastoralist culture. The rock paintings in the mountainous Jebel Acacus region and at Wadi Mathendous show scenes of cattle rearing, luscious surroundings and abundant wildlife including crocodiles, giraffes and elephants. The Berber people were the first settlers and saw the climate change to desertification, adapting their lifestyles over the millennia.
The first arrivals from the east were the Phoenicians who went on to develop the Punic civilization based in Carthage. Punic settlements during the early years included Oea, where Tripoli now stands, Sabratha and Libdah (later Leptis Magna). Ancient Greeks colonized the east part of the country in 630 BC and founded Cyrene, which soon became a great center for artistic and intellectual pursuits.
Following the fall of Carthage and the decline of Ancient Greece, the rise of the Roman Empire saw the conquest of Libya and its annexation into the Africa Nova province. The golden age of Tripoli and its sister cities arrived in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, with Leptis Magna at its heart. Christianity was introduced via the edicts of the Roman emperor Claudius and, for 400 years or so, the region shared a common legal system, language and culture.
By the 5th century, Vandals swept through present day Libya, destroying its prosperity and social order. The once proud cities were decimated and their inhabitants fled to rural areas, although Cyrene remained a Byzantine outpost until the 7th century Berber ascendancy and the coming of the invading Ottoman armies. Muslim rule was completed by the late 7th century, social order resumed and the region became prosperous again.
The Tunisian Hafsid dynasty brought comparative peace for 300 years, initiated trade with Western city-states and encouraged Islamic scholarship. The Crusader Knights of St John enjoyed a brief period of rule over the region in the 16th century, but lost to the Ottoman Empire in 1551. Tripoli became a hub for the slave trade, with Sudanese captives and the entire population of Maltese Gozo sent to the auction blocks. Piracy and the slave trade continued unabated until the end of the 19th century.
By 1912 Libya was under Italian control and known as Italian North Africa. Between the two world wars, Libyan resistance resulted in the deaths of 50 percent of the Bedouin population and, by 1943, British forces had taken over the land. Post-war, the UN granted the country its independence as a monarchy in 1951, just in time for the discovery of oil reserves in 1959. The resulting wealth sparked a military coup led by Muammar Gaddafi in 1969, and the stage was set for dictatorship and Sharia law.
The domination of the Gaddafi dynasty saw the end of human rights and world condemnation for the leader’s support of terrorism, coming to a head with the Lockerbie bombings. UN sanctions were imposed after the tragedy, causing even more misery for Libyans. Finally, spurred by the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, revolution broke out, eventually involving US and UK military in support of the rebels. Libya’s liberation was announced in October 2011, and Gaddafi himself was killed several months later after having fled to the desert.
Libya’s rich culture began with the Berber tribes and their pastoral lifestyle, but influences from as far back as the Phoenician, Carthaginian, Ancient Greek and Roman empires are visible. The Ottoman conquest saw Islam replace Christianity and pagan religions and spread its reaches to all aspects of Libyan life. However, the most destructive element in the country’s impressive history was that of the Gaddafi decades and while the dictator trumpeted his tribal, Beduoin heritage to the media, he was busy destroying the ancient Berber culture, language and way of life.
Since the revolution, Berber languages, culture and tribal pride has flourished, with an emphasis on original, pre-8th century traditions of poetry, music and dance. Although Arabic is still Libya’s official language, Berber tongues are thriving again and desert hospitality is shown to all. The nomadic Bedouin are the majority here, with their own iconic crafts, dances, rituals, and music. Women’s roles in the country, severely repressed by the Gaddafi regime, are opening up, spurred by their part in the revolution. Etiquette still tends towards the conservative, especially in regards to visits to religious sites.