Libya Stories and Tips

A few facts and Libyan history (ancient and modern) for context

Not much is known about Libya beyond the newspaper articles about Lockerbie and Gaddafi -- many people don't even know where it is! I thought a few facts and a little context might help . . .

Libya's total size is 1,759,540 sq km (about the size of Alaska) it's almost exclusively desert; it's saved however by its long coastline (1,770 km) between Tunisia and Egypt to the west and Algeria to the east (with Chad, Sudan and Niger to the south). A former Roman colony, as Leptis Magna and Sabratha demonstrate (see above), Libya (Tarabulus in Arabic and Roman Oea -- one of the three Roman cities -- "Tri" = three; "poli" = cities -- the other two being Leptis and Sabratha, both also on the Tripolitanian coast) has often been a spoil of war.

Its ancient heyday was between 46BC and 429AD when it under flourished under Roman influence; considerable magnificence is in evidence today (though sadly most of the splendour of ancient Oea has vanished -- the sole remnant is the arch of Marcus Aurelius and a few Roman columns in the Medina -- see Medina walk entry above).

It has sustained invasion by Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, the Knights of St John, and most recently Italians (who invaded in 1911), before finally declaring its independence in 1951. Shortly after, in 1959, it struck oil and reinvented itself as a wealthy monarchy but this didn't last -- within 10 years, King Idris was overthrown in a coup by Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qaddafi (Gaddafi). He launched what he called "Jamahiriya" (state for the masses -- hence the republic's official title, Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya) following the "Third International Theory"; that's supposed to mean ruling by various democratic committees but, in practice, he has always ruled alone, an unopposed dictator, by reference to what he calls his "Green Book" (the Libyan equivalent of Mao's Little Red Book, available in translation in mainstream shops in Tripoli or at the airport), an alternative to Communism and capitalism, with adherence to Islam.

Gaddafi used oil funds during the 1970s and 80s to promote this ideology outside Libya, including supporting foreign subversives and terrorists to hasten the demise of Marxism and capitalism. Libya became an international pariah, blamed for both the 1993 Lockerbie bombing (2 Libyans suspected of organising the incident were handed over in 1999 for trial in The Hague under Scottish law -- in January 2001, 1 was found guilty of killing 270 people) and a French plane over Niger. UN sanctions were imposed, though relations between Libya and Western countries has gradually improved; they were effectively suspended in 1999 and officially lifted in September 2003.

Things are definitely looking up though -- whilst the country is still treated with considerable suspicion and caution (and only time will tell whether that continues to be deserved), the Libyans themselves seem to be doing pretty well and are a charming and unassuming race, in the main treating western visitors with courtesy and a marked lack of curiosity (which was a pleasant change from almost all other northern African states). The roads are fairly well maintained (though the locals drive like maniacs and a taxi ride such as from Tripoli to Sabratha or Leptis Magna/Al Khoms is not for the faint-hearted) and transportation not ridiculously expensive.

Gaddafi's most ambitious modern-day project is the so-called "Great Man-made River" project -- intended to bring water from underground deposits (some 2km below the surface) beneath the desert to the water-thirsty populace on the coast (where most of the population is concentrated). Stage 1 is completed and the inhabitants of the far east coast, including Tobruk, celebrated in style. Apparently though, neighbouring countries have complained that Libya's draining their reserves too and, moreover, that the water deposits will be exhausted in 50 years. Others say that the money would have been better used in funding coastal desalination plants -- Gaddafi is not to be gain-said though and the project continues . . .

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