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Islamic Cyrenaica

In the middle of the 7th century the whole country passed into the hands of the Saracens. From that time the country was occupied by tribes of wandering Arabs, nominally subject to the pasha of Tripoli. After the cities were destroved by successive barbaric invasions on the fall of the Roman Empire, tribes of Bedouins occupied the region, and pitched their tents under the shadows of amphitheatres and Christian churches. The fanatical Islamism of other countries of Northern Africa was unknown among the inhabitants of the Cyrenaica, who only complied with a few of the external forms enjoined by the Koran.

In an effort to hold the support of the urban Arabs, in 1049 the Zirid amir defiantly rejected the Shia creed, broke with the Fatimids, and initiated a Berber return to Sunni orthodoxy. In Cairo the Fatimid caliph reacted by inviting the Bani Hilal and Bani Salim, beduin tribes from Arabia known collectively as the Hilalians, to migrate to the Maghrib and punish his rebellious vassals, the Zirids. The Hilalian impact on Cyrenaica was devastating in both economic and demographic terms. What little remained of urban life in once-great cities like Cyrene was snuffed out, leaving only ruins. Over a long period of time, Arabs displaced Berbers (many of whom joined the Hilalians) from their traditional lands and converted farmland to pasturage. Land was neglected, and the steppe was allowed to intrude into the coastal plain. The number of Hilalians who moved westward out of Egypt has been estimated as high as 200,000 families. The process of Arabization was particularly thorough in Cyrenaica, where the Bani Salim imposed their social organization, values, and language on it. Cyrenaica is said to be more Arab than any place in the Arab world except for the interior of Arabia.

Cyrenaica lay outside the orbit of the Maghribi dynasties, its orientation was on Egypt. From the time when Saladin displaced the Fatimids in 1171 until the Ottoman occupation in 1517, Egypt was ruled by a succession of Mamluk (caste of "slave-soldiers," in Egypt often Kurds, Circassians, or Turks) dynasties that claimed suzerainty over Cyrenaica but exercised little more than nominal political control there. The beduin tribes of Baraqah, as Cyrenaica was known to the Arabs, willingly accepted no authority other than that of their own chieftains. In the fifteenth century, merchants from Tripoli revived the markets in some towns, but Cyrenaica's main source of income was from the pilgrims and caravans traveling between the Maghrib and Egypt, who purchased protection from the beduins.

Ottoman authority was absent in Cyrenaica, although a bey (commander) was stationed at Benghazi late in the next century to act as agent of the government in Tripoli. Benghazi, by the mid-19th Century the principal town in the district, and the seat of government, was but a poor place, a collection of one-storied houses or huts, with two insignificant whitewashed marabuts, or sheikhs' tombs, and a square castle, flanked with round towers, standing on the sea-shore, but unrelieved by a single minaret, or even by the dovecots which rendered many of the mud villages on the Nile so picturesque. The great drawback to comfort at Benghazi was to be found in innumerable flies. Swarms cluster round the inflamed eyes of the children, and no one takes the trouble to drive them away. The flies formed a remarkable feature, which must not be omitted in describing Benghazi. None of the plagues of Egypt could exceed them, and they often during the day rendered writing, or any occupation which did not leave one hand free for the fan, utterly impossible. They existed in myriads; hence, the Turks called Benghazi the fly kingdom; and the flies by their pertinacity and voracity evidently showed that this is their own opinion.

The population consisted of three socially distinct classes of Arabs - the stationary, or city Arab, the armed Nomads, and the Bedouins. On the eastern frontier there was a mixture caused by the importation of Nubian or negro slaves. At Bengazi (the ancient Berenice) might be seen every possible shade of mixture, the result of cross-breeding. The chief elements are the fair and high-bred Arab, the tall, well-shaped, black Nubian, and the woolly-haired negro; a resident Turkish garrison also took its part in the general mixture. The Nomad tribes were dangerous and aggressive. The men were never without their guns, and if superior in numbers were menacing to strangers. They had a facility for rapidly converging upon any given point in considerable numbers; and although many parts of the coast appeared uninhabited, there was no part where, in a few hours, some hundreds of armed Bedouins would not assemble.

The Turks encountered strong local opposition through the 1850s and showed little interest in implementing Ottoman control over Fezzan and the interior of Cyrenaica. In 1879 Cyrenaica was separated from Tripolitania, its mutasarrif reporting thereafter directly to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). After the 1908 reform of the Ottoman government, both were entitled to send representatives to the Turkish parliament.

Cyrene's commerce with Egypt and Greece was extensive in classical times. Explorations and excavations were made in 1821-22 and in 1861. In 1910 the Archaeological Institute of America began excavations at Cyrene. Numerous interesting remains have been discovered here, including a bath, two temples (supposed to be of the Roman period), and a magnificent necropolis, containing grottoes, facades and monuments of various kinds. In one of the grottoes are several curious paintings. A group of Ptolemiac buildings, 3,000 terra cottas, fine sculptures, an acropolis, Greek and Roman walls were discovered by the American expedition, whose work was suspended because of the Italo-Turkish War. Cyrene was the birthplace of Aristippus, Carneades the philosopher, Eratosthenes and Callimachus the grammarian.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:53:27 ZULU