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Islamic Fezzan

The Romans were succeeded by the Arabs, who arrived as conquerors during the first half century of the Hegira. Turbulent chieftains of the Bani Khattab dominated Medieval Fezzan. Their importance, like that of the Garamentes, derived from their control of the oases on the trade route over which caravans carried gold, ivory, and slaves from the western Sudan to markets on the Mediterranean. In the thirteenth century the king of Bornu, a Muslim state in the Lake Chad Basin, invaded Fezzan from the south and established a client regime that for a time commanded the trade route. Fezzan was always a target for adventurers, one of whom, the Moroccan Muhammad al Fazi, displaced the last of the Bani Khattab early in the sixteenth century and founded a line at Marzuq that remained as undisputed rulers of the region under Ottoman suzerainty. Only in the 1580s did the rulers of Fezzan give their allegiance to the sultan, but the Turks refrained from trying to exercise any influence there.

Then came the Turks, heirs of Rome through Constantinople, whose authority was finally established early in the 19th century after a long series of wars, promoted not by a love of freedom on the part of the inhabitants, but by the rival ambitions of families aiming at the sovereign power. Only in the 1580s did the rulers of Fezzan give their allegiance to the sultan, but the Turks refrained from trying to exercise any influence there. The Turks encountered strong local opposition through the 1850s and showed little interest in implementing Ottoman control over Fezzan and the interior of Cyrenaica. Politically Fezzan belonged to the Turkish province of Tripolitana; by its position to the south of the Jebel-es-Soda, as well as its climate, it formed part of the zone of the Sahara; by its prevailing population it depended more even on the region of Sudan than on that of North Africa. At the same time, the relative large extent of its oases, and their easy access by the routes from Tripoli, constituted it an intermediate region between the seaboard and the Sahara.

The products of Europe were introduced to a large extent through Fezzan into the heart of the continent, and thus is gradually brought about the work of assimilation between its various races. But whatever importance it may possess as the commercial gateway to Central Africa, Fezzan counted for little in respect of population, which, according to Nachtigal's detailed statistical statement, amounted at most to forty-three thousand, and to thirty-seven thousand only if excluding the inhabitants of the oases lying north of the watershed. Even accepting Rohlfs higher estimate of two hundred thousand for the whole region, the proportion would be considerably less than two persons to the square mile; for within its natural limits between the Black Mountains to the north, the spurs of the Jebel Ahaggar to the west, the advanced escarpments of Tibesti to the south, and the Libyan desert to the east, Fezzan has a superficial area of at least 1,120,000 square miles. But the administrative circumscription of Fezzan was far more extensive, as it included, north of the Black Mountains, the oases of Zella and Jofra, and all the lands draining to the Mediterranean as far as Bu-Njeim.

During the 18th Century, Fezzan was visited by many European travellers. In 1798, Hornemann, one of the missionaries sent by the African Exploration Society, traversed both the Black and the White Haruj by a track which has been followed by no subsequent western explorer. Twenty years later Lyon surveyed the chief trade route connecting' Tripoli through Jofra with Murzuk, and determined a few astronomical points, which were afterwards extended by the researches of Oudney, Donham, and Clapperton. The expedition of the year 1850, associated with the names of Barth, Overweg. and Richardson, followed the direct highway across the Rod Hamada wilderness. Then came the important explorations of Vogel, Duveyrier, Beurmanu, Rohlfs, Von Bary, and Nachtigal, who not only laid down the network of their own itineraries, but also supplemented them with many others, on the authority of numerous Arab informers. Thus, to mention one instance, Rohlfs published an account of the discovery of one of the Wan oases by Mohammed-el-Tarhoni, an Arab of Zella.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:53:28 ZULU