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Libya - Geography

With an area of 1,760,000 square kilometers and a Mediterranean coastline of nearly 1,800 kilometers, Libya is fourth in size among the countries of Africa and fifteenth among the countries of the world. Geography was the principal determinant in the separate historical development of Libya's three traditional regions -- Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Cut off from each other by formidable deserts, each retained its separate identity into the 1960s. Before Libya achieved independence, its name was seldom used other than as a somewhat imprecise geographical expression. The people preferred to be referred to as natives of one of the three constituent regions. In 1969 the revolutionary government officially changed the regional designation of Tripolitania to Western Libya, of Cyrenaica to Eastern Libya, and of Fezzan to Southern Libya; however, the old names were intimately associated with the history of the area, and during the 1970s they continued to be used frequently. Cyrenaica comprises 51 percent, Fezzan 33 percent, and Tripolitania 16 percent of the country's area.

Historically, the administration of Libya had been united for only a few years -- and those under Italian rule. The social basis of political organization varied from region to region. In Cyrenaica and Fezzan, the tribe was the chief focus of social identification, even in an urban context. At independence, Idris had wide appeal in the former as head of the Sanusi order, while in the latter the Sayf an Nasr clan commanded a following as paramount tribal chieftains. In Tripolitania, by contrast, loyalty that in a social context was reserved largely to the family and kinship group could be transferred more easily to a political party and its leader. Inasmuch as Tripolitania had a significantly larger population and a relatively more advanced economy that the other two, they expected that under a unitary political system political power would gravitate automatically to Tripoli. Cyrenaicans, who had achieved a larger degree of cohesion under Sanusi leadership, feared the chaos they saw in Tripolitania and the threat of being swamped politically by the Tripolitanians in a unitary state.

All but a small minority of the Libyan people are native Arabic-speakers and thus consider themselves to be Arabs. The Arabian language is the most common and the official language, but the Libyan dialect is different from one place to another as a result of the large size of the country. The spoken dialects of Tripolitania and Fezzan belong to the Maghribi group, used throughout the Maghrib. The residents of the Capital and western areas speak a dialect close to the southern Tunisian dialect. They are mutually intelligible but differ considerably from dialects in the Middle East. The residents of the eastern and central and south speak an Arabic very close to the tone of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The dialect of Cyrenaica resembles that of Egypt and the Middle East. Urban dialects differ somewhat from those of the hinterland, and in the southern part of the country some Sudanese influence exists.

  1. Tripolitania is the most populous of Libya's three historic regions, situated in the northwestern part of the country. The name is derived from Tripolis (Three Cities). To the west, the area known as Tripolitania has characteristics and a history similar to those of nearby Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. It is considered with these states to constitute a supranational region called the Maghrib, of which it was a part geographically and culturally and with which it shared a common history. Also transliterated as Maghreb, the Maghrib is the western Islamic world (northwest Africa); distinguished from the Mashriq, or eastern Islamic world (the Middle East). Traditionally includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania. Literally, "the time or place of the sunset--the west." For its Arab conquerors, the region was the "island of the west" (jazirat al maghrib), the land between the "sea of sand" (Sahara) and the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike Cyrenaica, Tripolitania does not extend southward into the desert. At the heart of Tripolitania was its metropolis, Tripoli, for centuries a terminal for caravans plying the Saharan trade routes and a port sheltering pirates and slave traders. Tripolitanians developed their political consciousness in reaction to foreign domination, and it was from Tripolitania that the strongest impulses came for the unification of modern Libya.
  2. Cyrenaica is the largest of Libya's three historic regions, occupying the eastern half of the country. The name is derived from the ancient Greek city-state, Cyrene; in Arabic known as Barqu. To the east, the area known historically as Cyrenaica has been closely associated with the Arab states of the Middle East. The Mashriq, also transliterated as Machrek, is the Eastern Islamic world, as distinct from the Maghrib. With the exception of some of its coastal towns, Cyrenaica was left relatively untouched by the political influence of the regimes that claimed it but were unable to assert their authority in the hinterland. An element of internal unity was brought to the region's tribal society in the nineteenth century by a Muslim religious order, the Sanusi, and many Cyrenaicans demonstrated a determination to retain their regional autonomy even after Libyan independence and unification. In Cyrenaica there are fewer coastal oases, and the Marj Plain--the lowland area corresponding to the Jifarah Plain of Tripolitania--covers a much smaller area. The lowlands form a crescent about 210 kilometers long between Benghazi and Darnah and extend inland a maximum of 50 kilometers. Elsewhere along the Cyrenaican coast, the precipice of an arid plateau reaches to the sea. Behind the Marj Plain, the terrain rises abruptly to form Jabal al Akhdar (Green Mountain), so called because of its leafy cover of pine, juniper, cypress, and wild olive. It is a limestone plateau with maximum altitudes of about 900 meters. From Jabal al Akhdar, Cyrenaica extends southward across a barren grazing belt that gives way to the Sahara Desert, which extends still farther southwest across the Chad frontier.
  3. Fezzan is one of Libya's three historic regions, located in the southwestern part of the country. The southwestern desert, known as Fezzan, was administered separately during both the Italian regime and the federal period of the Libyan monarchy. Fezzan was less involved with either the Maghrib or the Mashriq. Its nomads traditionally looked for leadership to tribal dynasties that controlled the oases astride the desert trade routes. Throughout its history, Fezzan maintained close relations with sub-Saharan Africa as well as with the coast.
The Sirtica marks the dividing point between the Maghrib and the Mashriq. Between the productive lowland agricultural zones lies the Gulf of Sidra, where along the coast a stretch of 500 kilometers of wasteland desert extends northward to the sea. This barren zone, known as the Sirtica, has great historical significance. Although the African provinces profited as much as any part of the empire from the imposition of the Pax Romana, the region was not without strife and threat of war. Only near the end of the first century A.D. did the army complete the pacification of the Sirtica, a desert refuge for the barbarian tribes that had impeded overland communications between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. But for more than two centuries thereafter commerce flowed safely between markets and ports along a well-maintained road system and sea lanes policed by Roman forces who also guaranteed the security of settled areas against incursions by desert nomads.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:53:32 ZULU