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Islamic Tripolitania

By the time of his death in A.D. 632, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers had brought most of the tribes and towns of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of the new monotheistic religion of Islam. Within a generation, Arab armies had carried Islam north and east from Arabia and westward into North Africa. In 642 Amr ibn al As, an Arab general under Caliph Umar I, conquered Cyrenaica, establishing his headquarters at Barce. Two years later, he moved into Tripolitania, where, by the end of the decade, the isolated Byzantine garrisons on the coast were overrun and Arab control of the region consolidated. Uqba bin Nafi, an Arab general under the ruling Caliph, invaded Fezzan in 663, forcing the capitulation of Germa.

Stiff Berber resistance in Tripolitania had slowed the Arab advance to the west, however, and efforts at permanent conquest were resumed only when it became apparent that the Maghrib could be opened up as a theater of operations in the Muslim campaign against the Byzantine Empire. In 670 the Arabs surged into the Roman province of Africa (transliterated Ifriqiya in Arabic; present-day Tunisia), where Uqba founded the city of Kairouan (present-day Al Qayrawan) as a military base for an assault on Byzantine-held Carthage. Twice the Berber tribes compelled them to retreat into Tripolitania, but each time the Arabs, employing recently converted Berber tribesmen recruited in Tripolitania, returned in greater force, and in 693 they took Carthage.

After the Arab conquest, North Africa was governed by a succession of amirs (commanders) who were subordinate to the caliph in Damascus and, after 750, in Baghdad. In 800 the Abbasid caliph Harun ar Rashid appointed as amir Ibrahim ibn Aghlab, who established a hereditary dynasty at Kairouan that ruled Ifriqiya and Tripolitania as an autonomous state that was subject to the caliph's spiritual jurisdiction and that nominally recognized him as its political suzerain. The Aghlabid amirs repaired the neglected Roman irrigation system, rebuilding the region's prosperity and restoring the vitality of its cities and towns with the agricultural surplus that was produced.

By 969 the Fatimids had completed the conquest of Egypt and moved their capital to the new city that they founded at Cairo, where they established a Shia caliphate to rival that of the Sunni caliph at Baghdad. They left the Maghrib to their Berber vassals, the Zirids, but the Shia regime had already begun to crumble in Tripolitania as factions struggled indecisively for regional supremacy. The Zirids neglected the economy, except to pillage it for their personal gain. 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 Arab nomads spread across the region, in the words of the historian Ibn Khaldun, like a "swarm of locusts," impoverishing it, destroying towns, and dramatically altering the face and culture of the countryside. The Hilalian impact on Cyrenaica and Tripolitania was devastating in both economic and demographic terms. Tripoli was sacked.

During the Hafsid era, spanning more than 300 years, however, the Maghrib and Muslim Spain had shared a common higher culture-- called Moorish--that transcended the rise and fall of dynasties in creating new and unique forms of art, literature, and architecture. Its influence spread from Spain as far as Tripolitania, where Hafsid patronage had encouraged a flowering Arab creativity and scholarship. Throughout the sixteenth century, Hapsburg Spain and the Ottoman Turks were pitted in a struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean. Spanish forces had already occupied a number of other North African ports when in 1510 they captured Tripoli, destroyed the city, and constructed a fortified naval base from the rubble. Tripoli was of only marginal importance to Spain, however, and in 1524 the king-emperor Charles V entrusted its defense to the Knights of St. John of Malta.

Piracy, which for both Christians and Muslims was a dimension of the conflict between the opposing powers, lured adventurers from around the Mediterranean to the Maghribi coastal towns and islands. Among them was Khair ad Din, called Barbarossa, who in 1510 seized Algiers on the pretext of defending it from the Spaniards. Barbarossa subsequently recognized the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultan over the territory that he controlled and was in turn appointed the sultan's regent in the Maghrib. Using Algiers as their base, Barbarossa and his successors consolidated Ottoman authority in the central Maghrib, extended it to Tunisia and Tripolitania, and threatened Morocco. In 1551 the knights were driven out of Tripoli by the Turkish admiral, Sinan Pasha. In the next year Draughut Pasha, a Turkish pirate captain named governor by the sultan, restored order in the coastal towns and undertook the pacification of the Arab nomads in Tripolitania, although he admitted the difficulty of subduing a people "who carry their cities with them."

The administrative system imposed by the Turks was typical of that found elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. Tripolitania, as all three historic regions were collectively designated, became a Turkish vilayet (province) under a wali (governor general) appointed by the sultan. The province was composed of four sanjaks (subprovinces), each administered by a mutasarrif (lieutenant governor) responsible to the governor general. These subprovinces were each divided into about fifteen districts. 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.

In Tripolitania, the systematic hostility of the Turkish authorities, at times openly violent and always with an under-current of bitter enmity, assumed still greater proportions. Their chief aims were to oppose the economical and commercial interests of Italy and in every way to interfere with the development of Italian influence. For instance, the 'Banco di Roma' founded with Italian capital a branch in Tripoli, a work of great economic progress and commercial enlightenment and benefit for the country. The Turkish authorities forbade the inhabitants to have any dealings or intercourse with this banking house, and punished severely any one disregarding this arbitrary command.

The Vali, or Governors, were being constantly changed in the Vilayet of Tripoli, but the Government's policy remained unaltered. Finally, in 1910, the new Governor, Ibrahim Pasha, openly declared to the Council of Administration of Tripoli that he intended to offer systematic and irresistible opposition to every Italian enterprise; clearly impressing upon the people that he had received those instructions from Constantinople. Thus, every suggestion, every undertaking, all demands for concessions, such as waterworks, telegraphic installations, sawmills, road-making, and improvements in the harbour of Tripoli were all invariably rejected. The Governor even went so far as to prohibit the Italians from acquiring land. At Homs, Derna, Benghazi, the inhabitants who were desirous of selling their land were menaced and prosecuted by the Turkish authorities.

Turkey following her usual course of procrastinations, and finally rousing public opinion and the press, Parliament and the Government in Italy to the enormity of the situation. Italy decided to have recourse to arms, to obtain thus, by force, the respect and consideration which she was unable to procure otherwise, and to vindicate her rights.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:53:43 ZULU