Tripolitania is regarded as a geographical unit rather through a political fiction than on account of its physical conditions. That portion of the African continent designated on maps at the end of the 19th Century by the name of Tripolitana was a territory destitute of geographical unity. A vast region over 400,000 square miles in extent, it comprises several distinct countries separated from each other by uninhabited or even uninhabitable solitudes. Here the desert, or at least the steppes leading to it, reach the Mediterranean at the Syrtis Major. The space comprised between Cyrenaica on the east, and the Ghurian highlands near Tripoli, forms a land of imperceptible transition between the coast and Sahara zones, while the whole of Southern Tripolitana already belongs to the desert.
The maritime region of Tripoliania, bounded east by the extreme bend of the Great Syrtis, west by the southern headlands of the Tunisian coast, forms a distinct territory both in an administrative and geographical sense. The belt of coastlands, varying in width, and intersected by a thousand mostly dry wadies draining to the Mediterranean, is dominated south and south-west either by chains of rocky hills and mountains, or by the rugged scarp of a plateau which runs mainly parallel with the shores of the Syrtes. This zone constitutes Tripolitana in the stricter sense of the term.
The vilayet of the same name also comprised the portion of the plateau stretching through Ghadames south-westwards to the Algerian frontier. But this formed a separate geographical area, sloping, not seawards but towards the west, in the direction of the Sahara. In the south yet another natural region is formed by the scattered oases of Fezzan, separated from the Mediterranean basin by hills, plateaux, and vast desert wastes. Excluding Cyrenaica, Fezzan, Ghadames, and Rhat, and disregarding administrative divisions, the surface of Tripolitania, within the waterparting between the marine and inland basins, may be approximately estimated at 110,000 square miles.
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. 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. Tripolitania's cultural ties were with the Maghrib, of which it was a part geographically and culturally and with which it shared a common history. 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.
Along the shore of Tripolitania for more than 300 kilometers, coastal oases alternate with sandy areas and lagoons. Inland from these lies the Jifarah Plain, a triangular area of some 15,000 square kilometers. About 120 kilometers inland the plain terminates in an escarpment that rises to form the Jabal (mountain) Nafusah, a plateau with elevations of up to 1,000 meters.
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. Unlike Cyrenaica, Tripolitania does not extend southward into the desert.
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