Libya – a bloodstained history

The country we call Libya was not formed until the 20th century. In 74BC, the Romans controlled the areas of Tripolitania, centred around Tripoli, the current capital, and Cyrenaica, roughly where modern-day Benghazi sits today. But when the Roman empire split in the 3rd century, Tripolitania went to the western half while Cyrenaica was given to the Byzantine empire.

In the 640s, Arab troops conquered first eastern Libya and then Tripoli, bringing both into the growing Islamic empire. The region remained under Arab control for nearly 900 years, but European intervention was commonplace, and in the 16th century Tripoli briefly fell under Christian control.
In 1551, however, the Ottoman empire took control of Tripoli and Cyrenaica. It held the region until the start of the 20th century, when Libya again fell under Rome's control. Italy's attempted reconquista, launched in 1911, was long and bloody. The invasion triggered a brutal revolt by Tripoli's citizens, against which the Italians launched an even more brutal crackdown that opened the "floodgates of blood and lust", according to a contemporary report in the Times.

The Ottomans ceded control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas to the Italians in 1912. That invasion also marked the first time an aeroplane had been used in war, when on 1 November 1911, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti tossed a grenade at soldiers as he flew over the Jifarah plain south of Tripoli.
Italy, however, struggled to maintain control of its new colony. Rebellion was fomented in eastern Libya, and particularly in the city of Benghazi. Italy did not gain complete control until 1931, after two decades of near-constant fighting, when a recognisable "Libya" came into being.

The Italian imperial reign, however, was brief. After Mussolini's defeat in the Second World War, Libya's three main territories - Fezzan (in the south-west), Cyrenaica and Tripolitania - were split between Britain and France. The country remained under allied control from 1943 to 1951, when
the country became the Unified Kingdom of Libya, with King Idris I - based in Cyrenaica - as monarch.

Prospectors from Esso discovered oil in the country's eastern reaches in 1959. In 1969, a 27-year-old army captain of the Libyan army named Muammar Gaddafi launched a coup d'état against Idris while the king was holidaying in Turkey. Gaddafi promoted himself to colonel and proclaimed a Libyan Arab Republic, based on "freedom", "socialism" and, that rare trait in Libyan history, "unity". l

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?