History of this ancient, turbulent, and geopolitically important city situated on the Mediterranean and the fringes of the Sahara
It has been called a “Noble Possession”, abused as “A Nest of Corsairs” and extolled as “The Pearl of the Mediterranean”. This city of Tripoli, one of the oldest on both the Mediterranean and the fringes of the Sahara, and never deserted, has meant many different things to many different people over the past 2,500 years.
To its first outside visitors, the trading Phoenicians, it was a safe haven and a market. To its later Roman colonizers it was an outlet for the low grade pastoral produce of its Saharan hinterland. Under Muslim Arab rule it became a wealthy transit market, trading with three continents, while under its Turkish and Karamanli rulers, it was notorious for its corsair galleys that preyed on the merchant shipping of the Central and Eastern Mediterranean.
After the Napoleonic Wars the city took on a new role as a base for the trans-Saharan exploration and penetration of inner Africa, with British pioneers followed by Germans, French and Italians. In 1911 Italy invaded this last remaining Turkish possession in North Africa, soon transforming a neglected exiles’ outpost into an imposing capital symbolizing Fascist imperial pretensions. Tripoli’s fall to the British Eighth Army in January 1943 was seen as a turning point in World War Two, while in 1951 its role as joint capital of the newly-independent Kingdom of Libya marked the start of Africa’s post- colonial era. Oil found in Libya in the 1950s and 1960s made Tripoli rich—and a prize that fell in 1969 to the rising forces of Arab nationalism personified by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. During his 42 years of eccentric rule, Tripoli was transformed into a mega-city, one hundred times greater in extent and population that it had been a century earlier. But by 2015 continuing post-Gaddafi anarchy and depleting oil reserves made the city’s future seem as precarious and uncertain as ever it had been.
Mixing personal observation and research with accounts from foreign travellers and residents, John Wright reveals the reality of this unique, remarkable and ever-vibrant city: a city with special social, cultural and linguistic “flavours” that not even visitors from other parts of the Arab World can always understand or define.
JOHN WRIGHT, who has lived and worked in Tripoli, is a journalist and broadcaster (now retired) who has written and lectured widely on Libya and its Saharan hinterland.
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