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Libya, a Tale of Two Cultures, Maybe Three

Libya has been much in the news lately, though the corporate media doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, or probably both, about its history. Without some basic understanding about its history, one really can’t understand what’s going on now.

A narrow street in Tripoli's historic Old Town

American foreign policy in Libya represents a serious misunderstanding of its culture & history.

The country now known as Libya was once divided into three distinct regions, populated by very different peoples, with at least three very different cultures. Most of Libya’s recorded history since the end of the last Ice Age happened within a hundred miles or so of the Mediterranean coast, in two very distinct regions, west and east, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, now dominated by the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi.  And then, there’s the desert interior, which is something else entirely.

The Phoenicians, a Semitic language-speaking people from what is now mostly Lebanon and northern Israel, settled the western part of modern Libya and most of modern Tunisia back in, oh, the 600’s BCE, with their greatest city, Carthage, in what is now Tunisia. The Greeks settled in Cyrenaica, the eastern “hump” of modern Libya, near what is now Benghazi, around the same time.  Two very different civilizations, with two very different languages and cultures.  They both got there in galleys, which were big rowboats with sails.

They sort of co-existed for awhile, and then the Semitic-speaking Carthaginians kinda sorta dominated the whole coast. Then came what we know as the Punic Wars, which resulted in a new imperial power from the north, Rome, dominating everything. The Romans, whatever their faults, were good administrators. They governed both new provinces of first the Roman Republic, and then the Roman Empire, separately. They never even tried to conquer the desert interior. Who wants to own the desert, anyway? The various tribes of the desert are recorded in raids and reprisals, but not much else. Anyway, they weren’t that numerous. How many people can subsist in a desert?

The Romans lost what is now the coast of Libya to a Germanic tribe called the Vandals, from which we get a common word, vandalism. I could expound some on the Arian Vandals, but I won’t. They didn’t last long. They were crushed by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian’s legions and largely disappeared.  Then the Arabs came with the explosion of Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 600’s CE.

The Arab Caliphate recognized the two distinct coastal regions and governed them separately, while sending missionaries, and horse and camel soldiers, into the interior to successfully convert the indigenous peoples there to Islam. After the Caliphate fell apart, the Ottoman Turks came along and controlled the coastal area in two distinct provinces, west and east.

The Americans appear during the era of Ottoman decline, during conflicts with the so-called Barbary Pirates in the very late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Remember “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli?” As the Ottoman Empire declined, semi-independent states only nominally loyal to the sultan in Constantinople engaged in widespread piracy in the Mediterranean, which really pissed off the new American republic, which responded by sending very well-designed sailing ships and Marines at the time to persuade them to back the F off of preying on American merchant shipping. The British and French, who were suffering from the same depredations, cheered them on.

The nominal control of the Ottoman Empire finally ended in 1911, when Italy, with dreams of imperial glory, conquered both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica with superior firepower, at great cost to all sides. The Italians brutally suppressed both longstanding coastal cultures and the desert inhabitants of the interior for decades, until they lost the whole thing to British and American forces in World War II.

The independent nation of Libya inherited the same boundaries of that drawn by Italy and the other European powers over 30 years before, and successive governments were dominated by various Tripolitanian factions all the way through Qaddafi.  Now, the Cyrenaican or Benghazi faction is dominant, thanks to Western intervention over access to oil.

As for the tribes of the desert interior, nobody cares much about them, anymore than anybody did in the past, except over what effect they might have over access to the oil that may still be found and exploited there.

While the inhabitants of all three regions speak Arabic now,  rather than Phoenician or Greek or Latin or Turkish or I don’t know what, they still come from very different backgrounds. Trying to artificially unite all of them under one aegis or the other, except for perhaps Islam, is a fool’s errand.

An errand upon which the American Empire has foolishly embarked.

As I’ve said no doubt before and no doubt will say again, our ruling classes just aren’t all that smart. I just hope they’re not stupid enough to try to do what the Italians of a century ago tried, but I wouldn’t bet on it. After all, thar’s oil in them thar sands.

I fear this won’t end well.

Photo by Franzfoto released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.

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