During the prehistoric area, Libya was green and lush in life, as the region's rock carvings of animals and plants can attest to. However, sometime in the 4th millennium BCE, an abrupt climate shift occurred in North Africa, which transformed the lush Arcadia into a sandy wasteland—the Sahara. As a result, more than 95% of Libya's area is desert, leaving only patches of arable land in the Mediterranean coastal strip, where the milder climate provides a haven for agriculture.
The Berbers began to settle the region in the 1st millennium BCE. Presently, there are less than 200 thousand speakers of the various Berber languages, mainly nomads of the Sahara, although the majority of Libya's population have at least some Berber ancestry. In the 7th century BCE, the Carthaginians of Tunisia, who originated from Phoenicia, founded several trading cities in northwestern Libya, including Oea, Leptis Magna, and Sabratha. The Greeks knew them collectively as "Tripoli" (three cities), which later changed to refer exclusively to Oea. Speaking of the Greeks, they also colonized Libya around the same time, though choosing instead the fertile Jebel Akhdar highlands (AKA that conspicuous bulge in the northeastern coast). Their settlements were headquartered in Cyrene, with four other cities as auxiliaries, and were known as the "Pentapolis" (five cities) and later, by pars pro toto, Cyrenaica. There is also a third region, Fezzan, which consists of the arid region to the south of Tripoli and for a long time considered untouchable by non-Berbers. Before the discovery of the oilfields, Fezzan was rather unimportant aside from serving as a Saharan trade nexus.
Cyrenaica was the westernmost extent of Cambyses II's military campaign in Africa. The Achameneids were supplanted by the Macedonians in 331 BCE, following which they were administered from Egypt. Meanwhile, after Carthage's downfall, Tripolitania (as the Romans called the region surrounding Tripoli) changed hands several times before The Roman Empire finally occupied it under Augustus, who also earned the fealty of Ptolemaic Cyrenaica. The 2nd century CE Kitos War, which began with a Jewish uprising in Cyrenaica, depopulated the region of its original Greek inhabitants, though it was later repopulated again by people from the empire's other provinces. Tripolitania supplied the emperor Septimius Severus, under whose dynasty the region prospered, with many public works built, including an amphitheater in Leptis Magna. The Vandal invasions of the 500s caused the region's decline and made it an easy prey when the Umayyad Caliphate attacked in the 7th century.
The region was uniformly controlled by Arabs from the Middle East until the 9th century, when local control resurfaced. Nevertheless, there was still a clear divide: the former Cyrenaica was seen as an extension of Egypt (and therefore, the Middle East) and shared its fortunes, while Tripolitania had more in common with the Maghreb and associated itself with the Berber kingdoms of Algeria and Tunisia. In Cyrenaica, kingdoms that ruled included the Ikhshidids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, and Mamluks, while Tripolitania was ruled by the Aghlabids, Rustamids, Zirids, the Siculo-Normans, Almohads, and Hafsids. In the Middle Ages, the Fatimid Caliphate was the only polity that succeeded in unifying both regions, because it had its roots in both Egypt and Tunisia. During its reign, the Arab clans of Banu Sulaym and Banu Hillal moved in, resulting in a rapid Arabization previously unseen in the region (the Umayyad conquest did not result in one) and the decline of the Berber languages.
In 1551, the Ottoman Empire claimed Tripoli from The Knights Hospitallers, who had been administering it since it was taken by Spain. The Ottomans unified Tripolitania with Cyrenaica (which it had conquered back in 1517) for the first time since the era of the Fatimids. The province was autonomous, with the local hereditary Pasha having mostly free rein. During this period, Tripolitania was site of the Barbary Coast Wars against the United States. Tripoli is memorably mentioned in the first stanza of the official hymn of the US Marines.
To catch up with the European Scramble of Africa (or Rape of Africa, if you prefer), the Italians invaded Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1912. They named their new colony "Libya", after an ancient Greek exonym that referred to Africa west of Egypt. They initiated a massive reform project that included major infrastructure building and encouraged Italian immigration. However, the Italians were also infamous for their brutality to the natives, particularly the Berbers, whose resistance movement was the stiffest; it's estimated that about a half of the Berber population perished due to ethnic cleansing, warfare, and disease around this time. Since the Italians sided with the Axis during World War II, Libya was the scene of several major battles in the Desert War, including the Siege of Tobruk. The victory of the Allies in 1943 led to the British occupation of Libya and the renunciation of Italian claim to the colony in 1947.
Libya achieved independence in 1951 as the United Kingdom of Libya. The only king during this period was Idris I, the then leader of a Sufi order of Senussi from Bayda, which was a major resistance movement to colonial rule. Oil was discovered during his reign, which led to the country's rapid modernization. However, his close links with the West amid Arab nationalism was widely criticized and he was finally toppled while he was abroad by a coup led by Muammar Gaddafi, who proclaimed a republic.
Gaddafi reigned as leader from 1969 to 2011 (in other words, 42 years). The man who had an Amazon Brigade of Bodyguard Babes and had his name transliterated at least 30 waysnote . He was universally considered a Cloud Cuckoolander and rather Ax-Crazy. Officially, Libya under Gaddafi was a socialist country ruled by its people through a form of direct democracy, an ideology which Gaddafi characterised as a third way between capitalism and communism and which was laid out in his self-penned "Green Book", with the Colonel himself having no official position within the state and instead being a "guide of the revolution" who merely oversaw the country. Unofficially, you can probably work it out. He infamously changed the country's official name to the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in 1986.
Of particular note is Libya's relationship with the world during the 1980s. Very widely believed to be a state sponsor of terrorism/freedom fighting, arming the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, among many others, this did not go down well with the United States. Libya claimed two incidents in the Gulf of Sidra, where Libyan jets attacked American F-14s and were duly blown out of the sky. Most notable of all was Operation El Dorado Canyon, a 1986 aerial attack by the US, in response to a terrorist attack, that killed 60 people, possibly including the Libyan leader's adopted daughter. Two of these inspired works of fiction. The country also tried to destabilize its African neighbors and profit from the resulting weakness. This didn't work out too well, as Libya proceeded to get its ass kicked by Egypt and Chad, the latter actually forcing the various factions fighting for control of Chad to band together. Helping Uganda's Idi Amin in his invasion of Tanzania also blew up in Libya's face. The nation also has an ongoing feud with Sudan.
In 2003, Gaddafi reconciled with the West somewhat, gave up his Weapon of Mass Destruction programme and got Libya taken off the US "state sponsors of terrorism" list. In 2009, he delivered a 96-minute rant at the United Nations General Assembly against the United Nations Security Council, chucking away a copy of the UN Charter and bringing up Conspiracy Theories galore, and made controversial statements regarding Switzerland (who had gotten in a flap with him over the arrest of his son and son's wife in Geneva). The fact that Libya chaired the General Assembly at that time meant he was allowed to do this.
In February 2011, Libya experienced an armed uprising against the Gaddafi regime, influenced by the Arab Spring. The brutal crackdown was condemned worldwide, and caused many Libyan soldiers to defect, which Gaddafi responded to by hiring mercenaries. On March 19, the U.N. approved a no fly zone over Libya, complemented by air strikes. Gaddafi lost control of the country and was killed in Sirte on October 20 2011. Both sides committed war crimes before and during the 8 month civil war. In total, up to 20,000 people were killed.
The National Transitional Council, founded by the resistance as a way to coordinate all anti-Gaddafi opposition, was an interim government that tried to keep the peace for ten months, before dissolving upon a general election. The General National Congress took over, but instability and lawlessness prevailed over much of the country. This triggered a second civil war in 2014 that is still ongoing.
As of 2020, the Second Libyan Civil War has killed over 8,000 people. The parties are the UN-backed Government of National Accord, made up of the cabinet elected in the 2014 elections, and the unrecognized House of Representatives, made up of the parliament who won the same elections and disputes the GNA, whose military wing is called the Libyan National Army (LNA). The GNA is based in Tripoli, while the HR and LNA are based in Cyrenaica's Tobruk and Benghazi, respectively. They are also backed by different foreign forces, with the GNA being supported by Turkey, while the LNA is backed by Jordan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. This confusion means that locals often have to organize themselves, opening way to armed gangs and radicals to exploit. The Islamic State opened a branch in Libya when it occupied Sirte for a year, being defeated by the GNA and US-backed forces in 2016. Similarly, Benghazi was occupied by various jihadist groups until the forces of field marshal Khalifa Haftar, which supported the HR, ejected them and made the city his base. Having captured most of the country's east, center, and south, Haftar launched a siege of the Tripoli metropolitan area in April 2019. On the brink of losing, the GNA made a pact with Turkey to hire Turkish military advisers and units from the Syrian rebel army (themselves similarly on the losing side of a war and being backed by Turkey) and materiel, which significantly turned the tide of the war, with Haftar announcing a retreat in June 2020. In response, Russia began sending even more weapons to help the LNA, triggering fears for a Syrian Civil War-like chaos. This led the UN, as well as Russia, Turkey, and other foreign backers, to actively engage in deescalation and ceasefire talks.
The country is also noted as a major transit point of African refugees who want to immigrate to Europe. This is especially evident in the Mediterranean refugee crises, where the Libyan Coast Guard has been paid by the governments of several European countries specifically to stop and catch migrants who want to leave by boats. Life for the stranded refugees is not good, with slavery-like condition being reported by several human rights organizations.
Libya is rich in oil and natural gas, both being cornerstones of the country's exports. Under Gaddafi, despite the authoritarian regime, the standard of living in Libya was rather decent and among the highest in Africa. This was partly because Gaddafi genuinely distributed the oil wealth quite well, and partly because the population was small. Money from the exports is so high that even during the post-Gaddafi civil war era, where living standards have plummeted greatly, the country still has a high GDP per capita.
As a last, curious note, Libya's flag was completely green during Gaddafi's regime. The green was supposed to represent Gaddafi's devotion to Islam. The rebels in the 2011 war adopted variants of the old flag of the monarchy (red, black, and green horizontal stripes, with a white star and crescent in the middle) as a symbol; after the defection of the Libyan ambassador, it was the flag that flew over the Libyan mission to the UN, and became the official flag of Libya after the captures of Tripoli and Sirte.
Libya in fiction:
During the 1980s, Libya was near the top of the Hollywood Axis Of Evil list, up there with the Soviet Union and East Germany. This was majorly helped by the fact that Libya received Soviet arms (then annoyed the Soviets by losing a load of them in a war with Chad), funded the IRA and carried out or supported terrorist attacks that killed Americans.
The Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981 inspired Top Gun, while El Dorado Canyon inspired very directly (including going around France and Spain) an attack on a Qurac in a novel called Eagles.
Not counting the Qurac clones:
- Airwolf- Dr Moffett takes the chopper there after he steals it.
- In Patriot Games, Libyan terrorist training camps were used by the ULA to train for their attack on Jack Ryan's house when the Prince of Wales and his wife were visiting the Ryans.
- Also used as a source of terrorists in Back to the Future.
- The Oregon Files book Corsair takes place there, with the team racing against time to try and find a missing U.S Diplomat.
- George Macdonald Fraser doesn't state explicitly where his battalion was stationed in the McAuslan books, but contextual clues (former Italian colony, US airstrike in the 80s) make it clear they were in Tripoli.
- The main villain of The Lion's Game lost his girlfriend and some of his family during the El Dorado Canyon incident. His allies identified the pilots and bombers who conducted the raid, and he traveled the world trying to assassinate them.
- Scorpion In The Sea, a Naval thriller features a Libyan Navy operated diesel attack submarine prowling off the Florida coast, waiting to attack an aircraft carrier.
The Libyan flag