and the future of Libya
1st July 2023
Who controls Benghazi controls Libya. It is an old unchanging story and crucial to today (given the presence of General Haftar and the Wagner group). When the Italians invaded Libya in 1911, they took control of the Western half of it within a year. The area was formerly called Tripolitania and centred around Tripoli, the capital of the country to this day. The other, Eastern half took them almost twenty years to subdue and was never managed. By the early 1940s, it was the site of fierce fighting between Axis and Allies which culminated symbolically with the battle of El-Alamein. The headquarters of German general Erwin Rommel, for part of this time where in Tobruk, also in the eastern area of Libya.
Libya is effectively divided into two distinct areas. Contemporary commentators muddy the waters by indicating the numerous tribes which inhabit Libya, not for the benefit or understanding of the reader. Geographically, there is Tripolitania to the West and Cyrenaica to the East. The division of the two areas in antiquity was linguistic and cultural. The west was Latin speaking while the east was Greek speaking. When the Roman empire was divided in 395, Tripolitania fell in the western half, while Cyrenaica was in the east. The cultural divide is immense. It is the divide which runs through the middle of Bosnia as well. The west of Libya is characterized by Roman archaeological sites which show syncretic culture with the local populations. The great site of Lepcis Magna may also be spelled Leptis Magna since the word is not Latin but of a local Punic (Phoenician) language. The East has the great site of Cyrene, an ancient Greek colony of the island of Thera (Santorini). It is described by Herodotus (the Father of History) and praised by Pindar (the great poet) both in the 5th century BC. It was the centre of a great mathematical School and the chief temple dedicated to Zeus was probably the model of the Parthenon on Athens’ Acropolis. Plato’s dialogues Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman had as a main interlocutor Theodore of Cyrene.
Cyrenaica was Greek, hilly, and fertile. Tripolitania was a Latin speaking desert.
The Ancient Egyptians had strong connections with Cyrenaica. This is also geographic since a caravan route from central Egypt would go through Siwa oasis (where Alexander the Great was recognized as a God) and continue to Cyrene.
Even in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs Libya was Tehenu ( ) but referred only to Cyrenaica. This was already attested in ca 3200 bC (king Scorpio of Egypt).
The city which is in between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica is Sirte which is where Ghaddafi came from. He was a compromise of East and West Libya and thus managed to control them both with an iron fist.
However, Egypt and the wider Nile valley will always be allied with eastern Libya, while Tunisia and Algeria will try to establish connections with Tripolitania.
The future of Libya is either a division into two countries or a balance between Benghazi and Tripoli. But whoever controls Benghazi will have the upper hand, geographically, militarily, and maybe even politically.