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Throughout history Libya has been blighted by its geography, lying in the path of invading empires and someone else’s war.

The great civilisations of antiquity

From 700 BC, Lebdah (Leptis Magna), Oea (Tripoli) and Sabratha formed some of the links in a chain of safe Phoenician (Punic) ports stretching from the Levant around to Spain. Traces of the Phoenician presence in Libya remain at Sabratha and Leptis Magna.

On the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, in 631 BC Greek settlers established the city of Cyrene in the east of Libya. Within 200 years the Greeks had built four more cities of splendour as part of the Pentapolis (Five Cities), which included Apollonia. But with Greek influence on the wane, the last Greek ruler, Ptolemy Apion, finally bequeathed the region of Cyrenaica to Rome in 75 BC.

Meanwhile, the fall of the Punic capital at Carthage (in Tunisia) prompted Julius Caesar to formally annex Tripolitania in 46 BC. The Pax Romana saw Tripolitania and Cyrenaica become prosperous Roman provinces. Such was Libya’s importance that a Libyan, Septimus Severus, became Rome’s emperor (r AD 193–211).

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Islamic libya

In AD 643, Tripoli and Cyrenaica had fallen to the armies of Islam. From 800, the Abbasid-appointed emirs of the Aghlabid dynasty repaired Roman irrigation systems, restoring order and bringing a measure of prosperity to the region, while the mass migration of two tribes – the Bani Salim and Bani Hilal – from the Arabian Peninsula forever changed Libya’s demographics. The Berber tribespeople were displaced from their traditional lands and the new settlers cemented the cultural and linguistic Arabisation of the region.

The Ottomans occupied Tripoli in 1551. The soldiers sent by the sultan to support the Ottoman pasha (governor) grew powerful and cavalry officer Ahmed Karamanli seized power in 1711. His Karamanli dynasty would last 124 years. The Ottoman Turks finally reined in their erstwhile protégés in 1835 and resumed direct control over much of Libya.

On 3 October 1911, the Italians attacked Tripoli claiming somewhat disingenuously to be liberating Libya from Ottoman rule. During almost three decades of brutal Italian rule, a quarter of Libya’s population died as a result of the occupation.

With the onset of WWII, devastating fighting broke out in the area around Tobruk. By January 1943, Tripoli was in British hands and by February the last German and Italian soldiers were driven from Libya.

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Qaddafi’s libya

Desperately poor Libya became independent in 1951, but the country’s fortunes were transformed by the discovery of oil in 1959 at Zelten in Cyrenaica. Over the decade that followed, Libya was transformed from an economic backwater into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

With the region in turmoil, it came as no surprise when a Revolutionary Command Council, led by a little-known but charismatic 27-year-old Mu’ammar Qaddafi, seized power in Libya on 1 September 1969. Riding on a wave of anti-imperialist anger, the new leader closed British and American military bases, expanded the armed forces and closed all newspapers, churches and political parties. Some 30, 000 Italian settlers were deported.

As the colonel balanced his political theories of participation for all Libyans with the Revolutionary Committees that became famous for assassinating political opponents throughout Europe, the US accused Libya of involvement in a string of terrorist attacks across Europe and on 15 April 1986, the US Navy fired missiles into Tripoli and Benghazi.

After Libyan agents were charged with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie and the 1989 explosion of a French UTA airliner over the Sahara, UN sanctions came into effect. Finally, in early 1999, a deal was brokered and the suspects were handed over for trial by Scottish judges in The Hague. The sanctions, which had cost Libya over US$30 billion in lost revenues and production capacities, were immediately lifted.

Libya today

In 2011, after a six-month uprising supported by the international community, Muamma Gaddafi's autocratic government was finally toppled and replaced by the National Transition Council which has promised to turn Libya into a plural, democratic country.

In July 2012 the country held it's first free elections in six decades for a General National Congress that will appoint an interim government and a constituent authority to draft a constitution.

For more information on the rapidly changing situation check out the BBC's Libya profile.

Updated August 25th 2012

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