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Libya: History, facts, and culture

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Historical Overview:

Libya, with the name and borders we know today, only came into being in the twentieth century, but this area of North Africa has been a crossroads of civilization for thousands of years. The earliest inhabitants are believed to have been nomadic Berber tribes. The seafaring Phoenicians established trading relations with the Berbers and other peoples in the area and exported goods such as olive oil, ivory, animals, and wine to the rest of the Mediterranean and Africa.

Arab horsemen conquered vast swaths of territory including North Africa in the early 640s, and port cities such as Tripoli flourished under the rule of these Islamic dynasties. Merchants here traded in gold, slaves, leather, wool, and salt. During the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, Turkish-based Ottoman rulers promoted and patronized arts and literature, architecture, and scholarship. Trade with European city-states also greatly increased under Ottoman control.

Growth in sea trade and treasure-laden vessels created irresistible targets for pirates based along the Barbary Coast of North Africa, which derived its name from the Berber tribes. The infamous Barbarossa, or Red Beard, was a skilled Turkish seaman who was fluent in five languages who became a privateer—authorized by the Ottoman government to attack their enemy ships and share in the booty.

According to scholars, the Barbary pirates raided vessels and coastal towns not only in the Mediterranean and around Africa but as far away as Iceland and South America. Pirates captured thousands of ships and an estimated 800,000 to 1.25 million people who were sold into slavery. In some areas, coastal settlements were abandoned for fear of the pirates. Some countries, including the newly created United States, paid the pirates to gain immunity for their vessels. In fact, the threat from the Barbary pirates led the United States to establish its first naval force in 1794 and to two Barbary Coast wars (1801–15) between the United States and the Barbary States (the Ottoman entities of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli).

As a result of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911–12, this region became an Italian colony and, in 1934, was given the name “Libya,” an ancient Greek name for the area. The Libyan inhabitants resisted Italian colonization, and members of the resistance fought alongside the Allied forces during World War II. Libya gained independence in 1951 with a former resistance leader as king. King Idris was deposed in 1969 by a military coup led by Muammar Gaddafi.

Facts & Statistics

Conventional long form: Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

Capital: Tripoli

Geography: Libya is in North Africa between Tunisia and Egypt with the Mediterranean cost as its northern border. More than 90% of the country is semidesert prone to dust and sandstorms. Libya is slightly larger than Alaska and is the fourth largest country in Africa.

The two main cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, contain approximately one-fourth of the total Libyan population and one-third of the urban population.

Population: 6,597,960 (country comparison to the world: 101)

Median Age:

Male: 24.5

Female: 24.4

Age Structure

0–14 years: 32.8% of the population

15–64 years: 62.7% of the population

65+ years: 4.6% of the population

The growth rate of 2.064% makes Libya 44th in the world in rate of growth and one of the highest in Africa. The number of foreign workers coming into the country accounts for part of this growth rate.

Ethnicities of Libya: Berber and Arab 97%, other 3% (includes Greeks, Maltese, Italians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Turks, Indians, and Tunisians)

Religion: Sunni Muslim 97%, Christianity 1.5% and Other 1%

Language: Arabic (official language), Italian, English, all are widely understood in the major cities. English is often used in international business and politics.

Economic Power: Libya has the tenth largest proven oil reserves in the world, and the oil sector is about 25% of the GDP. Because Libya has large oil revenues and a small population, the per capita GDP is high, but the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people.

Government: Under Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan government has two branches: the “revolutionary sector,” a group of unelected leaders, and the Jamahiriya sector or Peoples’ Congress, made up of approximately 1,500 elected members. Political parties are banned.

Libyan Culture: Libya has multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites including the remains of ancient Greek and Roman cities. The Leptis Magna site is said to be one of the best-preserved Roman archeological sites in the world. Another UNESCO site in the Acaucus Mountains features rock art dating back to 12,000 BC. The paintings and carvings at this site depict giraffes, ostriches, elephants, camels, as well as humans and horses.

Horse races are popular in Libya, and they are a part of some traditional celebrations. Car racing is also very popular. At one time, Tripoli was a stop on the Grand Prix tour.

Libyan folk art and architecture use the traditional Islamic art motifs such as floral or vegetative designs and calligraphy expressed in various media such as leather, metal, stone, and embroidery.

Libyan cuisine is a mixture of Mediterranean, African, and a bit of Italian influences. Common ingredients are olives, dates, milk, lamb, chicken, and grains such as couscous. Tea is often served after meals and sometimes roasted almonds or peanuts are mixed into the tea. Alcohol consumption is illegal.

Greetings: Libyans are warm and enthusiastic people. They shake hands upon greeting and maintain the handshake as long as the verbal greetings last. Libyan men will not initiate a handshake with a woman but will wait for the woman to initiate it.

Communication: Like many other cultures, the interpersonal relationship is of utmost importance in Libya and must be established before any business discussions take place. Long-term business relationships are important and desirable. Dignity, honor, and reputation are important.

Saying No: Libyans are nonconfrontational, and saving face is important. They may avoid disagreeing with you or saying “no” to save you from losing face.

Eye Contact: Libyans like to make direct and smiling eye contact but avoid constant eye contact.

Gift Giving: Bring a small gift from your country or a gift of food or pastries if you are invited to a Libyan’s home. If you are a man and must give a gift to a woman, say that it is from your mother, wife, or other female relative in order not to embarrass the woman. Give the gift with both hands or the right hand. Do not expect the recipient to open the gift in your presence.

Dining: Dress conservatively and remove your shoes at the door. Accept offers of coffee and tea. Be respectful to elders. Eat only with the right hand and expect to be urged to continue to eat even after you are full. Always leave a little bit of food on your plate at the end of the meal. This demonstrates that the host is generous and has more than enough food for all the guests.


U.N. Demographic Yearbook, (2003), "Demographic Yearbook (3) Pop., Rate of Pop. Increase, Surface Area & Density," United Nations Statistics Division. Retrieved July 15, 2006.

Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, (1987), "Tripolitania and the Phoenicians," U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved July 11, 2006.

Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, (1987), "Cyrenaica and the Greeks," U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved July 11, 2006.

News and Trends: Africa, (September 17, 1999), "Libya looking at economic diversification," Alexander’s Gas & Oil Connections. Retrieved July 19, 2006.

About Libya, "Libya Today", Discover Libya Travel. Retrieved July 14, 2006.

Palmer, Micheal A. "The Continental Period, 1775-1890." A History of the U.S. Navy. Naval Historical Centre. Retrieved 1 December 2008

Published - September 2011

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