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traditional region of libya.

The three historic North African regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and the Fezzan combine to make up the modern state of Libya, officially known as the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Al Jumahiriyah al Arabiyah al Libiyah ash Shabiyah al Ishtirakiyah al Uzma). With an area of approximately 305,000 square miles (790,000 sq km), the boundaries of Cyrenaica stretch east from the Gulf of Sidra to the Egyptian border, west to Tripolitania, and south from the Mediterranean Sea to Chad and the Sudan. Geographically, Cyrenaica is divided into three distinct areas, consisting of the coastal plan, a mountainous area in the east, and the southern desert.

The city of Benghazi, the second-largest population center in Libya and the commercial center for the eastern half of the country, is located in Cyrenaica on the eastern side of the Gulf of Sidra. Five ancient Greek cities, known collectively as the pentapolis, are also located in Cyrenaica. Thought to have been founded around 631 b.c.e., the city of Cyrene is the best preserved of the five. After it became part of the Roman Empire, Cyrene was severely damaged during a Jewish revolt in 115 c.e.By the fourth century c.e., all five of the pentapolis cities lay virtually deserted.

Throughout history, Cyrenaica has looked eastward to the Mashriq, or eastern Islamic world, maintaining especially close ties with Egypt. When defeated in tribal wars, Cyrenaican Bedouins sometimes migrated to Egypt, often eventually settling there. Other tribal members retained their nomadic way of life, crossing back and forth into Egypt with little concern for vague, unmarked borders. During the period of Italian occupation, which began in 1911, Cyrenaicans received arms and other supplies from Egypt in support of their struggle against the European invaders. Eventually, the Italian army built a barbed-wire fence the length of the LibyaEgypt border in an effort to stop the passage of military supplies to the insurgents.

The Sanusi Order, a Sufi religious movement dedicated to spreading religious enlightenment in areas where Islam was only lightly observed, was established in Cyrenaica in 1842 by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi. Eighty years later, his successor, Sayyid Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi alSanusi, was forced by the Italians to seek refuge in Egypt, where he remained for almost three decades. He later returned to Libya as King Idris I to head the newly created United Kingdom of Libya in 1951.

With approximately 1 million people as of 2003, or almost 20 percent of the Libyan population, Cyrenaica is a vibrant economic and commercial center. The Jabal al-Akhdar, a high plateau in eastern Cyrenaica known as the Green Mountain, together with Kufrah and other irrigated areas in the south, are important centers of agricultural production. However, it is the petroleum sector that drives both the Cyrenaican and Libyan economies. Oil and gas from Cyrenaica, first discovered in commercial quantities in 1959, account for almost all of Libya's exports and approximately one-third of the national gross domestic product. The continued expansion of the petroleum industry into the twenty-first century led to the modernization of the port of Benghazi and the construction of many oil-exporting facilities along the coast of Cyrenaica.

see also benghazi; idris al-sayyid muhammad al-sanusi; libya; sanusi, muhammad ibn ali al-; sanusi order.


Nelson, Harold D., ed. Libya: A Country Study, 3d edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979.

St John, Ronald Bruce. Historical Dictionary of Libya, 3d edition. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998.

Wright, John. Libya: A Modern History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

John L. Wright

Updated by Ronald Bruce St John