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A region in Libya.

The three historic North African regions of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and the Fezzan combine to make up the modern state of Libya, which is officially known as the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Tripolitania is the most populous of the three regions, with almost 80 percent of the country's five million people. It is located in the northwestern part of the country and covers an area of approximately 140,000 square miles (365,000 sq. km). Bordered on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, its boundaries stretch east to the Gulf of Sidra and Cyrenaica, west to Tunisia, and south into the Saharan Desert, where it adjoins the Fezzan.

In classical times, three ancient cities, Leptis Magna, Oea, and Sabratah, flourished on the northern coast of Tripolitania. Founded by Phoenician colonists, each was situated at the end of a long caravan route winding south into the heart of subSaharan Africa. All three cities enjoyed naturally safe harbors; lying at the end of ancient routes to the south, what began as primitive trading posts soon turned into flourishing caravan centers.

During the Roman period, Leptis Magna developed into one of the finest examples of an African city. A key factor in its development was its location on the Mediterranean Sea, sheltered by a promontory at the mouth of the Wadi Lebda, and near the relatively well watered hinterland of Tripolitania. Leptis, over time, became much more important as a commercial center than either Oea or Sabratah. Leptis Magna is the most impressive archaeological site in Tripolitania, and in Libya as well. The Severan Arch, erected in honor of a visit from Emperor Septimius Severus in 203 c.e., and the Hadrianic Baths complex are particularly noteworthy.

Tripolitania shares a common history and close ties with the Maghrib, the western Islamic world traditionally comprising Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. It is a part, both geographically and culturally, of the Maghrib and is sometimes included in descriptions of that region. Libyan migration from Tripolitania to Tunisia, in particular, has been commonplace for centuries. Cross-border migration was especially heavy during the Italian occupation, which began in 1911, as many Tripolitanians fled Libya to escape the Italian invaders. In consequence, many Tunisians are of Libyan descent, and related families are often found on opposite sides of the Libya-Tunisia border.

At the outset of the twentieth century, the Italian occupation of Libya stimulated political consciousness throughout Tripolitania. Consequently, it was from this region that the strongest impulses supporting unification with Cyrenaica and the Fezzan developed. The ill-fated Tripoli Republic, proclaimed in the fall of 1918, was the first republican government formally created in the Arab world. However, the creation of the Tripoli Republic, together with a declaration of independence and subsequent attempts to promote Libyan independence at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, stirred little enthusiasm among the major powers of the world. By 1923 the Tripoli Republic had disintegrated.

Following World War II, a wide variety of political groups and parties were formed in Libya, and especially in Tripolitania. All of them favored a free and united Libya with membership in the Arab League. However, they differed widely in their choice of leadership for an independent Libya. When the foreign powers charged with determining Libya's future were unable to reach agreement, the traditional elites in Tripolitania, together with their peers in Cyrenaica and the Fezzan, agreed in 1950 to form a federal government, known as the United Kingdom of Libya, under the leadership of King Idris I. The monarchy was later replaced by a revolutionary government headed by Muammar al-Qaddafi in September 1969.

Located on the site of the ancient city of Oea, Tripoli is the capital of Tripolitania as well as the de facto capital of Libya. The area surrounding Tripoli as far south as the Jabal Nafusa is rich agricultural land with large groves of fruit and olive trees as well as date palms. Much of Libya's food comes from this region. South of the Jabal Nafusa, the desert begins, providing spectacular scenery most of the way to the Fezzan. Tripolitania also includes limited oil reserves and scattered iron ore deposits.

see alsolibya; maghrib; qaddafi, muammar al-;tripoli.


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.

ronald bruce st john