>Tripoli – a score and more of invasions


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Footage of fighters perched on jeeps and trucks fills rolling news channels. They are the victors, Kalashnikov feux de joie and a city en fête. The green, black and red flag of Libya’s National Transitional Council drapes armoured vehicles and tanks and is waved energetically in a hastily renamed Martyrs’ Square. The rebels have breached fortress Tripoli, and their army has taken over Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound.
The speed of the rebels’ advance has surprised many in Libya and abroad, but fears of bloody street by street close combat have not been realised. Tripoli was the ultimate prize for the Transitional Council. It is not only the capital of Libya, but boasts a strategically favourable spot on the Mediterranean and dominates the oil rich coastal region. The city has a rich history of being won at the point of a gun, sword or spear, and the rebels’ advance is just the latest in a long line of military takeovers.
The city’s ‘foundation’ by the Phoenicians in the 7th Century B.C. may actually have been the conquest of an existing pre-historic settlement. The Phoenicians were in turn displaced by the Greeks in c. 6th Century B.C., extending their control of the north African coast from the town of Cyrenaica. The division of Libya between these historic provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania has been a crucial factor of this year’s civil war, with the eastern province of Cyrenaica at the heart of the rebellion.

The city would then fall to the Carthaginians. No precise date is available for the expulsion of the Greeks, but there is an interesting legend that explains how the border between Carthage and the Greek colonies was established. A pair of champions from Carthage and Cyrene set off from their respective cities on the same day, each pair heading towards the other city. Their meeting place would set the border.

When the runners met, the Carthaginian pair (two brothers from the Philaenus family) had covered more ground and were accused of cheating by the furious Greeks. The Greeks would only consent to the boundary if the Carthaginians agreed to be buried alive at the spot. The brothers agreed, ensuring that the territory between that spot and Carthage would become subsumed into the Punic Empire. The border was marked by two pillars named after the brothers as the “Altars of the Philaeni”. The African territorial boundary between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires was later set on this spot, as was the division between the Libyan provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.
By the 2nd Century B.C. the city was taken by Romans, and would remain in their rule as a key and flourishing Mediterranean trading port for 800 years. The city then fell to the Islamic tribes surging out of Arabia at some point in 642 – 643 A.D. It was initially part of the Egyptian based Fatimid and later Mamluk empires before passing to control of the local Berber Almohad empire and Hafsids kingdom.
Its strategic location meant it soon became a main base for the Barbary pirates, who had come to dominate Mediterranean shipping. The pirates had become such a menace to Christian shipping that the European superpower of the day, Spain, tried to drive them out. Tripoli’s nest of pirates was smoked out by a successful invasion in 1510 led by Don Pedro Navarro. The city would remain in Spanish hands for 13 years and was then passed to Knights of St. John in 1523 after their expulsion from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks had left them otherwise homeless.
Although the Knights built up strong defences, including the earliest parts of the Red Castle (Assaraya al-Hamra), they were strangers in a foreign and hostile land and would eventually be driven out by their mortal enemies, the Ottoman Turks, in 1551. The Knights headed to Malta, and Tripoli was once again in Muslim hands. Although Tripoli would stay in nominal Ottoman control until the 20th century, its grip on day to day power in the city ebbed and flowed.
History has long echoes, and the involvement of the US, Italy, the UK and France in this year’s NATO campaign will have given the historically aware Libyan pause for thought. The Americans were first militarily involved in Libya as early as 1801 when the First Barbary War saw the US Navy blockade the Port of Tripoli. US forces visited the Port of Tripoli again in 1815, bringing an end to all US tribute payments and a beginning to the final days of piracy in the region.
On 3 October 1911, the Italians attacked Tripoli, claiming their intervention was as liberator and protector. Libya was ceded to the Italians in the Treaty of Lausanne, but de facto control rarely extended much beyond the capital city until the 1930s. Fascist Italy saw Libya as integral to its plans to recreate a Rome-centred Mediterranean empire. Through the 1930s, Mussolini’s Italy endeavoured to convert Libya into an Italian province to be referred to popularly as Italy‘s ‘Fourth Shore. Libya was dragged into the Second World War as part of the Italian Empire, and would become central to the north African theatre.
On 23 January 1943 the Allies captured Tripoli, and the British would remain in occupation of the city and country for the rest of the war and beyond. Independence would only come in 1951, but Libya remained a British protectorate – with both the UK and the US maintaining their military bases and control over the country’s foreign and defence policies. This came to an abrupt end in 1970 when the British and Americans were ordered to leave by Colonel Gaddafi. History often has a way of coming round in full circles. 

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