Dath al-Imad towers, Tripoli

Libya is a beautiful and diverse country that has only recently emerged from international isolation, leaving much of its Mediterranean coast and Saharan desert unspoiled and unexplored. Much history is embodied in this country that has fostered several ancient civilizations. For a long time, historians believed Libya offered nothing more than the remains and relics left behind by the Berbers, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans. But Libya’s old remnants include early rock paintings beautifully drawn on the walls of caves in southern Libya, which date as far back as 10,000 years. These drawings depict giraffes, elephants, and rhinoceroses – animals that have not roamed North Africa for thousands of years, offering researchers an intriguing glimpse into Libya’s early history.

Libya has an interesting mix of the natural and the historic. Spectacular Roman, Greek, and Byzantine ruins will delight historical enthusiasts. Ras Alteen in Benghazi, for example, features Greek and Byzantine graves discovered from an underwater city. Five famous ancient Greek cities – Sussa (Apolonia), Elmerj (Barqa), Shahat (Gorina), Tukra (Tokhira), and Tolmitha (Ptolemias) – in the Green Mountains in the east offer a portal back to Ancient Greece. The UNESCO protected Cyrene is another ancient Greek city in Libya, and was mentioned a few times in the bible. And Roman ruins can be found in ancient cities like Sabratha and Leptis Magna; the latter is an incredibly well-preserved Roman settlement that includes a basilica and amphitheatre, an arch erected to Emperor Septimus Severus, and marble Hadrianic Baths.

The “old” can also be seen in Tripoli, which presents a touch of Italy. This capital is lined with Italian streets and squares. But it also features Arab-like mosques, khans, souks, and narrow alleyways. The highlight of Tripoli is the Assai al-Hamra, or Red castle, which is a fortress with a maze of courtyards and buildings and a promontory looming over the city.

More history can be experienced at the battlefield of Tobruk, which was site of prolonged fighting between the British and Germans during WWII.

Natural features in Libya also offer tourists more things to do and see. The Saharan desert in the south and its great sand dunes offer opportunities for travel by camel and unique camping experiences. The Ubari Sand Sea is stunning with its sand dunes mixed with saline lakes. Also notable is Ghadames, a desert-oasis town in the west with mud walls and unique labyrinthine walkways, and the Zallaf Sand Dunes, whose palm trees and saline lakes are a welcomed sight in the middle of miles of endless sands. Tourists are especially attracted to Zallaf Sand Dunes for its salt-lake bathing and sand baths.

In the northern coasts of Libya, there are numerous beautiful beaches, especially around Tripoli and Benghazi, whereas the Green Mountains in Cyrenaica provide scenic hiking. For fine rock art paintings, visit the Akakus Mountains in the Sahara.

Libya was once known as the “Desert Kingdom of Africa” because most of the country’s south is dominated by the Sahara Desert. But people forget it also has a Mediterranean coast that covers more than 1,000 miles. The country is comprised of three regions: Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east.

The Tripolitania consists of coastal plains scattered with numerous oases. It is the country’s most productive agricultural area and features sandy plains such as the Cefara sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the mountainous plateaus of Cebel Nefusa, which average elevations of more than 2,000 feet above sea level. The valleys at the base of these mountains have some one of the most fertile soils. In southern Tripolitania is the desert and accompanying oases, including the Kufra. These regions have long been important trade centers between northern and central Africa.

Fezzan is a vast land of desert and oases in southwestern Libya. It is largely barren and full of sand dunes and plateaus. Date palms decorate the oases and provide food for the people. There are no rivers or lakes in this region, but the Man-Made River project carries waters via a pipeline that runs from eastern Libya to the Fezzan region.

The Cyrenaica in the east protrudes into the Mediterranean like an arch. It consists primarily of coastal shores that are smooth and continuous. The only break is the large bay of Tobruk. Parallel to the coast is the Green Mountain, a plateau that descends gradually toward the desert in the south. The plateau is very precipitous, capturing the bulk of the rainfall that Libya receives. The area is thus rich with fruit trees, vineyards, and lush woodlands and bushes. Any further south though and visitors are greeted with an arid desert scorched by fierce winds.

The climate in Libya varies depending on the region. Most of the country is hot, dry, and desert-like in the summer. In the winter, rain pours in certain months but the rainy season typically does not last beyond a few weeks. In the spring, hot dry winds from the Sahara blow northwards, causing a spurting rise in temperatures in the north, which often destroys a lot of crops.

The people in Libya are made up of Berbers and Arabs, but there are a minority of Greeks, Italians, and Maltese. The country is Muslim and most people speak Arabic, but English, Italian, and Berber are also spoken. More and more people are leaving for the cities in the north where the discovery of oil has created new petroleum and services industry jobs. Outside of the cities, Libyans live either as farmers in the fertile regions of Cyrenaica or Tripolitania, growing wheat, barley, and fruit, or else in the southern deserts where life is seminomadic – centered around oases and engaged in the raising of sheep, goats, and camels and the production of basket weaves, pottery, and leather.

Cave paintings suggest that people have lived in Sahara for more than 10,000 years. The Berbers arrived around 4,000 years ago. They probably came somewhere from the eastern Mediterranean. Around 700BC, the Phoenicians settled Libya and pushed the Berbers south into the desert regions. The Greeks conquered the Cyrenaica region at around the same time. The Romans later added Libya to its vast empire, but were ousted in Libya by the Vandals around 400AD. Around 600 AD, the Arabs displaced all other invaders. They assimilated the Berbers who gradually adopted the Arab culture, religion, and way of life. In the mid-1500s, the Ottoman Turks conquered Libya and made it a Turkish province until Italy invaded in 1911 and annexed the country.

During and shortly after WWII, Libya was occupied by the French and British until it was granted independence in 1951. The country remained a constitutional monarchy until the king was overthrown by a military coup in 1969 led by Colonel Gaddafi.

Today, Libya has a socialist form of government based on Islamic principles. Much of the administrative governance is done at the local level. The country’s real leader is Gaddafi, though he holds no official title or position. During much of his reign, Gaddafi has encouraged revolutionary movements in Africa and the Middle East and opposed the West’s support of Israel. The 1980s witnessed Libyan terrorism in the bombing of airplanes, including the 1988 Pan Am flight 103, which earned the country UN sanctions and condemnation. However, since 2003, Libya has reversed its foreign policy, emerging from international isolation. It has made efforts to normalize relations with the United States and the European Union.