The fourth-largest country in Africa, Libya is bigger than the state of Alaska. The country borders the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Tunisia and Algeria to the west, Niger and Chad to the south, and Sudan and Egypt to the east.
Libya is almost entirely covered by the Libyan Desert, a flat plateau that’s part of the Sahara, the world's largest hot desert. Libya is so dry that no permanent rivers flow through its boundaries. Water may flow beneath the ground and occasionally seep aboveground into dry streambeds called wadis.
To access the water below the desert, Libya built the Great Man-Made River, a network of underground pipelines that deliver fresh water to the cities. Upon its completion in 1991, the “river” became the largest permanently flowing water source in Libya.
Most of Libya’s population lives in cities along the Mediterranean Sea, where the climate is milder than the country's hot desert interior. The capital of Tripoli and Benghazi, the second-largest city, are both located near the coast.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
The Berber and Arab ethnic groups make up about 97 percent of the country’s population. The Berbers are considered the earliest inhabitants of the country and are thought to have arrived in Libya around 1200 B.C. Arabs began to settle in the country around 700 A.D., following the rise in popularity of the religion of Islam. Small populations of Greeks, Egyptians, and Italians live in the country as well.
Today, most Libyans speak the Arabic language, and nearly 97 percent of the country is Muslim, or followers of Islam. A small percentage of the population are Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians.
Almost 25 percent of Libyans live in Tripoli or Benghazi. Outside of these urban centers, rural Libyans farm near desert oases, where they can access water. Deeper into the desert, animal herders follow the weather and tend to sheep, goats, and camels.
Weaving, embroidery, and metal engraving are popular arts in Libya. Other common activities include horse racing, folk dancing, and soccer, the most popular sport in Libya. Both Tripoli and Benghazi have many teams that locals enjoy watching.
Most of Libya is covered by desert, and its plants and wildlife reflect the arid conditions. Hyenas, fennec foxes, jackals, and gazelles roam the desert, and snakes, including venomous adders and kraits, slither throughout the country.
Some strips of land near the Libyan coast support native forests of pine, juniper, and cypress. The country’s coastline is also home to several rare wildlife species. Loggerhead turtles and Egyptian tortoises nest on the country’s beaches and share the water with many types of dolphins, including the striped dolphin. Saker falcons and marbled polecats are often spotted close to the coast.
Libya has established several national parks, natural reserves, and protected areas, including two marine refuges. The country’s largest national park is El Kouf National Park, which is known for its sand dunes, wetlands, and hilly terrain. The park is home to Egyptian wolves, golden eagles, red foxes, flamingos, and other wildlife.
Libya’s government is currently in transition. It was a monarchy until 1969, when rebels overthrew King Idris I and turned the country into an authoritarian state, or a country with one or few leaders and no constitution to protect the people’s rights. A council ruled the country until 1977, when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, one of the leaders of the 1969 revolution and a council member, became the country’s “Brother Leader,” or unofficial ruler.
Beginning in 2010, protests spread across many North African and Middle Eastern countries in what became known as the Arab Spring. The unrest spread to Libya, and Gaddafi punished many of the protesters. His response caused a civil war and he was killed in 2011. A transitional council was created to help form a unified government in Libya.
The Libyan economy is almost entirely based on oil and gas sales, and it’s a major global oil producer. The civil war, however, reduced the value of Libya’s currency, the dinar, and the economy still struggles today.
Libya was first settled by the Berbers during the Late Bronze Age, around 1200 B.C. They were followed by the Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilization, who established coastal trading posts in the 7th century B.C. The Greeks later arrived in the eastern part of the country and gave the region its name: Libya. The Romans then conquered Libya and ruled the territory. Around the year 700 A.D., the Arabs took over and introduced Islam to the area.
Beginning in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled Libya for several hundred years. First formed in 1299, the Ottoman Empire ruled a large portion of Eastern Europe and the Middle East for over 600 years. (The empire fell apart in 1923 and became the country of Turkey.)
The Ottoman Empire’s reign in Libya lasted until Italy seized control of the country in 1912. The Italian rule lasted just 31 years and ended when the French and British liberated Libya during World War II in 1943. Libya officially gained its independence in 1951.
The country was ruled by monarchs until Colonel Muammar Gaddafi overthrew King Idris I in 1969. Gaddafi controlled Libya until the 2011 revolution, when he was killed in the early stages of the civil war. The country continues to rebuild its government today.