History of Tripoli, from its origins to Gaddafi’s arrival

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The history of Tripoli, a city with a varied history, with an Ottoman parenthesis linked above all to piracy

The origins of Tripoli

The city was founded in the 7th century BC. as a Phoenician colony and initially it was given the name of Oyat, a Libyan-Berber term that suggests the presence of an even earlier settlement, but of which no traces remain. The settlement then passed to the Carthaginians and finally to the Romans, who were the first to introduce the term “Tripoli”; the latter, also used for the Lebanese city of the same name, initially indicated the region on which Oyat, Sabratha and Leptis Magna stood but, with the progressive loss of importance of the other two, it inherited the name. Under Rome it was one of the most prosperous cities in Africa, even if it never reached the peaks touched by Leptis Magna, the birthplace of the emperor Septimius Severus and for this reason honored as a capital; however in Tripoli there are still evident remains of that period such as the great arch of Marcus Aurelius.

The arch of Marcus Aurelius

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire it passed to the Vandals, and was then conquered by the Byzantines and the Arabs. The arrival of the latter led her to share her fate with most of the rest of the Maghreb, passing from one dynasty to another but without being able to emerge or find her own definitive location.

Ottoman Tripoli

In 1510 Tripoli was conquered by Spain and then ceded to the Knights of Malta in the hope that their presence would limit pirate attacks; hope that turned out to be completely in vain. In 1551 the city was conquered by the Ottoman privateer Turgut Reis, who took care of embellishing the city and making it one of the most renowned centers for piracy. Until 1711 the Ottoman Empire exercised direct power, albeit interspersed with some small revolts, but, starting from that date, the Karamanli dynasty will be formed here, which will govern these lands until 1835 in almost complete autonomy (with the exception of for taxes, which still went to the Sublime Porta). Between 1801 and 1815 Tripoli became the absolute protagonist of the Barbary Wars, even becoming the United States of America as its enemy. As already mentioned, the states on the Maghreb coast lived largely off piracy, demanding heavy taxes from those who wanted the safety of their cargoes. When a Yankee vessel was captured, the Americans found themselves in the dire situation of having to pay tribute to the privateers, but with Jefferson’s rise to power, that changed. The new president was in fact no longer willing to pay those he considered criminals, preparing the navy for what would become the First Barbary War.


Thanks to the dispatch of equipped ships and the use of its best commanders, Washington managed to triumph in 1805; however, taking advantage of the Anglo-American War of 1812, the Barbary states continued their attacks, only being stopped in 1815 with a decisive and final confrontation.

From Italian colonization to independence

Taking advantage of the confused situation that prevailed in that period between Europe and Africa, Italy, which had long been interested in the Libyan coast, declared war on the Ottoman Empire and in 1911 occupied Tripoli and part of Cyrenaica. Initially, things seemed to be going incredibly well for Italy, so much so that within a few months he managed to take over most of the coastal cities. The great initial confidence, in reality, soon proved to be in vain, with some of the best Turkish generals enlisting volunteers precisely to face the Italic kingdom; among these it is impossible not to mention Enver Bey and a young Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, figures who would soon shape the history of contemporary Turkey. Hostilities with the Sublime Porte continued until 1912, when the Treaty of Ouchy was signed. The latter, contrary to Italic hopes, did not sanction a total transfer of power from the Ottoman Empire to Italy, but only the civil and military one, while the territory formally remained part of the Empire.

(left) A young Mustafa Kemal studying the field before the Battle of Tobruk in 1911

The Italian struggle in Libya, however, did not end with this treaty but only in 1931, the year in which the great Omar al Mukhtar, leader of the Senussite revolt, was captured and tried. Falling permanently into the hands of Rome, Tripoli was equipped with all the best technologies and comforts present in the cities of the Bel Paese, thus giving way to a great work of modernization of the city. In 1943 the whole of Libya was occupied by the Allies, putting a de facto end to Italic power. Starting from the end of the 2nd World War, the country was entrusted to the English in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania and to the French in Fezzan; in 1951 Idris I was appointed king of Libya, keeping his position until 1969, the year of Mu’ammar Gaddafi’s coup d’état.

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