With approx. 84% of the population living in cities, Libya is the most urbanized country in Africa. While half the population lives in the country’s two largest cities, the rest of its citizens are scattered between over 100 cities, towns and villages.* What makes Libyan cities so fascinating is that they are intertwined with tribalism and local identities. In a country who’s national identity has always been absent, the key to understanding Libya is to understand its cities, and in particular how they were formed.
By the end of Italian colonization in 1942, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. The brutality of the colonial project has been (meagerly) documented with studies on the Libyan resistance and the Italianization of population and land. But one of the most significant impacts was the de-urbanization of Libya.
Whether a genuine belief or another case of disinformation, Libyans were depicted as wandering desert nomads who were not civilized enough to build or live in cities. Aside from the fallacy of equating civilization with urbanization (something even Ibn Khaldun is guilty of), it was also untrue. Libyans were not nomadic by nature but rather adopted different lifestyles depending on the economic need of the moment. Urbanization and bedouinization were two ends of an economic spectrum, rather than polar opposite modes of existence.
Evidence of city-building has been documented in Libya as far back as the 4th century BC with the urban settlements of the Garamantes (الجرمان) and Ghadames in the South-West. Towns like Awjila were key stops on the caravan route between East and West, and contain architecture that is uniquely Libyan, the most prominent example being the Atik Mosque (جامع العتيق). Cities such as Derna were formed through agreements between Eastern and Western tribes, the history of which is reflected in folk tales like tajreedat habib (تجريدة حبيب). During times of hardship, such as drought or conflict, those who lived in settled areas would go on the move and adopt nomadic lifestyles in order to sustain themselves.
When Italians invaded in 1911, the Libyans they found were semi-nomadic. Economic trade routes sustained by the Ottoman empire led to the growth of existing settlements, and the agriculture and livestock trade connected cities with the countryside. In order to weaken the bonds of solidarity between Libyans, the Italians engaged in a multi-staged strategy, one aspect of which included driving Libyans out of their towns and settlements and into fixed camps on the outskirts of the main cities (Abu Salim was one such camp, which has today become one of Tripoli’s municipalities, although the legacy of the area is reflected in the underprivileged status of its population).
Framed as a project to urbanize and settle the ‘savage’ Bedouin population of Libya, what was actually taking place was a process of forced de-urbanization. The camps that Libyans were forced to live in were not planned neighbourhoods but rather temporary tools of control aimed to weaken and kill off the population, keeping them in a state of permanent transience. It also allowed Italian farmers to take over the agricultural lands that Libyans were driven from. Meanwhile, in other Libyan cities, Italians redesigned them to suit the new population, while Libyans were driven to the periphery.
At this point you’re probably wondering; what does de-urbanization have to do with new cities in Libya after the discovery of oil? Well, after Libyan independence in 1954, the population had largely become nomadic. The forced relocation of Libyans coupled with the complete obliteration of their economic and political system meant that the majority of the population had to rely once again on a nomadic way of life to survive. The cities and infrastructure left behind by the Italians were not designed for Libyans, and in some cases were destroyed either by WWII bombing or had become uninhabitable because Italian forces had poured concrete into the wells and poisoned the agricultural land**.
After the birth of Libya, the UN concentrated their efforts on pulling the population out of poverty. There are still older women across Libya who remember being trained by UN staff on things such as hygiene, maternal health and education. One of these projects, conducted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) was focused on the development of tribal lands for settlements in East and South Libya.
According to the documents, these projects aimed to “modernize the traditional tribal sector of agriculture by establishing the tribesmen on individual holdings and put an end to poverty and lessen the uncertainties of the physical environment” (FAO, 1969, p. 69). In other words, FAO was helping the government combat tribal land collectives and settle the population. Among the pilot settlements for this project was Al-Haniyah (الحنية) in the Green Mountain, and one of the neighbourhoods in Traghen in Fezzan. By their own admission, the UN faced a lot of challenges in executing these plans, primarily because they failed to address the core issue of land ownership.
But it was the discovery of oil which changed the game for Libyan urbanism. With the ability to hire teams of international consultants from places such as the US, Greece and Japan, there was a flurry of masterplanning for new cities and satellite neighbourhoods. One of the most prominent is New Brega, planned and designed by American companies for the expat and Libyan employees of the nearby oil field. Ras Lanuf was similarly designed, with culs-de-sac to boot.
Brega (بريقة) is a peculiar plan, primarily because it is a compact version of American suburbia located a few meters from the Mediterranean. Its morphology looks nothing like the surrounding area, particularly when compared to the old town of Brega. Today, it is primarily inhabited by Libyans; most expats left the country after the war began. In Libyan lore, New Brega is considered the epitome of good city living; the streets are paved and walkable, all services are in the middle of town at equal distances from each house, no one can violate planning code by building an extra story and block their neighbour’s access to sunlight. In a country where there is very little order and stability, it’s easy to see why a plan like Brega would appeal to people.
Another interesting plan was Kisho Kurokawa’s vision for the town of Al-Sarir (السرير). Rather than adopting straight lines, he wanted to shape a morphology closer to Japanese towns, in which the street is the main public space (something he felt both countries had in common). Interestingly, he also rejected the notion of concrete housing in the desert in favour of reinforced sand brick. (You can read the full philosophy behind his plans here). Now, he says that constructed had begun on the plans, but a document from the Al-Emara office (the official public urban design office in East Libya) indicate that it was never built for a number of reasons. The only explanation I can think of is that the initial construction of Kurokawa’s plan ended up being the compound that houses employees for the Sarir oil field.
So focused was the government on creating new urban settlements in Libya to meet the population growth that, after the destruction of Marj following the earthquake, they opted to build a new city rather than reconstruct the old one. As cities and towns grew, and as dependency on oil money became the new culture, Libya began losing agricultural land in favour of more urbanization. While there were considerable efforts placed on creating new towns or expanding on existing ones in order to lessen the pressure on the two main cities, it didn’t stop the massive growth seen by Tripoli and Benghazi.
In the years before the 2011 revolution, the government engaged in a series of large-scale housing projects. Run a Google satellite search around the periphery of any Libyan city and you’ll see the mosaic of badly planned satellite neighbourhoods. It was a desperate response to the growing housing crisis in the country, exacerbated by decades of bad economic policy which limited the housing supply. Many of these projects are incomplete and lay empty, a haunting reminder of a regime who perhaps knew that its time was running out.
Janet Abu-Lughod, in writing about Libyan urbanism in 1996, termed the new developments as ‘instant cities’; places that were born out of the oil wealth and which needed that wealth to sustain themselves. The ensuing instability after the revolution and civil wars has sadly proven her right. There is a strain on Libya’s cities today, impacted by the unpredictable shifts in population and demographics as internal displacement reaches catastrophic levels. But even without the war, the way Libyan cities are designed are a relic of colonial masterplanning which never really produced cities for who Libyans were, but rather what they should be.
In the case of the new settlements, this was a vision of a Westernized population dependent on cars and government hand-outs, rolled out over fertile agricultural land that no longer served a function. The empty spaces between the buildings reflect the sterility of the plans, addressing no one’s needs. Libyans must turn towards a new way of building urban settlements, one that creates cities that can last.
* In 2014, the Ministry of Local Government identified 99 cities and towns as the basis for the new municipality system. By 2016, this expanded to 124, the increase of which can be attributed to several smaller towns seeking ‘independence’ from a larger city that they were grouped with (i.e. South Zawiya, Benina, etc.) Some municipalities still consist of villages grouped together (i.e. Sharqiyah consists of Umm Alaranib, Semnu and Zwaila)
** Fuck Italian fascism always
*** If you’re interested in learning more about urbanization in Libya since the 1960’s, Saad Kezeiri conducted a large volume of research on the topic which I highly recommend.