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Libya's location placed it in the radii of Roman, Arab, Turkish and Italian conquering adventures, with the nation finally stepping forth as an independent state in the post-World War years. While the Arabs made the most impressive mark on Libya - Islam -, the others left in their wake architecture, culture and (in the case of the Romans), some fine archaeological treasures. Today, this provides for a wealth of stunning attractions.
The coastal region of Libya was inhabited as early as 8,000 A.D. by Berbers. Libya was occupied by a series of other peoples, with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Persian Empire, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Turks and Byzantines ruling all or part of the area. Under the Romans Libya was a properous province of the Empire, and was under control of Rome for over 600 years. Libya was conquered by Uqba ibn Nafi in 644 and fully conquered in 655, forming part of the Ummayad Caliphate. This was superseded by the Abbasids in 750. Arab soldiers, spreading their new religion of Islam, entered Cyrenaica in 642 and occupied Tripoli in 643. A succession of Arab and Berber dynasties then controlled what is now Libya. In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire conquered Libya and for the first time united the three states that make up modern day Libya: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. The complete unification of these three states to one country came in an unexpected way.
In 1911 Italy invaded the three regions, in the Italo-Turkish War, and turned the three regions into colonies. From 1912 onwards, the territory of Libya was known as Italian North Africa. From 1927 to 1934, the territory was split into two colonies run by Italian governors, Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitania. After 1934 the name Libya became into use. (after the name the old Greeks used for the entire coastal area of Northern Africa in ancient times.) In the years before World War II, King Idris I, led Libyan resistance. After the war, which led to a British occupation after the Italian defeat, the United Nations decided that Libya should become independent before 1952. On December 24, 1951, Libya declared its independence as the United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under King Idris I. Although the discovery of oil reserves led to wealth in the new country. But this new found wealth was only for a few people close to the king.
On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by then 27-year-old army officer Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi staged a coup against King Idris and took over the leadership of the country. In the 80's and early 90's the relationship between Libya and the U.S.A. was so bad that it led to a couple of military confrontations, especially after the Berlin Discotheque bombing, and the 'Lockerbie' bombing. In the last years relations between the two countries have become much better.
After popular movements overturned the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, its immediate neighbours to the west and east, Libya experienced a full-scale revolt beginning in February 2011. By 20 February, the unrest had spread to Tripoli. Rumours began to circulate as to the whereabouts of Gaddafi, with unsubstantiated sources claiming that he had fled the country, possibly to Venezuela. Gaddafi appeared on Libyan state TV to deny these rumours on 22 February. In March 2011, much of the west is still in the hands of Gaddafi and his army, while much of the east is claimed by the rebellions. The country basically got into a civil war, with clashes between the opposition and Gaddafi a fact in most of the country, from Tripoli to Benghazi and many places in between. On Saturday 19 March 2011, the first Allied act to secure a no-fly zone began when French military jets entered Libyan airspace on a reconnaissance mission heralding attacks on enemy targets. The United States and United Kingdom launched attacks on over 20 "integrated air defense systems" using more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles during operations Odyssey Dawn and Ellamy.
Geographically, too, Libya is diverse. The northern shores have that distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere. Head southwards, though, and the story is markedly different, with the hot sands of the Sahara making for a very different kind of attraction. Here, travellers can adventure into the desert on one of the highly popular desert safaris. Libya extends over 1,759,540 square kilometres, making it the 17th largest nation in the world by size. It is bound to the north by the Mediterranean Sea, the west by Tunisia and Algeria, the southwest by Niger, the south by Chad and Sudan and to the east by Egypt. Libya lies between latitudes 19° and 34°N, and longitudes 9° and 26°E. At 1,770 kilometres, Libya's coastline is the longest of any African country bordering the Mediterranean. The portion of the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya is often called the Libyan Sea.
The Libyan Desert, which covers much of Libya, is one of the most arid places on earth. In places, decades may pass without rain, and even in the highlands rainfall seldom happens, once every 5-10 years. There are a few scattered uninhabited small oases, usually linked to the major depressions, where water can be found by digging to a few feet in depth. In the west there is a widely dispersed group of oases in unconnected shallow depressions, the Kufra group, consisting of Tazerbo, Rebianae and Kufra. Aside from the scarps, the general flatness is only interrupted by a series of plateaus and massifs near the centre of the Libyan Desert, around the convergence of the Egyptian-Sudanese-Libyan borders. Slightly further to the south are the massifs of Arkenu, Uweinat and Kissu. These granite mountains are ancient, having formed long before the sandstones surrounding them. Arkenu and Western Uweinat are ring complexes very similar to those in the Aïr Mountains.
The country can be divided into several historic and geographical regions, as listed below.
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Libya is a vast country and boasts an enormous cultural treasure. There are no less than three archeological sites to be found on the Unesco World Heritage List. The first one is Cyrene north of Benghazi, which was one of the principal cities in the Hellenic world. It was destroyed by an earthquake of 365 and the ruins have hundreds of years of history and have been famous since the 18th century. The others include Leptis Magna and Sabratha not far from the capital Tripoli. Leptis Magna was one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire while Sabratha was a Phoenician trading-post that served as an outlet for the products of the African hinterland.
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A trip to Libya requires at least several days into the large Sahara Desert. The Libyan (together with the Algerian) Sahara is considered one of the most beautiful parts of this vast area with large sand seas (called erg in Arabic language) and rocky mountainous areas as well. The best way of visiting is with a 4wd vehicle including driver and equipment. Tents and meals are provided and if you want you can sleep under the stars.
Ghadames is the gateway to the Libyan parts of the Sahara desert and is also known as 'the pearl of the desert'. It is a very attractive desert oasis which also functions as the last or first place to have a decent room and shower before or after your desert trip. It is one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities and an outstanding example of a traditional settlement and therefore is on the Unesco World Heritage List as well.
Held annually between December and January in Libya, this unique event takes place amongst the spectacular scenery of the Jebel Acucus basalt monoliths in the heart of the Sahara. Expect a variety of musical performances at sunset, breaking the stunning silence of the great desert and giving an iconic atmospheric experience.
The March Nalut Spring Festival is another traditional celebration in Libya featuring local cultural events and performances including parades as well as nightly dance shows. The setting in the mountainous Jebel Nafusa region adds to the charm of this three-day event.
The hot summer season in beachside Zuwarah welcomes this August festival based on age-old pagan rites including ritual sea bathing for tribes and their animals. Once performed nude, the bathing portion of the ceremonies has been adjusted to suit the Islamic moral code and now features clothed swimming and sailing races as well as folk dances, music and traditional foods.
Eid el Fitr is the three-day, fast-breaking festival held at the end of the holy month of Ramadan during which Muslims fast from sun-up to sundown. It’s held according to the Islamic calendar, with the dates shifting between summer and autumn for the joyous, family and food-oriented celebration.
The three-day Ghadames Festival takes place every October and is one of the best-loved Saharan celebrations of the Tuareg and Barber people living in Western Libya. Expect feasting, dancing, musical performances, horse and camel races and other traditional contests, with the heart of the old city turned into a vast market for newly-harvested dates.
The newly started Liberation Day is held on October 23, the exact day in 2011 when the Libyan people broke free from the tyrannical rule of the Gaddafi family. It’s a national holiday, marked in Tripoli and across the land with gatherings in Martyrs’ Square and other city and town centers.
The Islamic New Year falls around November depending on the Islamic calendar and is widely celebrated as a national holiday. Visits to mosques and family time are highlights.
The dates of the three-day Ghat Festival alternate annually between November and December, but its setting in an ancient Tuareg oasis medina ensures an unrivalled cultural experience. Expect camel races, a huge outdoor market selling everything from crafts to livestock, music, dancing and feasting as highlights.
Libya has a hot and dry desert climate in most of the country except the north which enjoys a somewhat milder Mediterranean climate. This means hot and dry summers and mild and relatively wet winters although rain is rather unpredictable during recent years. Temperatures in summer are extremely high with recorded temperatures over 50º C not uncommon. From June to September temperatures are almost daily above 40º C and nights are still warm. In winter though, temperatures can drop below freezing but daytime temperatures are still warm with 20º C or more. The coast has lower temperatures during these months but are still well above 30º C and sometimes reach 45º C when the wind blows directly from the desert. The best time to visit therefore is in late autumn (November is a good month) or early spring (March-April).
Libyan Airlines is the national airline of the country and has its base at Tripoli International Airport (TIP). Destinations include several cities in Northern Africa, the Middle East and European cities like Kiev, Rome and London. Afriqiyah Airways has more destinations to Europe though, with Amsterdam, Brussels, Düsseldorf and Geneva among others. It also flies to a number of cities in West Africa. KLM, British Airways and Lufthansa fly to Tripoli as well.
From Benina International Airport (BEN) near Benghazi, Libyan Airlines fly to several countries within the region and to Rome.
No international trains exist to and from Libya.
There's no reason to bring your own car, you will have to take a tour anyway and guides are compulsary when entering the country. Also note that borders with Chad, Sudan, Algeria and usually also Niger are closed, though the latter might sometimes be open, though not in both directions!
Buses and shared taxis ply the roads between Tripoli and both Tunis (Tunisia) as Egypt (Cairo) and places in between, like Tobruk and Benghazi in Libya, Alexandria in Egypt and Sfax and Sousse in Tunisia. Only citizens of the respective countries can take cross border transport as overland travellers are met by guides at the Libyan border where your organised trip to Libyan highlights will start, including transport!
No international boats despite the fact that there is a long coastline and a few port cities.
There are no domestic trains in Libya, but there are plans to restore the once existing tracks which have been out of order since at least 20 years.
The main roads are in a good condition, but desert roads are rougher to navigate and require a 4wd. You can hire a car, but usually this means you need a driver as well, as travelling around in Libya is not allowed independently, so you have to arrange tours. If you want to drive yourself a bit as well, be sure to bring your national driver's license. Car hire can be expensive, especially if you are travelling by yourself. Better to share costs.
Some bus companies have connections between all major cities and some smaller towns are connected by minibuses or shared taxis. Still, they won't be of much use probably as independent travel is almost impossible and you will usually by 4wd arranged through your tour company.
There are no ferry services along the coast, let alone the interior where water is scarce.
Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and to those who show stamps and/or visas from Israel.
Passports and visas are required for entry into Libya for all nationalities except nationals of Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.
Libyan immigration requirements frequently change without warning. As of December 2010, Libyan authorities no longer require an Arabic translation of the ID page.
Due to the conflict in Libya during 2011 the appointment of diplomatic representation outside Libya has been somewhat confused. Careful attention should be paid to the current standing of the foreign mission and it's appointed representatives if travel documentation to enter Libya needs to be sought from a Libyan Embassy or Consulate.
See also Money Matters
The dinar (Arabic: دينار) is the currency of Libya (LYD). The dinar is subdivided into 1000 dirham (درهم). Coins come in denominations of 50, 100 dirhams ¼ and ½ dinar. Banknotes come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 dinars.
Standard Arabic is the official language, but the native language is Libyan Arabic. It is important to know that Arabic languages are mutually unintelligible, just like Chinese languages, but since Libyans learn Standard Arabic in school, foreign Arabs should be able to get along. English is widely understood especially by young residents of Tripoli, while older people are likely to speak Italian as a result of Libya's Italian colonial past, and even among younger people it is the second most known foreign language after English because of access to Italian television. Libyan Arabic is influenced by Italian, such as "semaforo" (traffic light) and "benzina" (gasoline).
Other languages, such as Berber and Touareg, are used in many small urban settings. Speakers of those languages will often be multi-lingual and be able to converse in Libyan Arabic and sometimes Standard Arabic as well.
In Tripoli, it is surprisingly hard to find a traditional Libyan restaurant. Most serve western-style cuisine, with a few Moroccan and Lebanese restaurants thrown in. There are also a number of good Turkish restaurants, and some of the best coffee and gelato outside of Italy. There are some wonderful Libyan dishes you should taste in case you are fortunate enough to be invited to a Libyan dinner party or wedding (be prepared to be overfed!). A favourite cafe for the local expatriate community is the fish restaurant in the souq. For the equivalent of a few US dollars, you can enjoy a great seafood couscous. A local speciality is the stuffed calamari.
Major cities have a range of accommodations available, from shabby hotels to 4 star establishments. Prices vary accordingly.
Tea is the most common drink in Libya. Green tea and "red" tea are served almost everywhere from small cups, usually sweetened. Mint is sometimes mixed in with the tea, especially after meals.
Coffee is traditionally served Turkish style: strong, from small cups, no cream. Most coffee shops in the larger cities have espresso machines that will make espresso, cappuccino, and such. Quality varies, so ask locals for the best one around.
Alcohol is officially banned in Libya, though in reality, alcohol is readily available through a local black market (anything from whiskey to beer to wine). It should be noted that penalties for unlawful purchase can be quite stiff. Travellers should always exercise appropriate common sense with respect to local laws, local sensitivities and traditions.
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is only required upon entering Libya when you have been to an infected country within 7 days of entering the country. Also you have to have a cholera stamp (proof of the fact you don't have the disease) when entering Libya overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Libya. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
The domestic situation in Libya remains unstable in many areas of the country. Travel within the nation's borders remains dangerous and therefore strongly discouraged for independent travellers. Benghazi is still considered as dangerous. Tripoli is no longer safe either due to two factions fighting for control. Libya continues to suffer from factional disputes between competing political and militia groups. This may involve armed conflict and violent engagements between groups, disaffected individuals, foreign military elements and competing militias both within and also outside the scope of the National Transitional Council (NTC). These activities may be sustained for a prolonged period and possibly involve the use of deadly force. The situation remains difficult, so care and elevated situational awareness must be exercised at all times if attempting to move about or transit through affected areas of Libya.
See also International Telephone Calls
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