With an area of 1,760,000 square kilometers and a Mediterranean coastline of nearly 1,800 kilometers, Libya is fourth in size among the countries of Africa and fifteenth among the countries of the world. Although the oil discoveries of the 1960s have brought it immense petroleum wealth, at the time of its independence it was an extremely poor desert state whose only important physical asset appeared to be its strategic location at the midpoint of Africa's northern rim. It lay within easy reach of the major European nations and linked the Arab countries of North Africa with those of the Middle East, facts that throughout history had made its urban centers bustling crossroads rather than isolated backwaters without external social influences. Consequently, an immense social gap developed between the cities, cosmopolitan and peopled largely by foreigners, and the desert hinterland, where tribal chieftains ruled in isolation and where social change was minimal.
The Mediterranean coast and the Sahara Desert are the country's most prominent natural features. There are several highlands but no true mountain ranges except in the largely empty southern desert near the Chadian border, where the Tibesti Massif rises to over 2,200 meters. A relatively narrow coastal strip and highland steppes immediately south of it are the most productive agricultural regions. Still farther south a pastoral zone of sparse grassland gives way to the vast Sahara Desert, a barren wasteland of rocky plateaus and sand. It supports minimal human habitation, and agriculture is possible only in a few scattered oases.
Between the productive lowland agricultural zones lies the Gulf of Sidra, where along the coast a stretch of 500 kilometers of wasteland desert extends northward to the sea. This barren zone, known as the Sirtica, has great historical significance. To its west, the area known as Tripolitania has characteristics and a history similar to those of nearby Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. It is considered with these states to constitute a supranational region called the Maghrib. To the east, the area known historically as Cyrenaica has been closely associated with the Arab states of the Middle East. In this sense, the Sirtica marks the dividing point between the Maghrib and the Mashriq.
Along the shore of Tripolitania for more than 300 kilometers, coastal oases alternate with sandy areas and lagoons. Inland from these lies the Jifarah Plain, a triangular area of some 15,000 square kilometers. About 120 kilometers inland the plain terminates in an escarpment that rises to form the Jabal (mountain) Nafusah, a plateau with elevations of up to 1,000 meters.
In Cyrenaica there are fewer coastal oases, and the Marj Plain--the lowland area corresponding to the Jifarah Plain of Tripolitania--covers a much smaller area. The lowlands form a crescent about 210 kilometers long between Benghazi and Darnah and extend inland a maximum of 50 kilometers. Elsewhere along the Cyrenaican coast, the precipice of an arid plateau reaches to the sea. Behind the Marj Plain, the terrain rises abruptly to form Jabal al Akhdar (Green Mountain), so called because of its leafy cover of pine, juniper, cypress, and wild olive. It is a limestone plateau with maximum altitudes of about 900 meters. From Jabal al Akhdar, Cyrenaica extends southward across a barren grazing belt that gives way to the Sahara Desert, which extends still farther southwest across the Chad frontier. Unlike Cyrenaica, Tripolitania does not extend southward into the desert. The southwestern desert, known as Fezzan, was administered separately during both the Italian regime and the federal period of the Libyan monarchy. In 1969 the revolutionary government officially changed the regional designation of Tripolitania to Western Libya, of Cyrenaica to Eastern Libya, and of Fezzan to Southern Libya; however, the old names were intimately associated with the history of the area, and during the 1970s they continued to be used frequently. Cyrenaica comprises 51 percent, Fezzan 33 percent, and Tripolitania 16 percent of the country's area.
Before Libya achieved independence, its name was seldom used other than as a somewhat imprecise geographical expression. The people preferred to be referred to as natives of one of the three constituent regions. The separateness of the regions is much more than simply geographical and political, for they have evolved largely as different socioeconomic entities--each with a culture, social structure, and values different from the others. Cyrenaica became Arabized at a somewhat earlier date than Tripolitania, and beduin tribes dominated it. The residual strain of the indigenous Berber inhabitants, however, still remains in Tripolitania. Fezzan has remained a kind of North African outback, its oases peopled largely by minority ethnic groups.
The border between Tripolitania and Tunisia is subject to countless crossings by legal and illegal migrants. No natural frontier marks the border, and the ethnic composition, language, value systems, and traditions of the two peoples are nearly identical. The Cyrenaica region is contiguous with Egypt, and here, too, the border is not naturally defined; illegal as well as legal crossings are frequent. In contrast, Fezzan's borders with Algeria, Niger, and Chad are seldom crossed because of the almost total emptiness of the desert countryside.
Other factors, too, such as the traditional forms of land tenure, have varied in the different regions. In the 1980s their degrees of separateness was still sufficiently pronounced to represent a significant obstacle to efforts toward achieving a fully unified Libya.
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