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Rough Cut: Libya: Out of the Shadow
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about Libya's ancient and modern history, and follow links to stories about the thrill of chasing a solar eclipse.

General Background

Libya is in Northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Tunisia. Slightly larger than the state of Alaska, more than 90 percent of the country is desert or semi-desert, providing low agricultural yields. As a result, Libya imports about 75 percent of its food.

Arabic is the dominant language, though some Italian remains from the era of colonial rule between 1911 and 1951. English has also become increasingly common. All three languages are widely understood in the major cities. Large oil reserves discovered in 1959 have made the nation very rich, but despite having one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa, that wealth hasn't trickled down to the whole society. In recent years, economic reforms have focused on spreading the wealth to a larger proportion of the population.

Present-day Libya was first invaded in 106 BC by the Romans; then the province was dubbed Tripolitania. Only one of the cities from that era, Oea, is a living city today. It is now called Tripoli and the nation's capital.

The Arab invasion in the 7th century introduced Islam to the region, bringing with it not only religious but architectural and cultural changes. Arabs ruled until the Turks conquered the area in the mid-16th century.

During the Napoleonic wars when European powers were colonizing other parts of northern Africa, the Turks fought to hang on to Libya. Italy succeeded in gaining control of Libya in 1911. Under colonial rule, half of the indigenous population was either exiled or exterminated before the end of World War II.

After the war, Libya became independent.


Modern Libya and the World

In 1969, 27-year-old military official Muammar Gaddafi led a coup to depose the monarch King Idris. British and American troops were made to evacuate the bases they had occupied since World War II and descendants of Italian colonists were also forced to leave Libya.

From the start, Gaddafi was committed to a more equitable distribution of wealth and poured money into improving Libya's infrastructure and agriculture. In the 1970s, he declared Libya to be a Jamahiriya, a "state of the masses." While in theory, the country is governed by the populace through local councils, it is in fact a military dictatorship.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Libya became known for its anti-Western attitudes. Gaddafi supported liberation movements, which were often violent, and was alleged to support international terrorist organizations. These policies isolated Libya from the international community. Having designated Libya as a state of terrorism in 1979, the United States later ordered the air strike of 1986 that killed dozens of people, including Gaddafi's adopted baby daughter.

In 1988, Libya was accused of bombing a Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the death of 270 people. When the country refused to turn over the two Libyan suspects for trial, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya.

In February 1999, Gaddafi finally agreed to allow the suspects to be held under U.N. custody in a jail in Scotland. The U.N. lifted sanctions. After this, Gaddafi began transforming Libya's image and his own, positioning himself as an African peacemaker and starting to address terrorism concerns.

In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay compensation to the families of victims, renouncing terrorism.

In May 2006, the United States removed Libya from the list of countries not fully cooperating with antiterrorism efforts and reopened its embassy in Tripoli.

The Eclipse Chasers

While tourism to Libya has been steadily growing over the past several years, nothing has attracted as many travelers to the region as the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006. The government issued thousands of normally hard to obtain tourist and journalist visas so that professional and amateur astronomers, photographers, and reporters from around the world could view this natural phenomenon.

A solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes in front of the Sun, blocking its light. Before the eclipse in March, the last total eclipse in Africa was in February 1980. In all, there have been 12 eclipses during the 20th century. The March event was also the first of 16 total eclipses to occur over Africa in the 21st century.

The eclipse took just over three hours to sweep a narrow corridor across the Atlantic, through Africa, Turkey and Central Asia. From the Libyan desert, where the government built a tent village to accommodate 7,000 visitors, the total eclipse lasted a total of four minutes and seven seconds.

Many of the travelers were self-proclaimed "eclipse chasers," a description that includes some who have been present to watch 15 eclipses.

In Libya there was a special prayer, the Salat al-Kusoof, which is only recited during a total solar eclipse. Thanking Allah for the beauty of the eclipse, many of the visitors, regardless of their religion, said the prayer together.

Sources: BBC, CIA, Lonely Planet, MSNBC

Related Links

Libya Online
This expanding portal provides tourist information as the country countinues to open up to visitors, news about Libyan sports and business, and links to music by popular Libyan artists.

Libya Daily
Part of the World News Network, this page is a conglomeration of the latest headlines and news stories mentioning Libya.

"Soundtrack to a Riot"
Earlier this year, Marco Werman traveled to Paris to do his fourth story for FRONTLINE/World, an exploration of the intersection of French rap and the riots of November 2005.

Eclipse Coverage

Chasing the total eclipse to Libya
Read Marco Werman's trip journal to Libya, including a tour of Roman ruins along the Mediterranean coast and the vagaries of Libyan cuisine. Also find out how Libyans welcomed the biggest influx of tourists in years during the month of the eclipse.

NASA Eclipse home page
Eclipse calculations by NASA's Fred Espenak are charted on this site over five millenia, with detailed data on past and future eclipses.

Solar Eclipses: Why Eclipses Happen
The BBC's Science & Nature site presents an explanation and a Flash presentation of how a solar eclipse occurs.

"Chasing eclipses offers thrills of a lifetime"
Columnist Michael Rogers describes his addiction to eclipses -- he has seen a total of six. He explains how he first got started, and talks about the 2006 eclipse, which he viewed from Turkey.

Solar Eclipse diary from Libya
Egyptian-born Wael Deredy, a university professor in the U.K., traveled to the desert in southern Libya to witness the point of greatest eclipse for the BBC News.