A group of Libyans
A group of Libyans Reuters

Libya is a fascinating, complex and ancient land that has recently come under world focus due to the ongoing political and military crisis there. For most outsiders, Libya means just two things: oil and Moammar Gaddafi, the strongman who has ruled over the country for more than four decades and now faces the likely collapse of his brutal regime.

But Libya is much more than that.

For one thing, because the vast majority of the country is an uninhabitable desert, about 90 percent of the people live along the Mediterranean coast on the northern edge of the nation.

According to Temehu.com, the Arabs form the majority of Libya’s estimated 6.5-million population, but they are relatively recent entry into the desert kingdom. They started arriving in present-day Libya in 7th century AD from Saudi Arabia and brought with them the tenets of Islam. The major Arab cities in Libya comprise Tripoli, Benghazi, Sebha, Sabratha, Musratha and Zawiyah.

However, uniquely in the region, Libya is dominated by tribes and loyalty to tribal values. There are more than 140 different tribes or clans in the country.

For many Arabs in the country, their tribal affiliation is affixed to their names. Temehu explains, for example, that Gaddafi comes from the Gaddadfa Tribe.

The Berbers (who are not Arabs) are the second most prominent ethnic group in Libya, and they actually represent the indigenous people of the country. (Berbers dominate in Algeria and Morocco and much of the Sahara as well).

Due to their nomadic nature, it is difficult to accurately count their population, but there are believed to be about 1-million Berbers in Libya. They are ethnically related to the Hamitic tribes who share a common language with ancient Egyptians, among other.

There are literally hundreds of Berber tribes and sub-groups in Libya today.

Among the most notable Berber tribes are the legendary Tuareg, who span across the Sahara and are renowned for their beauty and abilities as warriors.

The Tebo are a collection of tribes, says Temehu, who live along the “southern side of the Harouj mountain and to the east of Fezzan, all the way to the Egyptian border, including the Kofra and Bezzima Oases, as well as south to the Tibesti Massif and across the border in northern Chad, Niger and as far as the Sudan.”

There are only about 5.000 Tebo left in Libya.

There is also reportedly a small sprinkling of the Hausa tribe – but most of them have emigrated from Niger, Nigeria and other African nations.

There are now an estimated 1.5-million immigrants in Libya (prior to the current crisis). Libya encouraged an influx of foreigners after the 1969 coup which brought Gaddafi to power.

They were needed to build up the country’s infrastructure and services, particularly in the booming oil sector. They came from all over the world, including other parts of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Near East.

Later Libya saw waves of laborers from the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Jews have resided in Libya since the time of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Jews lived in peace with Berbers until the 1st century AD when the Romans crushed a Jewish revolt.

About 25,000 Jews are believed to have lived in Libya during the Italian occupation in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly in Tripoli. By the time the German Nazis took over Benghazi, many of the Jews were either deported or fled to other parts of North Africa.

By the time Gaddafi seized power, the Jewish population in Libya had virtually vanished.

Libya also once had a sizable Italian population, owing to its geographic proximity and by Italy’s seizure of the country as a colony in 1911 following a war with the Turks.

The Italians proceeded to modernize Libya over the next several decades and established large centers in Benghazi and Tripoli.

In fact, governor Italo Balbo is regarded as the founder of modern Libya.

By 1939, Italians accounted for more than 12 percent of Libya’s population (they accounted for as much as one-third of the population in Benghazi and Tripoli).

However after the defeat of Fascist Italy in World War II, Italians evacuated out of Libya en masse. By 1970, when Gaddafi ordered the expulsion of all remaining Italians, they virtually disappeared.

Some estimates claim however that there are probably about 10,000 Libyans today of blood mixed with the Italians.