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Ancient Libya was the region west of the Nile Valley generally corresponding to modern Northwest Africa. Climate changes affected the locations of the settlements.

In the Greek period the Berbers were known as Libyans. Their lands were called Libya, and extended from modern Moroccomarker to the western borders of Ancient Egypt. Modern Egyptmarker contains the Siwa Oasismarker, historically part of Libya, where the Berber Siwi language is still spoken.


The name Libyamarker appears in Ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, and the modern European languages.

The Ancient Egyptians mentioned many Libyan tribes. The most well-known and important tribes—on the basis of the Egyptian archaeological sources—were the Tjehenu, the Tamahu, the Libu (or Ribu), and the Meshwesh.

The oldest known references to Libya date to Ramesses II and his successor Merneptah, Egyptian rulers of the nineteenth dynasty, during the 13th century BCE. Libya appears as an ethnic name on the Merneptah Stele Afterward, the name appeared repeatedly in the pharaonic records. It is, therefore, supposed that the origin of the name Libya was this Egyptian name for the ancient tribe Libu. Homer also names Libya, in Odyssey iv: Menelaus had travelled there on his way home from Troy; it was a land of wonderful richness, where the lambs have horns as soon as they are born, where ewes lamb three times a year and no shepherd ever goes short of milk, meat or cheese. When Greeks actually settled in the real Libya in the 630s, the old name taken from Egyptians was applied by the Greeks of Cyrenaica, who may have co-existed with the Libu. Later, the name appeared in the Hebrew language, written in the Bible as Lehabim and Lubim, indicating the ethnic population and the geographic territory as well.

In the neo-Punic inscriptions, it was written as Lby for the masculine noun, and Lbt for the feminine noun of Libyan. The name supposedly was used as an ethnic name in those inscriptions.

The first known reference to Libya in the Greek language appears in Homer's Odyssey (IX.95; XXIII.311). Homer used the name in a geographic sense, while he called its inhabitants Lotophagi, meaning "Lotus-eaters". After Homer, Aeschylus, Pindar, and other Ancient Greek writers use the name.

Herodotus used Libuwa indicating Libya while he called the Libyans Libyes in the Greek language. From his point of view, Libya was the name of the African continent, while "the Libyans" were the light-skinned North Africans, whereas the southern Africans were known as "the Ethiopians" to him.

Latin absorbed the name from Greek and the Punic languages. The Romans would have known them before their colonization of North Africa, because of the Libyan role in the Punic wars against the Romans. The Romans used the name Libyes, but only when referring to Barca and the Western desert of Egypt. The other Libyan territories became known as Africa.

Ancient Arab literature called Libya Lubya, indicating a speculative territory west of Egypt. Modern Arabic uses Libya.

Some researchers speculate whether Libu was an Egyptian name for an ancient Berber tribe or, if it was the name the Berber tribe referred to themselves by. The Ancient Egyptians may have adopted it from them. An example of the first probability is the name Berber, which refers to the indigenous people of Northwest Africa, whereas they call themselves "Imazighen".

We may never know, since the Berber and ancient Libyans left no significant written sources. Some prominent historians, however, have tried to trace the name to a Berber origin. Supporters of the Berber origin believe the name was related to an ancient Berber tribe. The name Libu would have known many evolutions from "Lebu" to Libya to Lebata to Levata to Lvata to Lwatae.

Lwatae, the tribe of Ibn Battuta,, as the Arabs called it, was a Berber tribe that mainly was situated in Cyrenaica. This tribe may have ranged from the Atlantic Oceanmarker to modern Libyamarker, however, and was referred by Corippius as Laguatan; he linked them with the Maures.

Ibn Khaldun reports, in The History of Ibn Khaldun, that Luwa was an ancestor of this previous tribe. He writes that the Berbers add an "a" and "t" to the name for the plural forms. Subsequently, it became Lwat.

Conversely, the Arabs adopted the name as a singular form, adding an "h" for the plural form in Arabic. Ibn Khaldun disagrees with Ibn Hazam, who claimed, mostly on the basis of Berber sources, that Lwatah, in addition to Sadrata and Mzata, were from the Qibts (Egyptians). According to Ibn Khaldun, this claim is incorrect because Ibn Hazam had not read the books of the Berber scholars.

Oric Bates, a historian, considers that the name Libu or LBW would be derived from the name Luwatah whilst the name Liwata is a derivation of the name Libu. Other historians such as the Libyan historian Mohammed Moustapha Bazam, tend to confirm this theory.


Compared with the History of Egypt, historians know little about the history of Libya, as there are few surviving written records.

The Libyco-Berber script (also known as Tifinagh) that was used in Libya, was mostly a funerary script. It is difficult to understand, and there are a number of variations.

Information on Ancient Libya comes from archaeological evidence and historic sources written by Egyptians neighbours, the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines, and from Arabs of Medieval times.

Since Neolithic times, the climate of North Africa has gotten dryer. A reminder of the desertification of the area is provided by megalithic remains, which occur in great variety of form and in vast numbers in presently arid and uninhabitable wastelands: dolmens and circles like Stonehengemarker, cairns, underground cells excavated in rock, barrows topped with huge slabs, and step-pyramidlike mounds. Most remarkable are the trilithons, some still standing, some fallen, which occur isolated or in rows, and consist of two squared uprights standing on a common pedestal that supports a huge transverse beam. In the Terrgurt valley, Cowper says, "There had been originally no less than eighteen or twenty megalithic trilithons, in a line, each with its massive altar placed before it."

In ancient times, the Phoeniciansmarker and Carthaginiansmarker, the armies of Alexander the Great and his Ptolemaic successors from Egypt, then Romansmarker, Vandals, and local representatives of the Byzantine Empire ruled all or parts of Libya. The territory of modern Libya had separate histories until Roman times, as Tripoli and Cyrenaica.

Cyrenaica, by contrast, was Greek before it was Roman. It was also known as Pentapolis, the "five cities" being Cyrenemarker (near the village of Shahat) with its port of Apollonia (Marsa Susa), Arsinoe (Tocra), Berenice (Bengazi) and Barca (Merj). From the oldest and most famous of the Greek colonies the fertile coastal plain took the name of Cyrenaica.

These five cities were also known as the Western Pentapolis ;not to be confused with the Pentapolis of the Roman era on the current west Italian coast.


The exact boundaries of Ancient Libya are unknown. It lay west of Ancient Egypt and was known as "IMNT" to the Ancient Egyptians. Libya was an unknown territory to the Egyptians: it was the lands of the spirits.

Map of the world according to Herodotus
To the Ancient Greeks, Libya was one of the three known continents along with Asia and Europe. In this sense, Libya was the whole known African continent to the west of the Nile Valley and extended south of Egypt. Herodotus described the inhabitants of Libya as two peoples: The Libyans in northern Africa and the Ethiopians in the south. According to Herodotus, Libya began where ancient Egypt ended, and extended to Cape Spartelmarker, south of Tangiermarker on the Atlantic coastmarker.

Modern geographers suspect severe climate change may have affected the Berbers by causing loss of forests, reliable fresh water sources, and game availability as the area became more desert-like.

Later sources

After the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines mentioned various other tribes in Libya. Later tribal names differ from the Egyptian ones but, probably, some tribes were named in the Egyptian sources and the later ones, as well. The Meshwesh-tribe represents this assumption. Scholars believe it would be the same tribe called Mazyes by Hektaios and Maxyes by Herodotus, while it was called "Mazaces" and "Mazax" in Latin sources. All those names are similar to the name used by the Berbers for themselves, Imazighen.

Late period sources give more detailed descriptions of Libya and its inhabitants. The ancient historian Herodotus describes Libya and the Libyans in his fourth book, known as The Libyan Book. Pliny the Elder, Diodorus Siculus, and Procopius also contributed to what is now primary source material on ancient Libya and the Libyans.

Ibn Khaldun, who dedicated the main part of his book Kitab el'ibar, which is known as "The history of the Berbers", did not use the names Libya and Libyans, but instead used Arabic names: The Old Maghreb, (El-Maghrib el-Qadim), and the Berbers (El-Barbar or El-Barabera(h)).

Lake Tritonis divided the Berber cultures

Unlike Ibn Khaldun, who divided the Berbers into the Batr and the Baranis, Herodotus divided them into Eastern Libyans and Western Libyans. Eastern Libyans were nomadic shepherds east of Lake Tritonis. Western Libyans were sedentary farmers who lived west of Lake Tritonis. At one point, a catastrophic change reduced the vast body of fresh water to a seasonal lake or marsh.

Ibn Khaldun and Herodotus distinguish the Libyans on the basis of their lifestyles rather than ethnic background. Modern historians follow Herodotus's distinction, for example, Oric Bates in his book "The Eastern Libyans". Some other historians used the modern name of the Berber in their works, such as the French historian Gabriel Camps.

The Libyan tribes mentioned in these sources were: "Adyrmachidae", "Giligamae", "Asbystae", "Marmaridae", "Auschisae", "Nasamones", "Macaemarker", "Lotus-eaters (or Lotophagi)", "Garamantes", "Gaetulians", "Maures", and "Luwatae", as well as those of many other tribes.

See also

References and notes

  1. Brian M. Fagan, Roland Oliver, Africa in the Iron Age: C. 500 B.C. to A.D. 1400 p. 47
  2. (This source will be referred to as "Moustapha Bazma")
  3. Gardiner, Alan Henderson (1964) Egypt of the Pharaohs: an introduction Oxford University Press, London, p. 273, ISBN 0-19-500267-9
  4. Fage, J. D. (ed.) (1978) "The Libyans" The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 500 BC to AD 1050 volume II, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, p. 141, ISBN 0-521-21592-7
  5. The Campridge History of North Africa, p. 141.
  6. The full name of Ibn Battuta was Abu 'abd Allah Muhammad ibn 'abd Allah al-Lawati at-Tanji ibn Battuta
  7. The History of Ibn Khaldun, third chapter p. 184-258
  8. Bates Oric, The Eastern Libyans pg 57
  9. The libyco-Berber script, by Salem Chaker: Professor of the Berber languages at INALCO, Paris (French)
  10. The libyco-Berber script, by Salem Chaker (the previous source.)
  11. Bates, Oric
  12. Mohammed Chafik, Highlights of thirty-three centuries of Imazighen p. 9 .
  13. Ibn Khaldun, The History of Ibn Khaldun: The thirth chapter p. 181-152.
  14. Herodotus, On Libya, from The Histories, c. 430 BCE
  15. "Gabriel Camps is considered as the father of the North African prehistory, by founding d'Etude Berbère at the University of Aix-en-Provence and the Ensyclopédie berbère." (From the introduction of the English book "The Berbers" by Elizabeth Fentres and Michael Brett p. 7).

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