How Libya came to have its name
After the overthrow of the enigmatic Muammar al-Gaddafi nearly ten whole years ago, Libya has fallen off the cusp of self-determination that many countries, African and otherwise envied.
What has played out since 2011 has been the depletion of both the human and environmental resources that fed the country’s wealth and Gaddafi’s power. To this day, there does not seem to be a way out of the mess that many on the continent believe was created in the interest of the United States and powers in Africa.
All of this is recent history. But way back before even Gaddafi and the politics that propelled him to power, the territory that was part of the Roman Empire. The deserts of North Africa, particularly the area we now call the Maghreb (Arabic for “the place where sun sets” or “the west”) had been conquered by different peoples for thousands of years.
The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, the Aechemenids (a Persian people), the Greeks under Alexander, and later the Ptolemaic dynasties, all ruled this edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Although this part of North Africa had no access to such an essential resource as the Nile, it had no less been populated for at least two millennia before the Phoenicians invaded.
The people autochthonous to this region go by the umbrella name Berber, a corruption of barbari, a nomenclature used by the Ancient Romans for those they deem less-civilized. It is the root term of the word “barbarian” as used in English today. The 6th-century Roman poet, Corippus, in his book Johannis, describes the Berber as “facies nigroque colorus” which means “faces of the black colour”.
In the same century, Procopius in Book IV of History of the Wars discussed the difference between the Vandals who had settled in North Africa and the Moors. Procopius says that the Vandals were not “black-skinned like the Maurusioi (Moors)”.
The tribes he classified as Maurusioi are those now described as ancient Berber. They include the Numidians, Masaesyle, Gaitules, Massyles, Masmuda and Mezikes. Among the Berber was also the people of the Libu tribe.
Documents dating back to 1,200 years before the common era indicate that the ancient Egyptians interacted with the Libu people. They warred and made peace and for the Egyptians, the Libu to the west became some of the most significant neighbors in antiquity.
Soon enough, by the Punic Wars of the 3rd century before the common era, the whole of the northwest of Africa was referred to as Libya owing to how the Carthaginians spelled Libu. The name would go on to be used to designate a much smaller area after about 600 years.
When Italy colonized modern Libya in 1911, the Europeans stuck with the name. And so did the North Africans themselves after independence in 1951.