We spent almost a week in Benghazi for Sherri’s work, and while there we tried to learn and see as much as we could. Benghazi is the largest city in Cyrenaica (the eastern part of Libya) with a population of over 600,000 people. The origins of the city are in doubt but it is believed that the first settlement was slightly east of modern Benghazi and may have been established by Greeks from Cyrene or by Aegean immigrants. The city is first mentioned in the 6th century BCE as Eusperides and was believed to have been the site of the legendary Garden of Hesperides. According to Geek mythology, the eleventh quest of Hercules was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides.
|The Italian lighthouse with the ruins of Berenice in the foreground.|
Around 249/247 BCE, the settlement was renamed Berenice, after the Cyrenaican princess who married Ptolemy III of Egypt. This act effectively ceded the city to Egyptian authority. There are a few excavated remains of Berenice on the northern shore of Benghazi but there is little there to see. Most of ancient Berenice lies beneath the modern city. On the same grounds as the ruins of Berenice, there is an old Italian lighthouse built during their occupation of the city.
|Al-Jame’ al-Kabir Mosque in downtown Benghazi.|
The Romans took control of the city in the 1st century BCE, but by the time the Byzantines arrived, the city was already declining. The Arab invasion of the 7th century did little to revitalize the city, as other ports and trade centers became more favorable. In the 15th century the name Bani Ghazi took hold, which means the sons or descendants of Ghasi, the name of a Bedouin tribe. When the Ottoman Turks took control of the city in 1578, they sought to make the city a center for the collection of taxes, which caused even greater decline among the merchant classes.
|Omar Al-Mukhtar’s cave in the Jebel al-Akhdar.|
In 1911, Italy set up a naval siege of the city, and it was finally subdued in the 1920s. The Italian influence can be seen in the architecture of the city. It was during this period that several groups began an active resistance to the Italians. By 1922, the Sanusi, a regional Muslim group, was the only serious resistance remaining, but it dwindled after constant confrontation with the modern mechanized capability of the Italian military. The Sanusi resistance was particularly effective in the hinterlands of the Jebel al-Akhdar (Green Mountains), where they were led by a tribal shaykh, Sayyid Omar al-Mukhtar. The Italians were particularly brutal in dealing with the local population during this conflict, and many died or were interred in concentration camps. Al-Mukhtar was captured in 1931 and hanged a few days later while 20,000 of his followers were forced to watch. With al-Mukhtar’s death, the resistance collapsed. The movie “Lion of the Desert” has Anthony Quinn playing the role of Omar al-Mukhtar and contains old film footage of the times as well as very interesting period vehicles.
|Monument to Gamal Abdel Nasser in downtown Benghazi.|
|Islamic Call Bldg, the tallest building in Benghazi.|
Since that day, al-Mukhtar has become the national hero of Libya, and his portrait can be seen on the LYD 5 bill. During WWII, Benghazi was bombed repeatedly and changed hands several times, but the Italians were eventually driven out.