Tripoli, Libya: Scale and (Im)mobility in the Control of Colonial Territory



From a governmental perspective Libya has never been easily organized,spatially or otherwise. Geographically it is immense, yet it has a very small population. Almost all of that population lives in urban settings, but its cities are few, not very large, and great distances apart. It is also a diverse country, including a majority of Arabs, some of whom are members of tribal networks, as well as “Berber” or Amazigh groups, who mostly inhabit parts of the interior. Finally, any chance of national cohesion is further stretched thin by significant regional and linguistic differences. How, then, did Italian colonizers deploy their occupation and form a new colony between 1911, when they first attacked the Turkish troops defending Tripoli, and 1943, when they lost their grip on the country in the larger sweep of World War II? In what way did they envision their colonial space, and what part did the built environment play in their plans?

Before discussing Italy’s design and planning in its North African territory, though, we should recall that Libya did not exist prior to Italian colonization, either as an official name or as an integrated area with firm borders. Instead there were three provinces, all under Ottoman rule: Cyrenaica to the East, with close ties to Egypt, Tripolitania to the West, nearer to Tunisia and Algeria, and thirdly, the Fezzan, deep in the desert interior and crossed by the trade routes linking the Mediterranean coast to sub-Saharan markets. What we know as “Libya” today is a pasted-together creation of Italy’s assembling these disparate areas. Formally assigned to it in 1934, the name was derived from antiquity, as was the general conceit of Italian colonizers that they were “returning” to a region that was theirs by rights as heirs to the Roman Empire, of which North Africa was once a province.

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(1&2) Italian army during the 1911-1912 invasion of Libya. (3&4) Italian army in the streets of Tripoli during WWII (1941).

In order to understand Italian architecture and urbanism in Libya, we should in fact be sure not to conceptualize the colony’s concoction in the context of the Maghreb alone, because Italian colonial ideation saw it as always-already a part of Italy. Even before their takeover from the Ottomans was complete and colonial governance was in place, Italians had begun referring to Libya as their country’s “fourth shore,” supplementing those of the Tyrrhenian, Ionian, and Adriatic that envelop the peninsula and the islands. Italy itself had only gained its autonomy from foreign powers a short time before, becoming an independent state in 1861 and continuing its struggle for territorial unification through the 1860s, until finally taking Rome from the papacy in 1870.  In other words, the Italian invention of Libya was intermingled with an on-going process of both fortifying and extending a new Italy, one that (in the minds of expansionists) bridged the Mediterranean entirely, recuperating both formerly-held land and the glorious past — even if only at the level of imaginative-geography.

In this light, it is not entirely surprising that for a time the colonizers’ architecture was indistinguishable from what was being built in Italy itself. In Tripoli and Benghazi, the principal cities of Libya’s West and East, the first major constructions were financed privately: banks, apartment buildings, a theatre or two. Often designed with whimsy — such as exaggerated, composite orientalisms — quite a few of these resembled recent constructions in bourgeois Italian beach resorts, evoking a holiday atmosphere in the colonial setting. Some apartment buildings could easily have been French constructions in Algiers, the point of reference par-excellence for many of the Italian designers who saw Libya as an opportunity to equal, or perhaps even exceed, France’s “achievements” in its first, and vastest, North-African holding.

In comparison to most modern-era colonies — where the recently arrived Europeans began to alter cities by diminishing or even attempting to eliminate their obviously “native” aspects — architecturally speaking, Libya’s Italian occupiers, investors, and inhabitants seem not to have reacted to, or perhaps even perceived, the difference that surrounded them, or the fact that they were actually not in Italy. What they built suggests they may have felt they were, in fact, on just another, slightly more-southern, shore of Italy; perhaps an extension of Sicily, considered marginally African by many Italians as it is.

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(1) Roman arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli. / Photograph by DYKT Mohigan (2010) (2) Former cathedral of Tripoli by Italian architect Saffo Panteri in 1923. / Unknown photographer (1965) (3&4) Colonial architecture/urbanism in Benghazi: (3) Banco di Roma and (4) Maydan al-Shajara square. / Unknown photographer (1965)

Meanwhile, public works were the responsibility of the municipal government, which immediately preoccupied itself with Roman monuments, aiming for the recovery, excavation, and restoration of any vestiges that added to the aura of “return” that presumably justified the Italian conquest. Its most urgent action in Tripoli was the demolition of the structures surrounding the 2nd Century CE Arch of Marcus Aurelius at the center of the old walled city, in order to recuperate what it described as Italy’s honor, by isolating this sample of Roman triumphal architecture and thereby highlighting its connotations of past empire.

As noted above, the earliest Italian constructions in Tripoli were private rather than governmental, but the administration did address infrastructural issues such as water distribution and sewage, and it widened a few streets inside the city walls and performed some alterations to the walls themselves. Parts of the city, mostly in the Jewish quarter, were in poor repair; these the government restored minimally, without, however, displacing the residents. Unlike colonial administrations elsewhere, this one did not use such modifications as a pretext to evacuate city residents or extend surveillance and military penetration: the Italian occupiers expected the new colony’s urban residents to accept their presence with docility. Visitors from other European countries, in fact, occasionally commented on what seemed to them an insufficient Italian distaste for contact with the “natives.” For example, some of Italy’s civil servants chose to reside in the old city among local Arabs, Jews, and smatterings of Christians from Greece and Malta, as well as sub-Saharan Africans. Nonetheless, over time, as Tripoli grew east and south from the city walls along the radial pattern established under the Ottomans, most Italians exercised the option to reside beyond the old city and the apartment buildings just outside its walls. By the late 1920s they could choose from workers’ housing to posh villas set among public gardens and open-air statuary, as well as a paved lungomare (waterfront) lined with palm trees and stretching to the edge of the oasis.

It was at just this point, as the colonial city’s growth was gathering momentum, that a handful of architects began theorizing the possibilities of an Italian colonial architecture — a subject that had not yet been broached, even though Italy had started its colonial enterprises as far back as the 1890s in East Africa. After all, they asked, France and Britain had recognizable colonial-architectural approaches and forms; shouldn’t Italy? Tripoli, with its proximity to Italy and its Euro-African ambiguity — a mixture of a familiar topographic environment, featuring city walls and Roman ruins, with an unfamiliar oasis, strewn with mosques and shrines of saints — attracted their attention especially. Their debates concerned the colonial city, yet these were also prolongations of discussions already in progress in mainland Europe, largely driven by the Rationalists (Modernists). Rationalism had just begun to develop in the latter 1920s, and coincided with the beginning of CIAM. In many ways its proponents echoed Le Corbusier and other Northern Modernists concerning the relation of architectural form to purpose, and the eradication of inauthentic surface ornamentation.

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(1) Fiat train in Tripoli Central Railway Stations in the 1930s. (2) Former Berenice Hotel built in 1936. / Photograph by AJ Lehsouni (2009) (3) Statues of Remus & Romulus and the winged lion in Benghazi. (4) Cesare Battisti Village designed by Florestano Di Fausto in Qirnada near Benghazi (1934)

Modernists were under added pressure to reconcile their international orientation with the heightened nationalism of the fascist era (1922-1943). In the colonial setting, moreover, these architects had to contend with a perceived racial difference. How to represent Italy architecturally in Tripoli?

In another departure from the usual European colonial modus operandi, this debate began with an article praising “native” architecture as a possible model for Italian design solutions. The author was protesting two trends: first, the exoticizing tendency, curlicues and all, that had already been in place for over a decade; and second, an emerging production of mirthless designs based on classical models, reminding everyone incrasingly heavy-handedly of the colony’s former status as a piece of the Roman Empire. Both of these remained topics for discussion between all the architectural camps (modernist, classicist, and everything in between) until the mid-1930s. Private commissions, meanwhile, often went to Rationalist architects, and most of the government buildings ended up in a relatively blank-faced classicizing monumentalism. The resulting designs, in any case, were overwhelmingly aimed at Italians rather than the local populations. The fact that the colonizers’ ultimate intention was so heavily focused on the making of Italy and the reinforcement of what it meant to be Italian — as opposed to Calabrian, Abruzzese, or Ferrarese — was reflected in their architecture, in which the embodied stakes of national representativeness were especially high.

What about the “natives,” then? Here too, although at first glance colonial Tripoli can look like a direct derivation from French Algiers (or Tunis or Casablanca), it was different in that the authorities placed nearly no emphasis on separating Europeans from the local population. We might reasonably expect to find the conventional dual-city model of colonizers on one side and the colonized on the other, or the creation of shanty towns beyond the city’s edge into which groups of original inhabitants are forced to migrate. Some official texts of the 1930s, in fact, claimed that new segregation policies were soon to be enforced in Tripoli. On the ground, however, European neighborhoods of various social classes continued to live alongside interspersed pockets of “native” residents nearby.

Tripoli’s relative lack of social distance between colonizer and colonized is all the more striking because Italy was developing stringent racially-based laws elsewhere in the very same period. 1937 saw the enactment of anti-miscegenation legislation in colonial Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia, followed in short order by the 1938 anti-Semitic laws curtailing the rights of Jews in Italy and its “Empire” — all before South Africa had even codified its own apartheid laws. Still, we should not mistake the comparatively laissez-faire attitude of Italians in Tripoli for an absence of colonial subjugation in Libya as a whole. On another scale — on the territorial plane at large — Italy was indeed set on a systematic organization of its colonial space, one that entailed both displacing and confining Libyans. Urban dwellers may have seemed harmless, but that was merely the reverse side of the Italian government’s perception of Libya’s extra-urban dwellers as threats to the coming colonial order.

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Portrait of anticolonial militant Omar Mukhtar in the streets of Benghazi / Al Jazeera English (2011)

The colonial regime’s most ambitious spatial-demographic reconfiguration aimed to convert the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) of Cyrenaica, the colony’s most fertile region, into a utopia of Italian settler-farmers. The military vacated the Bedouin, whose transhumant pathways crisscrossed the area, forcing local nomadic and sedentary populations alike into open-air camps, where many died of disease and starvation, and some — often captured members of the Senussi-led resistance — were executed. A complementary measure of spatial control designed to immobilize the “natives” was a 600-kilometer-long barrier of barbed wire, which made it impossible to cross the Libyan Desert into Egypt. Combined with a relentless campaign of bombardment, these approaches have been widely acknowledged as a genocidal war on eastern Libya.

Italy’s techniques of isolation and immobilization were particularly overt as this war peaked around 1930, but they had been at work — less visibly — since the beginning of the occupation. Potential rebels were shut into prisons and camps right away. Many of them were then deported into Italy’s confino (internal exile) system, blending them into the apparatus used by the state to isolate Italian political prisoners.

An interesting image to ponder is that of the Libyan deportees who overlapped with Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci while he was held on the island of Ustica in 1926-1927. What conversations, if language barriers could be overcome, may have ensued?

More urgent for us are the unanswered questions about Libya’s camps. We know that some Italian-made camps were used again to concentrate North-African Jews during World War II. There is no doubt that Qadhafi’s carceral regime (1969-2011) used camps and jails throughout the country. Today we hear abundant anecdotal evidence of migrants being detained in desert camps as they try to reach the Mediterranean. How many of these are Italian-built? To what extent is Italian colonial equipment still in use? We are unlikely ever to know in detail the extent to which today’s (im)mobilizations and incarcerations in Libya’s vast territory can be seen as physical reiterations of colonial-Italian practices. Still, the historical pattern is very clear. Libya’s on-going uses of immobilization should not be regarded as strictly Libyan problems, but also as dark perpetuations of Italy’s apparatus of control.